Tag Archives: WD

More tips for playing with toy trains

As you can probably guess from the length of time between postings, the Lionel has proven to be quite the distraction. A welcome one, but definitely a distraction.
I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way.

Clean old plastic buildings quickly. My buildings had accumulated a decade or so of dust and grime sitting in a box, and they probably weren’t clean when they were boxed either. The solution? Put a dab of hand soap and a small amount of laundry detergent in a bucket, then fill it with warm water. Just put in enough soap and detergent to make some suds. Disassemble the buildings and drop them in. Let them soak for a few minutes, then scrub with a toothbrush. They’ll look almost new. Note: Don’t do this if they have decals, or if you deliberately weathered the buildings. If you don’t know what weathering means, then go get your bucket.

Cleaning severely rusted track. To clean severely rusted track, give it a thrice-over with a drill’s metal brush attachment. It’ll mark the track up badly, but it’ll clean it up fairly nicely and may allow a dysfunctional train to run again. Don’t worry about ruining a prized collectible; used Lionel track sells for 25-50 cents a section at a hobby shop. This also means you shouldn’t put a lot of time and effort into salvaging rusty track–especially considering the new stuff sells for a dollar.

Lubricate your cars’ wheels for smoother operation. Unlike the engine, WD-40 is fine for this. Put a small quantity of oil into a bottlecap, then use a toothpick to apply it anywhere that the axles come in contact with other parts of the car. After doing this, your train will run more quietly and smoother, and your locomotives will be able to pull approximately 30% more weight, so you can feel free to add another car or two.

Buildings on the cheap for the nether regions of your layout. If you have some kind of structured drawing program (Adobe Illustrator, KDE Kontour, Macromedia Freehand, or even something like Visio) you can draw the basic shapes of buildings, print them out on heavy card stock, and cut them up and glue them together. Get started by taking measurements from an existing building and use that as a guide to help you learn the height of a door, window, and floor. Export the file to some kind of raster format (JPG or PNG) prior to printing and use GIMP or Photoshop to add textures if your drawing program doesn’t support it. For added realism, cut out the windows and glue in pieces of transparent plastic (kitchen plastic wrap is fine but cutouts from clear plastic bags are nicer). It doesn’t take any longer than assembling and painting a plastic model, the results are surprisingly convincing–the only advantage plastic offers is more realistic texture–and you’ll never beat the price. And if something happens to the building, you can always print out and reassemble another one.

Polystyrene sheets for scratchbuilding plastic models on the cheap. Once you’ve built some paper models and want to move up to building plastic buildings from scratch, you can pay $7 for a small sheet of polystyrene at a hobby shop, or you can buy 88-cent Beware of Dog signs from the nearest hardware or discount store. It’s the same stuff, only bigger and printed on one side. Put the printed side on the inside of the model and cover it with paper if you want to keep your secret safe. If you live near a big city, I’ve heard that plastic distributors sell big 4’x8′ sheets of polystyrene for about $7. A square foot of material makes for a good-sized building, so a 4×8 sheet will probably yield more than 30 buildings.

Recapturing the charm of Dad’s Lionel train

I unboxed Dad’s old Lionel train Monday night. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Dad’s train led a rough life. My investigative reporting skills tell me he got the train sometime between 1949 and 1952, and then sometime after 1953 he got a new locomotive and cars. And then sometime in the 1960s, the trains ended up in a box. I remember him telling me it came out a few times in the 1970s for Christmas, but most of my memories of Dad’s train are four big pieces of plywood with rusty track mounted on it, sitting in the garage next to a stack of repurposed liquor boxes containing train parts.

Finally, when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my incessant pestering paid off and the train found a new home in the basement. Dad and I plugged the track back together, and Dad wired the transformer. Then Dad produced two locomotives out of one of the boxes. Dad’s fanciest locomotive didn’t work at all. The smaller locomotive sputtered and sparked when he put it on the track. That was more than the fancy one did. Dad’s answer to everything mechanical was WD-40, so he went back up to the garage, got the can off the top of the gun safe (there was always a can of WD-40 on top of Dad’s gun safe), came back down, and blasted the locomotive with several spurts of the tinkerer’s favorite. (Incidentally, for those of you here seeking advice on trying to get an old Lionel train to run, this isn’t a good idea.) This time, when Dad put it on the track, the train produced a lot more sparks and a lot more noise, and it even moved a little bit. He picked it back up and blasted it again, with similar results. I asked Dad why the WD-40 helped. He said it would lubricate the moving parts, but it’s also a conductor of electricity.

Dad eventually gave up and started paying more attention to the football game. I ran the train around the track a few times by hand. When I was in the fifth grade, this was more interesting to me than football. For that matter, it might still be more interesting to me than football. When I got bored with that, I decided to go over to the transformer and give the train some juice. The train hesitated, and it sure didn’t move fast, but it moved. I gave it some more juice, and it chugged its way around the track, gradually picking up more speed and creaking less. The more we ran it, the better it got. We started adding scenery. There wasn’t much of anything realistic about it, and Dad didn’t have much scenery short of a plastic diner and two train stations, but it was fun.

Well, we moved a couple more years later, and the train found itself back in boxes again. Eventually it made its way out of the boxes and into the new basement. If I remember right, this was Dad’s doing, and not mine. The second time around, Dad spent more time with the train than I did. But after I went off to college and my parents finished the basement, the train went back into boxes. After Dad died, the trains stayed in boxes in Mom’s basement. After I bought a house, one weekend the trains showed up in my basement, where they stayed for about a year, until this week.

What I found this week was a trio of dusty engines, three trailing tender cars, bits and pieces of scenery, one caboose, and a whole lot of rusty track. That was one more locomotive than I remembered and a lot fewer cars than I remembered. I suspect there’s still a box or two of train cars somewhere in Mom’s basement.

One of the locomotives was very clearly missing a few pieces. I set it aside. I recognized one of the others as the plain-Jane locomotive Dad and I first messed with. The other one was fancier. I took eight straight pieces and eight curved pieces and made a circle. One of the straight pieces had the contact piece for the transformer, so I connected the transformer with two pieces of wire. I put the fancy locomotive on the track, fired up the transformer, and recalled the episode from 17 years earlier.

I skipped the WD-40 this time. I didn’t have any, and the residue it leaves behind tends to attract dust, making the situation it was supposed to correct worse in the long run. I grabbed the other train. It was about as lively as I am first thing in the morning, but it made noise and it moved. I gave it a little push, and it moved even better.

Eventually I searched the Internet, and I consulted with Tom and his mechanically inclined sidekick Tim, and they suggested I clean the track with some 600-grit sandpaper to remove the oxidation. After doing that, both locomotives ran pretty well.

As for the engines, the first thing you want to do is use a soft brush to remove any dust you can find, both on the visible surfaces of the cars and locomotive but especially on the underside. The most common advice suggests a small, soft paintprush. I didn’t have one, so I ended up using an old soft-bristled toothbrush. That was fine, but you want to make sure it’s a soft-bristled one, such as an Oral-B. A paintbrush would definitely be gentler. The idea here is to get the dust off the equipment so it doesn’t find its way onto the track or, worse yet, inside the engine where it can gum up the gears and motor(s).

Next, use a light grease to lubricate the gears and a light machine oil to lubricate the other moving parts. I didn’t have any grease, but I have a little tube of oil I use to keep my electric razor working well, so I applied some of that to a toothpick and lubed some of the moving parts on the two engines. Honestly, I don’t know how much of a difference the oil made. It seems to me that just running the engines, pushing them around the track with power applied until they were able to move on their own, made a bigger difference than anything else I did.

If the only lubricant you have handy is WD-40, skip it. If you happen to have some compressed air, blasting some of that into the crevices after you’ve done a job with the brush probably will knock loose some more of the gunk that’s accumulated inside, but I wouldn’t bother unless the engine isn’t running well.

It doesn’t seem to take much to get a vintage Lionel working again.

There’s a train store on the way home from work that has a Lionel sign in the window. I stopped in on my way home tonight. I bought a very overpriced Lionel-branded maintenance kit–for $14.50 I got a little tube of oil, a little tube of grease, a bottle of some substance with the words “track cleaner” and “biodegradable” on the outside, and a pencil eraser. I bought it mostly for the directions on the back, and to hopefully help ensure that train store will be there a little bit longer.

Perusing the store and perusing the awesome Postwar Lionel Trains Library, I found out, not to my great surprise, that few of the pieces I’d unboxed were particularly rare. The only rarity was Dad’s caboose. That did surprise me. It wasn’t popular, so it wasn’t made very long, so now it attracts interest. Figures. But that’s how it always goes with collectibles.

The store had an elaborate Lionel layout in the front, with three trains and a level of detail I’m more used to seeing in HO- and N-gauge layouts. They used an aftermarket track with wooden ties and the middle rail painted black to make the notoriously unrealistic O-gauge track look much more like real track. The new locomotives had digitized sound effects and the whole layout operated by remote control. I have to admit, it was pretty impressive. But the cars and the engines looked cheaper and flimsier than Dad’s stuff made in the fifties.

“For $130 I can add sound effects to your old engine,” he said when I looked less impressed than most people probably are.

It sounded like a cool idea. But for now, I don’t think I want to mess with that. This set’s charm isn’t just about trains, and I’m not sure if jaw-dropping whiz-bang technology would enhance that charm or just cover it up.

Transferring VHS movies to VCD or DVD

Mail from Maurie Reed about VHS home movie transfers to digital formats.
MR: Dave, I’ve read all of your threads on video editing with interest. I’m not claiming to have understood everything but I’m less in the dark than I was before ( a 20 watt bulb as compared to a 10?).

DF: Remember, there are people who get 4-year degrees in this stuff. And graduate degrees after that.

MR: My question is: does the Pinnacle DV500 work in conjunction with a regular AGP video card or is it the sole video device in the system?

DF: It works in conjunction with another card. The DV500 does the heavy lifting and then sends its display over to the other card. So if you’ve got a DV500, any video card on the market today will be way more than enough. I used an S3 Savage4 card for a long time, and it was fine.

MR: Maybe better yet, what I’d lke to do is take the VHS tapes that we have made of the family over the years and transfer them to DVD. The first reason is to archive them for safety. After that’s done I’d like to edit them for quality, i.e., clean up, lighten,etc.

DF: PC Magazine’s Lance Ulanoff has done some columns on that. His approach, using Sonic MyDVD 4.0 (though Dazzle DVD Complete gets better reviews), is simpler than mine and eliminates the DV500, though you’ll still need some way to get the analog video into your PC. An ATI All-In-Wonder card would be good for that. I know Newegg has the less-expensive All-in-Wonders sometimes but they tend to sell out quickly so you’ll probably have to use their notify feature. Then you can spend the money you’d spend on a DV500 on a DVD writer instead (I suggest one of the Sony drives that can do DVD+R/+RW and DVD-R/-RW, that way if one format works better in your DVD player, you’re not stuck.

Keep in mind that Ulanoff used Firewire to get his video in, but that’s because he used Hi8 as his source, and those tapes will work in a Digital8 camera. If you’re using VHS, you’re limited to using analog inputs.

What you gain in simplicity you lose in power, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

MR: Toward this end I’ve been slowly building up a new machine: P4-2.4, Asus P4-533E, 512M PC-2700 RAM, 120G WD HD (SCSI’s not quite in the budget right now although I do have some Adaptec 2940 cards). I’m running an old S3 8M video card in it right now to test components (all from newegg…thanks for thesuggestion!) and I have no DVD-ROM drive or DVD burner yet (I do have a LiteOn CDRW). I thought I’d work on the video first. I’m sure at some point down the road we would like to do more video but never anything professional (read – making money at it). It would probably be my wife and daughters working with it anyway as I’m more of an audio person then video.

DF: You’re off to a great start. Add a DVD burner and an All-In-Wonder card (or a similar nVidia card with analog inputs–if your camera or VCR supports S-Video, use that, since its picture quality is noticeably better) and you’re ready to go. You might want to grab a smallish drive to hold your OS and apps so you can dedicate the WD drive just to video. Watch the post-Thanksgiving sales. For VHS-to-DVD transfers, IDE is sufficient.

Since you do have a CD burner, if you want to get started right away, get the All-In-Wonder and the software and start making VCDs, then get the DVD burner later.

As for being an audio person rather than a video person, I come at it from a magazine/newspaper background. I think it’s a shorter step from audio to video than it is from print to video! (And you knowing what it takes to make the video sound good is a very good thing. The audio quality on some of my projects has been positively awful.)

MR: I understand you’re very busy and NOT in the free advice business so I’ll understand if you decline to comment.

Thanks (no matter what the answer) in advance and have a great Thanksgiving!

DF: Thanks for the good questions. You have a great Thanksgiving too.

Minesweeper is murder.

Minesweeper is murder. An activist group is asserting that the Windows game Minesweeper is disrespectful of victims of land mines and should be removed and replaced with a game about flowers. I have no idea if these guys are serious or not. I never liked the game anyway and just always wanted an excuse to say “Minesweeper is murder.” So now I’ve said it three times. I’m happy.
Mail servers. I started building my mail server last night. I spied an old Adaptec 1542C adapter on a coworker’s shelf and asked if I could borrow it. Then, on the way home, I remembered that Laclede Computer Trading Company, a local used computer store, had opened up a branch (actually it turned out they moved) a few miles from where I live. So I stopped there and picked up an Adaptec 1542CF (1994 vintage) and a clackety IBM PS/2 keyboard.

I got home, installed the 1542CF, and had problems. I installed the 1542C and did better. It turned out my DEC Etherworks 3 NIC was conflicting with the 1542CF. That may have been the problem with the other adapters I tried. The important thing is, I got TurboLinux down and it runs decently on my Frankensteined 486.

Incidentally, this is the ultimate Frankenstein box. I had an old IBM PS/1 486SX/20 in a 5-bay case. That motherboard’s been flaky for years. Meanwhile I’ve got this Compaq 486SX2/66 in working order whose case uses those awful Compaq drive rails, the case is ugly as sin, and it only has three bays. So I ripped out the PS/1 board and dropped in the Compaq board. Yes, it fits great. LPX is LPX–truly proprietary motherboards actually are really rare. Old Compaq 386s did it, some mid-90s Compaq midtowers did it, and IBM PS/2s did it, but normally what appears to be proprietary is really LPX. Anyway… I added a DEC Etherworks 3 NIC. So we’ve got IBM, DEC, and Compaq fraternizing. Then I connected an NEC 12X SCSI CD-ROM to the Adaptec card and installed TurboLinux.

It smokes. Well, as much as a 486 can smoke at least. It’s surprisingly quick. TurboLinux boots in 60 seconds, once the PC finishes with POST and scanning all the SCSI ports.

And what can I do with a mail server? Well, for one, I can run a cool package called MHonArc. What’s that do? It archives e-mail in HTML form. I could create a mail account, CC it on all my correspondence I want to post, set up a daily cron job on that account, and it’ll post all my mail to the Web for me, formatted nicely and threaded and sorted by the month and even using a template so I can keep my unified look. That’ll save me a ton of work.

Learning Unix takes time, but man can it ever pay off in the time and effort it saves you.

The only problem is, this system’s got a flaky Western Digital hard drive in it. I’ll probably replace it with a better quality drive in pretty short order. This’ll be fine for messing around with, but when a Western Digital drive failed on me 600 miles from home last July during a convention, I decided on the spot I’d depended on a Western Digital drive for the last time. It hadn’t been the first time a WD had let me down, but I wanted it to be the last.


Fixing a troublesome hard drive. Some time ago, one of my church’s staffers handed me a 10-gig Western Digital hard drive he couldn’t get working. “When you have time,” he said. I took it home, set it on my desk and promptly forgot about it, until yesterday, when I was helping someone out with setting jumpers a WD drive and I remembered I had a recent WD drive…

So I threw it in my Dual Celeron-366, which has sort of become my testbed system, to see what I could get from it. The system detected it fine. Good. Try booting… I find that EZ-Drive utility that everyone installs, even though with a plug-in UDMA card (and I know they use those) there’s no need for it. With a recent BIOS there shouldn’t be any need for it, unless you’ve got flaky BIOSes like me. But we won’t go there. But it doesn’t boot. Boot off a floppy, run FDISK, and I find a 9.7 GB non-DOS partition.

I call to verify whether the drive has any valuable data on it. None? Low-level format time.  I download Western Digital’s utility suite and run its quick test. It passes with flying colors. WD doesn’t offer a true low-level format, but the utilities can zero out the drive. Close enough. That’ll get rid of EZ-Drive.

And now, an editorial statement, if I may. Western Digital makes the most overrated hard drives in existance. I’ll daresay Western Digital hard drives are the most overrated piece of computer hardware, period. In my experience, I’ve found Quantums and Maxtors and IBMs to be faster, and I’ve had less trouble with them.

And speaking of EZ-Drive, do the manuals that come with new retail-packaged hard drives tell you you have to install it? I confess, I usually buy bare OEM drives since they’re cheaper, and the last couple of times I’ve bought retail kits for work, I did the stereotypical male thing and didn’t read the instructions. Seeing as I could have written the instructions, I didn’t see the need. Come to think of it, I almost never read the instructions unless I’m just totally out of my league (like when I was learning Linux). I learn more that way.

As I was writing this, the zeroing finished, no bad sectors, and I partitioned the drive and SYSed it. Good deal.

Optimizing Windows. Curtis Horn writes in that Amazon’s selling it (to him at least) for $7.50. No one’s making any money at that price, but hey. It might be Amazon experimenting with supply and demand again, who knows. But if you’ve been putting it off, now’s a good time to get it (assuming the price is still good and shipping doesn’t end up being 20 bucks). The link’s to the left, as always.

Computer Shopper UK. Chris Miller warns me that features don’t stay up there forever, so if you want the first installment of the “Optimise Your PC” series, I suggest you get over there quickly and print yourself a copy.

Sound card and hard drive troubleshooting

Sound card woes. Gatermann recently ran into some problems with sound cards forcing his Internet connection to drop. It had literally been six years since I’ve seen a problem like that before, but he kept running into it. Finally, it dawned on me: Try changing slots to force it to use a different interrupt. Therein was the silver bullet. The problem didn’t go away completely, but the culprit arose: the Sound Blaster 16 emulation. So I had him go into Device Manager and put the SB16 emulation on a different interrupt, and the problem went away.
It’s been forever since I’ve seen an honest-to-goodness interrupt conflict. This particular PC has every expansion slot filled with something or other, which is why he ran up against it. Keep that in mind: Just because we have PCI and plug and play these days, doesn’t mean you won’t ever see an interrupt conflict. On a well-expanded system, this ancient problem can occasionally rear its ugly head (while Microchannel required their cards to be capable of interrupt sharing; PCI only *recommends* it–so not every PCI device can share an interrupt, particularly if an ISA device has grabbed it. Alas, Microchannel fell victim to IBM’s greedy overly restrictive licensing terms and raw-dead-fish marketing, so as a result we have cheap PCs today but more headaches than we necessarily need. Speaking of raw-dead-fish marketing, I could mention that the Amiga’s Zorro bus had true plug and play and hundreds of interrupts from Day One in 1985, but nobody wants to hear that. Oops, I said it anyway.)

This problem used to happen all the time when people would put their modems on COM4 and a serial mouse on COM2 (or COM1 and 3). Since those ports by default shared interrupts with one another, you got goofy symptoms like your Internet connection dropping whenever you moved the mouse. People don’t configure their COM ports that way anymore, which is what’s made that problem so rare.

I think I finally got that G4 deployed. Wednesday it decided it didn’t want to shut down, and I had to reinstall the OS to fix it. Then on Thursday, it decided it didn’t want to recognize the mouse button anymore. I still don’t know what exactly I did to fix that–I booted off a spare MacOS 9 partition, ran a battery of disk repair tools and a defragmenter, and the problem went away. So while Mac users can snicker about interrupt problems, their machines aren’t exactly immune to weird problems either.


From: “Gialluca, Tony”

question: RE Optimizing Windows and Temp files

Hi Mr. Farquhar,

In you book on page 112 you discuss placing temp files on a ramdisk. On this page you show an example where:

Set temp=ram disk letter:\temp Set tmp=ram disk letter:\temp

Shouldn’t you also include changing

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\explorer\Volum eCaches\Temporary files\folder] to “ram disk letter:\temp” also ??

Per the description

([HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\explorer\Volu meCaches\Temporary files\description]) says: “Programs sometimes store temporary information in a TEMP folder. Before a program closes, it usually deletes this information.\r\n\r\nYou can safely delete temporary files that have not been modified in over a week.” The only potential pitfall that I can think of is if windows or programs (say during installations) need this area to remain persistant through reboots, even though the files may be of
a temporary nature…

Your thoughts would be appreciated …




To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know that registry key existed (nor did the book’s technical reviewers, evidently). That registry key, too, should be changed, yes. Thanks!

You are correct that if a program does a hard reboot (rather than just exiting to real mode and reloading Windows), you’ll lose the contents of the ramdisk and thus the temp folder. Fortunately, most programs seem to use the temp directory the way they’re supposed to–for temporary, fleeting things. Now if they’d just learn to clean up after themselves…

Of course, this also applies to my advice on creating a temp partition, on page 62.

Thanks much; this is very good information.


From: “Gary M. Berg”

Subject: Maxtor hard drives

Since you’ve been talking about WD and Maxtor hard drives…

I heard rumors just after Win2K SP1 came out that the service pack had problems with machines with Maxtor hard drives. I’ve not been able to find much of anything else on this. What have you heard?


That’s a new one to me. Maybe another reader has heard something, but it sure seems odd. I can’t imagine Microsoft didn’t test SP1 on the major drive manufactuers’ drives (Fujitsu, IBM, Maxtor, Quantum, Samsung, Seagate, and Western Digital), and with Maxtor being one of the Big Two in retail….

Once I get my current big project off my back this weekend, I’m half-tempted to try it just to see. Unless someone already has…

Western Digital hard drives

Apparently it’s possible right now to get WD hard drives dirt cheap at certain warehouse clubs in St. Louis. How cheap? One person wrote in and told me $30 after rebates for a 10-gig drive. He asked me what I thought of the deal. It’s a great price, sure. My problem is, if I bought one, I’d be tempted to actually use it.
I’m very down on Western Digital. At my previous employer, we had about 600 PCs, with a variety of drives: a small number of Seagates, and roughly equal representation of IBM, Maxtor, Western Digital, and Quantum. We had maybe a drive a month go bad on us (ours was an aging fleet). I saw about as many Western Digitals go bad as all the rest–combined. I’ll buy an IBM, Maxtor, or Quantum drive without flinching, but I stay away from WD.

At my current employer, we have fewer problems (newer equipment), but I still see about as many WDs go down as anything else. Here we have mostly WD, Samsung, IBM, and Seagate drives, since that’s what Micron tends to use. Again, I see about as many WDs go as all the others. The last WD to go out happened when I took a half-dozen PCs to a convention in New Orleans. It was the middle of registration, with tired travelers all around, and the machine kept locking up. Finally, one time the drive just didn’t come back. I located a computer store, paid an outrageous price for a drive (unfortunately, another WD because it was all they had), and managed to get the drive in with only a couple hours’ downtime. But after failing me when I most needed dependability, I vowed to never buy another WD. Whenever I spec a drive for work, I get a Maxtor. I find them more reliable, faster, and they’re just as easy to find as WDs. And the CompUSA down the street always has a good deal on them.