The Aero Monorail Company of St. Louis

The Aero Monorail Company of St. Louis

The Aero Monorail was a futuristic monorail train first offered in 1932. Manufactured in St. Louis by the eponymously named Aero Monorail Company, it was designed to suspend over Lionel standard gauge track and run  faster than the standard gauge train.

The stands came in two varieties: a pair of free standing towers, and a series of towers that slipped under Standard gauge track and used the same 42-inch diameter. The motor looked like an Erector motor and was intended to run on 6-8 volts, either DC or AC.

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Lessons from my son’s first Pinewood Derby

One of my coworkers, a guy with an infectious laugh named Jamaal, organized a get-together on Friday. My boss asked me if I was going.

“Sorry, it’s my son’s first Pinewood Derby,” I said. I had to explain to my boss what that was–I don’t think he was ever a Cub Scout or Boy Scout–but he was intrigued.

For whatever reason, when I was a kid my dad didn’t take the opportunity to teach me as much as he could have when we built Pinewood Derby cars, but I told my boss the only good physics lesson I ever got in my life was when Dad explained to me how a Lionel train worked. Here’s something cool you can do with math and science, and I never had a teacher show me anything cool you can do with those two things. Read more

In the city, a $6 antenna is all you need

There are a lot of good plans for DIY antennas on the web that you can make for less than $10 worth of parts, which is good considering the flood of $50 antennas on the market that are little more than hype.

A couple of years ago I made a Gray-Hoverman antenna. I had no complaints about how it worked, but it wasn’t very durable. And in St. Louis it was overkill–it picked up everything tvfool.com said I could get indoors and nothing more. No SIUC PBS station for me. A Gray-Hoverman is probably more useful along the eastern seaboard where the cities and TV stations are closer together.

Rather than fix the Gray-Howerman yet again, or build something else, I bought a basic, traditional-looking RCA ANT111F for $6. Even the simplest DIY antenna, made primarily of a cardboard box with aluminum foil, costs $3-$4 in materials to make and my time is worth more than the difference. If my kids were a bit older, a DIY antenna would be a great science experiment to do with them, but they aren’t.

I did find my reception in the basement, below ground level, was pretty abysmal. The range seemed to be less than five miles, and I could only get about five channels. But on the first floor, with the antenna about seven feet above ground level, my range is 10-12 miles, depending on the strength of the distant signal, and I could get 30 channels. To improve reception in the basement, I connected a longer cable to the antenna (using a cheap keystone jack as a coupler) so I could put it up in the ceiling, closer to ground level. When I did that, I could get 24 channels, though the signal strength wasn’t all that good.

One thing to remember when changing or repositioning an antenna: always scan for new channels afterward.

Phil Kerpen, net neutrality, and socialism: A post-mortem

I learned the hard way a few weeks ago how net neutrality can be equated with socialism, an argument that puzzles people who work on computer networks for a living and see networking as a big flow of electrons. I think it’s very important that we understand how this happens.

Here’s the tactic: Find a socialist who supports net neutrality. Anoint him the leader of the movement. Bingo, anyone who supports net neutrality follows him, and therefore is a communist.

Political lobbyist and Fox News contributor Phil Kerpen told me Robert W. McChesney was the leader of the net neutrality movement, and he sent me a quote in the form of a meme longer than the Third Epistle of St. John. Yet in a Google search for the key words from that quote, “net neutrality bring down media power structure,” I can’t find him. So then I tried Bing, where I found him quoted on a web site called sodahead.com, but I couldn’t find the primary source.

For the leader of a movement the size of net neutrality, he sure keeps a low profile. Google and Netflix are two multi-billion-dollar companies that support net neutrality. I’m sure it’s news to them that they’re taking orders from Robert W. McChesney. Read more

Training hackers in schools

I found this piece advocating teaching kids to be hackers. That’s hackers in a probing, discovering sense, rather than the trouble-causing, nefarious sense.

I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with this article at the same time. Read more

The trade off of fidelity and convenience in marketing, and how it doomed my favorite company

I’m reading a book called Trade-Off, by former USA Today technology columnist Kevin Maney. It’s primarily a marketing book.

Maney argues that all products are a balance of fidelity and convenience, and highly favor one or the other. He additionally argues that failed products fail because they attempted to achieve both, or failed to focus on either one.

An example of a convenient product is an economy car. They’re inexpensive to buy and inexpensive to keep fueled up, but don’t have much glitz and you probably won’t fall in love with it. A high-end sports car or luxury car is a lot less practical, but you’re a lot more likely to fall in love with it, and gain prestige by driving around town in it. Read more

Why I set work aside for a while before calling it done

A former supervisor called me the other day. He’s having quality control issues at his new gig, and quality control was one of the things I did when I was working for him. He wanted my insight. And he was very direct with one question he asked me.

“You would always set work aside and then come back to it,” he said. “Why?”

He knew my tactic worked, but wanted to know why it worked. Read more

Getting past your own biases

I read Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive last week. I always figured it was an autobiography or memoir, not a business book. But it’s a business book.  A very good one.

I avoided it because I didn’t like Andy Grove. I’ve never been a fan of Intel’s business practices during the 1990s and 2000s, including using payola to keep competitors’ chips out of large computer systems, but after reading this book, I’m more disappointed than anything. Whichever company had Andy Grove wins, period. No need to cheat. Read more

Deconstructing the healthcare.gov website fiasco

By reader request, I’m going to grab onto the third rail and talk about the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare/healthcare.gov website fiasco.

As someone who has been involved in a large number of IT projects, inside and outside the government, successful and failed, I can speak to that. I know the burning question in everyone’s mind is how can three guys banging away at a keyboard for three days build a better web site than the United States Government?

The snarky answer is that the best projects I’ve ever worked on have been when someone asked for something, then one or two other guys sat down with me and we banged away at a keyboard for a little while and didn’t tell anyone what we were doing until we were done.

But it’s probably more complicated than that. Read more

Rob O’Hara on phreaking, Tesla coils and modems

Rob O’Hara posted a podcast about phreaking today. He explains in layperson’s terms how the phone system was controlled by tones, cites it as an example of security through obscurity, and he talks about his own first-person experience subverting the phone system. He was far from the only one who did that.

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