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How to lower your train accessories into your table

One of the first articles I remember reading in a train magazine (I don’t remember if it was Classic Toy Trains or a competing rag) was titled “Put your accessories in pockets.” Basically, it advocated cutting holes in your table, putting a board beneath the hole, and putting the accessory in the hole to even it up with the ground level on your layout.

It’s a great idea–more on that in a minute–but it really didn’t go into much detail about how to do the cutting part.

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The many troubles with e-books

A brief essay by free software pioneer Richard Stallman on the problems with e-books made the front page of Slashdot today. It’s everything I’ve come to expect from Stallman. I found myself vigorously agreeing with parts of it, and vigorously disagreeing with other parts of it.

But mainly I found myself disappointed that he didn’t really elaborate much. Maybe it’s because he covered similar ground once before in his 1997 dystopian 1984-ish short story, The Right to Read.

And, to me, that’s the problem. We’re on a slippery slope. Today it sounds ridiculous that it could be illegal to loan your laptop or your e-reader or your tablet to someone else. But prior to 2009, the idea that you could buy a book and then at some point the party that sold it to you could take it back from you without permission sounded ridiculous.
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Cleaning and storing Lionel track

Cleaning and storing Lionel track is another common question when the subject of trains comes up. Now that you’re getting the electric train track out for Christmas duty, there are some things you need to do to get it ready. And when the time comes to put it away until next year, a little preparation then will leave it in better shape for next year.

First, a note: Since writing this piece, I discovered a miracle. I treated my track with a conductivity enhancer, and the difference is unbelievable. I haven’t needed to clean my track in two years.

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What I\’ve learned about working with Marmoleum click tiles

After spending the better part of two weekends on it, the kitchen floor is exactly six tiles away from being complete.

I guess this is as good of a time as any to share what I’ve learned.If you mark the tiles with pencil, the pencil marks come off really easily with a little soap and water. This is good, because I don’t think I ever got my measurements right the first time.

The later at night it gets, the more likely I am to measure something wrong. I cut two tiles close to the counters too short. I can cover up the gap, but I shouldn’t have needed to. Note to self: Check measurements at least one more time than seems necessary.

T-rail is ridiculously expensive. I’m not going to pay $25 apiece for the t-rail I need for the two doors. I’ll buy a couple of $3 3-foot lengths of hobby wood, then I’ll stop off at the hobby shop for a piece of 1/4″ square basswood if I can’t find something similar at the big box store (I’ll probably need a dollar’s worth). I’ll glue and clamp them together, then finish it how I like, and probably have something better for 1/6 the cost.

Quarter round is ridiculously expensive too. The original baseboards from my kitchen are in the basement. A previous owner reused some of it in place of quarter round the last time the kitchen floor was redone, but there’s plenty left. I’ll use some of that instead.

Use at least a 25 TPI blade to cut the tiles. Tom Gatermann came over yesterday to help me cut some tiles. He found that coarse blades just don’t cut the tile as quickly or easily as a fine blade does.

Using his bandsaw, I can cut a tile in about five minutes, even for weird cuts like around doors. I think Tom might have taken a bit longer than that sometimes, but his cuts are a lot straighter than mine too. But that’s the nice thing about click tiles–the cuts will be hiding under quarter round or baseboards or some other kind of moulding.

Don’t leave difficult spots in the middle of the room, like around your stove, until later. It’s really hard to come back and click tiles into place when the surrounding tiles are already down. You can do it, but it takes a lot longer, and your chances of leaving a gap somewhere are a lot higher.

Get a pullbar for laminate floors, and use it to slam the tiles together. You can get one for about $7 at a big-box store, and it’ll save you hours. It might be the best seven bucks I ever spent.

Most of the time, the pullbar is the right tool to put tiles together. Occasionally, you’ll need to bang the tiles with a piece of 2×4 to get them to move together. It seems to me that about a 10-inch length of 2×4 is about perfect for those cases.

This stuff never should have fallen out of fashion. I guess linoleum fell out of favor in the 1960s and 1970s because vinyl offered a greater variety of colors and patterns, but that’s a shame because it’s wonderful stuff. It’s extremely easy to clean. It’s durable and to an extent, it’s self-healing. I’ve watched it heal itself after minor mishaps. Linoleum is expensive, and the Marmoleum click tiles border on ridiculously expensive, but it will outlast pretty much anything else you can put down and it won’t drive you nuts trying to keep it clean.

And now I know why kitchens are expensive. Everything that goes into them is expensive, and you end up needing a lot of little things. Some of these things are easy enough to make yourself–transition pieces for other types of flooring come to mind, but that requires some time and at least a little skill. So you’ll either pay for material, or you’ll spend more time to save some money.

Intel\’s Atom mini-ITX board has some interesting possibilities

A story on The Register tipped me off to a small motherboard using Intel’s new Atom CPU. A UK data center is using the chip to power servers, and The Reg asks if it’s madness or genius.

More on that in a minute.It’s an interesting minimalist board. It has a single PCI slot, one DIMM slot, PATA and 2 SATA connectors for storage, and the usual complement of I/O slots. The CPU runs at 1.6 GHz. Newegg sells it for about 75 bucks.

One could use this board to build a minimalist PC, but it would also work well as a cheap upgrade for an old PC. It can bolt into a case designed for an ATX or micro-ATX board. It’s made by Intel, so its quality is likely to be comparable to any board it replaces. And the board consumes about 25 watts of power.

Paired up with some sort of solid-state storage, be it a compact flash card in an adapter or a proper SATA SSD like the OCZ Core, it would be a very quiet, low-power system. Performance-wise, it wouldn’t be a barn burner, but it has more than enough horsepower for word processing, e-mail, web browsing, and other productivity apps. At 1.6 GHz, the Atom doesn’t outrun a Pentium M or even a modern Celeron at comparable clock speed, but it should outrun a sub-2 GHz P4.

I think this thing would be awesome in many business environments. Tasks that would bog it down are the kinds of things you don’t want going on in the office anyway–stuff like 3D gaming, ripping and re-encoding DVDs, stuff like that. The power it would save would be tremendous, especially when paired with an LCD monitor and an SSD.

But I even think it has a place in the server room. For example, my first employer used desktop PCs for domain controllers. The logic was simple: DCs don’t work all that hard most of the day, and by their very nature they are redundant, so if a DC were to fail, it’s not in the same league as your mail server failing. You can grab another desktop PC, stand it up as a domain controller, then start asking questions.

In 1997, when a server cost $4,000 and a desktop PC cost $1,000, this was an obvious place for a college with budget problems to save some money.

I think Intel Atoms would make great domain controllers. They have enough CPU power to do the job, but they sip power, which is increasingly important in datacenters. The PCI slot would limit the type of gigabit NIC you could install, but it should still be OK.

They’d make fine web servers too. They might get bogged down on high traffic sites, but they would have little trouble serving up most corporate intranets, and let’s face it, most people’s web sites aren’t nearly as busy as they would like to think they are. You could always use more than one and load balance them. Besides, it’s typically the database servers behind the web servers that do the heavy lifting. Serving up static web pages isn’t all that difficult of a task, and a 1.6 GHz CPU ought to be up to it.

None of these uses are what Intel had in mind when they designed the Atom–I really think their ultimate goal is to end up in cell phones and PDAs, which was why they sold off their ARM-based Xscale CPU.

But if some enterprising company (or struggling behemoth *cough* Dell *cough*) wanted to build business PCs around these, it would be an easy sell. For that matter, they could stuff two of these boards into a 1U rackmount chassis and sell it as an inexpensive, power-saving alternative to blade servers.

Call me crazy, but having actually administered blade servers, I’d much rather have a bunch of 1U systems with two computers inside the case. Besides costing a lot less money up front, they would be more reliable and consume less power while actually saving space–an HP blade enclosure gives you 16 servers in 10 Us, while my crazy scheme would give you 20 servers in the same space.

Maybe instead of posting this idea where anyone can see it and run with it, I ought to buy a couple of motherboards, take them into my basement and start bending some metal myself. Hmm…

More lawnmower adventures

Well, the $25 lawnmower my wife scored at a yard sale late last year died a week ago. It just quit in the middle of the yard, leaving me with a yard with a mohawk, since I’d already cut the front and most of the sides.

I bit the bullet and bought a new Toro.Why a Toro? I bought a $300 Toro because I can’t afford another $100 no-name special. My first mower was a Mastercut that had been given to me because it mostly worked but the people who gave it to me had problems with it, and the second was a Yard Machines (MTD) mower that died after its first mowing season and only worked 3-4 times after I worked on it. Buy three of those throwaway mowers and you’ve paid for a Toro.

Consumer Reports said the Toro 20171 is the best sub-$300 mower on the market. I saw another news story where the reporter asked a lawnmower repair shop what brands break the least, and he said Toro and Honda. And I noticed that almost all of my neighbors have Toro mowers. More importantly, most of them have old Toro mowers.

So it’s what I got. I hated paying $300, which is over half the principle on my monthly house payment, but I justified it this way: The mower has a three-year warranty, so it ought to last at least that long. Probably a lot longer. If the mower starts on the first or second pull instead of the 35th, it saves me a lot of time. The mower has a 6.5 horsepower engine, a 22-inch blade, and is self-propelled, and mulching, so I was able to cut the lawn in an hour with it. Normally cutting the whole lawn used to take me closer to two hours, counting wasted time emptying the bag, trying 35 times to start the stupid mower, and making more passes due to the 21-inch blade.

I figure if I have an extra hour a week that I’m not wasting on yard work, I can spend a little bit of that time doing things that make me money, and hopefully pay for the mower.

The other thing I noticed is that the mower seems to use less gas than the cheap Yard Machines mower I’d been using–even though it has a bigger motor in it and is self-propelled. I was burning a half gallon of gas mowing the yard with the other mower. I filled the Toro once and still had gas left when I finished. I guess that’ll save me another five minutes since I won’t have to refuel in the middle of the job. And with gas at $3 a gallon, maybe, just maybe the mower will pay for itself in fuel savings over its lifespan.

Initially I felt bad about spending the money, but I think in the long run, in this case I probably needed to spend money in order to save some money.

Making a Marx run like a Marx again

After a couple of marathon days at work, I unwound on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by refurbishing an old Marx Canadian Pacific-style tinplate locomotive.

At first, its problem wasn’t obvious.The usual prescription for a misbehaving Marx is to remove the motor from the locomotive frame, douse it in contact cleaner (I got some zero-residue contact cleaner from Advance Auto Parts for $1.99, which is the best price I’ve seen) to remove or at least soften the decades’ worth of grime and no-longer-effective aged lubricants, then conservatively re-lube, applying some sewing machine-type oil to the axles and bearings, and some light grease to the gears.

I did that, and the thing still would only run about three feet at best. It smoked better than most modern Lionel locomotives do, but the problem is, this particular train doesn’t have a smoke generator. Ahem. I get worried when a non-smoking locomotive smokes better than my smokers.

Since this CP came from a store, I took it back whence it came–to Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton. Lionel (the co-owner, not the train company) flipped it over, took one look at the wheels, and pointed. "That’s either steel wool or cat hair." Sure enough, there was lots of hair wound around the axles next to the gear-bearing wheels. Marty took a look at it and decided the wheels were too tight, so he broke out his wheel puller and pulled the wheels out a fraction of an inch from the frame. The locomotive mostly came to life. The e-unit still buzzed, so he grabbed a can of special lubricated contact cleaner and blasted a couple of squirts of that into the e-unit. He warned me to make sure I let it evaporate, otherwise I’d see a really big spark and maybe some smoke. Then he oiled the axles for good measure. It ran. Not like a Marx usually runs, but it could make it around the track under its own power for several minutes at a time.

The locomotive was still running hot though, so I attacked the hair wrapped around the axles with a #11 Xacto blade. I can’t really describe the process other than cut, pull, repeat. Work the blade until it feels like you’ve cut something, then see if you can use the side of the blade to pull it out. Lots of old hair came out. When I couldn’t get any more, I ran it on the track for a few minutes, first in forward, then in reverse. That would usually loosen things up enough that I could yank more hair out or at least cut some more.

After about half an hour of this, the locomotive was to the point where it could run on its own power for 10-15 minutes and only be warm to the touch afterward. That was a huge improvement; earlier it could only manage a couple of laps before the motor would be too hot to comfortably touch.

I ran it for about 20 minutes. At some point the locomotive suddenly sped up and didn’t slow back down. Some piece of debris had worked itself loose from the running, and suddenly it was running like a Marx again. The cheaper (or older) Marx locomotives were geared really high, and they basically only had three speeds: off, fast, and so fast it’ll fly off the track (and not pick up any speed from gravity while falling).

Most people who had Marx trains set the track up on the floor temporarily, ran the trains, then took the track back apart and boxed it back up. That’s why it’s so common to see 50-year-old Marx sets still in their original boxes. But setting the trains up on the carpet meant all sorts of stuff could find its way up from the carpet into the gears and wind its way around the axles. Some of my more experienced Marx buddies tell me almost every locomotive they buy has this problem.

So, if you’ve got an old train from your attic or basement and you’ve set it up and it just won’t budge, flip it over and take a good look at its axles under a strong light. What you find might be what’s keeping your train from running.

Catching up.

One of these days I’ll get around to posting the stuff I wrote in Ohio. I didn’t think I’d have culture shock out there. I can’t decide if Ohio is in the midwest or if it’s really an eastern state, but St. Louis is awfully eastern for a midwest city, and my dad was from Doylestown, Penn., so I lived with an easterner for 18 years of my life.
Look for that tomorrow, maybe. I’d have to unpack the laptop to post that material and I really don’t feel like doing that. I’ve had a fairly productive day, cleaning the place up a bit and politicking and reading Exodus, and I’m going to conveniently remember that Sabbath runs from sunup to sundown, and the sun is down (never mind that the Sabbath takes place on Saturday–this is my convenient re-interpretation, thank you) so I’ve got my excuse to be lazy, which means kick back with a cup of decaf green tea and let the stream of consciousness flow.

Politicking. Yes, politicking. I found myself in the distressing position this week of being a moderate. I’ve always been an outspoken conservative/libertarian (whichever stance will offend the most people is the one I generally took in print in college), except on religious matters, where I’ve always found a way to be a flaming liberal. When I ditched the liberal theology, I gravitated towards modern practices, which put me right back in the liberal camp.

I find myself caught between two very strong personalities, one that wants radical change yesterday, and the other who finds the status quo very comfortable. That in itself makes me uncomfortable, because our comfort level isn’t very high on God’s priority list. And the mission statement of our church is Reaching people for Christ, equipping people in Christ. When I look around at all the GenXers in our congregation who could be reached more effectively, the status quo makes me very uncomfortable. Ministry starts to go downhill fast when the focus shifts to numbers, but I can think of a dozen faces we could help equip more effectively.

I’d much rather equip one person effectively over the course of a year than 12 in a so-so fashion, but with the status quo, I’m questioning whether we can equip one more person effectively. By the same token, alienating 20 people in order to satisfy one person and potentially gain new people is a net loss, even if you eventually gain more than you lose. You don’t just turn someone’s world upside down for no reason.

Hence, I’m suddenly a moderate.

I don’t like being a moderate on much, so I’m going to go find something I can take an extreme position on.

Shaving. That’ll do it. Unix and VMS master Charlie was talking about razors on his page. I can take a strong position on shaving. Become a Nazarite and don’t do it. Life is much simpler afterward. It takes less time to get ready in the morning, and you end up looking like Richard Stallman so no one will come near you, which means you have fewer social problems, thus making your life even simpler.

Except these days, there’s e-mail, so people can talk to you without having a clue what you look like. And I like being able to walk up to girls without them shrieking something about the ghost of John the Baptist and running away at about 60 miles per hour. But if you get your jollies by trying to prove the Cheetah isn’t the fastest land mammal, I think I just told you how.

But I digress, as usual.

I was having a conversation about a year and a half ago with a good friend and mentor, and I told him about an incident I found myself in. I was having lunch with an old friend, female, in Kansas City, and I found I’d forgotten my razor. So, before I went to see her, I went out and bought a drag razor and my sister showed me how to use it. I’d never shaved with a blade in my life. (She was worth impressing. But don’t get any ideas, because she’s married now.)

“Once you go to a drag, you never go back,” my friend said.

Oh, I went back alright. The drag gets a whole lot closer, but even with a really high-quality one, I can still cut myself occasionally. Once I learned the secrets, I never cut myself with an electric. And an electric is so much faster, because you don’t have to bother with shaving cream and filling the sink with water, and you (usually) don’t have as big of a mess to clean up afterwards. There are two tricks with electric razors. OK, three.

1. Brand matters. A lot. My dad used to give me the electric razors he tried and didn’t like. I figured out really quickly why he didn’t like them. They were like shaving with a Sherman tank. They didn’t shave close, and I felt like I had a rash afterward. Sometimes they’d turn me beet red too, and I wasn’t even mad or embarrassed. My dad would never let me try his Braun. So one day I snuck in after he’d left for work and I tried it. Good stuff.

So if you don’t like your electric, try another brand. I’ll never use anything but a Braun. If a Braun doesn’t work for you, your face might be better suited for a Remington or a Norelco. They must work for some people, seeing as someone buys them.

2. Use pre-shave. The most common brand is called Lectric Shave, but there are others. Rub your face down with it a couple of minutes before you shave. It can make a big difference. With pre-shave, my 3-stage Braun gets just about as close as a blade.

3. Clean your razor! Your razor is not a gateway to a netherworld where your whiskers disappear to. If your razor just isn’t getting very close, pop the top off it and empty it out. It’ll work better afterward. And you’ll have a mess to clean up, like you would if you used a blade.