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Marx train light bulbs

I don’t come across burned-out light bulbs in Marx trains very often, but it can happen. When you need to replace a missing or dead bulb, you have some options.

Marx, like its competitors, used a standard E10 screw base in all of its trains and accessories that I know of. It’s best to never say never with Marx, but standardizing on E10 was cost-effective so I doubt there’s any variance. The question is what voltage.

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Minor-League hacking in the MLB

So, about a year ago, the Houston Astros announced their internal player database had been breached. This week, more details emerged, pointing right at the St. Louis Cardinals.

It wasn’t a terribly sophisticated attack. You knew I’d write about this, but I’ll explore it from an IT security perspective more than from a baseball perspective.

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I am not in jail.

The bank vice president apologized for calling the police on me.

That’s neither the beginning nor the end of the story, but it seems to me that police involvement of any kind is a sign that your real estate deal isn’t going as well as it could.

It all began with a Citibank loan officer named Aaron who promised me a smooth closing. In my view, being questioned by a uniformed police officer has no place in a smooth closing. And that wasn’t even the worst part of it, which troubles me. Read More »I am not in jail.

It’s time to strike down the red-light cameras

I saw some abuses of the red-light cameras on the news at noon. In one case, the car next to the one that ran the light got the ticket. In another, the owner wasn’t driving the car. The reporter asked the mayor of Florissant, Thomas Schneider, if that was fair.

“It’s safe,” he said. And he said the same thing to every other question the reporter asked.

That’s debatable. But guess what? Josef Stalin’s regime was very safe. Do what Stalin said, and you were safe. That doesn’t make Stalin fair, right, or ethical. It doesn’t make Schneider fair, right, or ethical either.

It’s not safe, either.

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McAlester, OK hates Fred Phelps

I’m very sorry to report that when Fred Phelps and a few of his minions were waving their Thank-God-for-dead-soldiers signs at Sgt Jason James McCluskey’s funeral, somebody slashed his tires.

I’m also sorry to report that no shop in town was willing to service Mr. Phelps’ Honda minivan that day.

I’m sorrier still that the Tulsa World printed a photograph of said Honda minivan limping on two tires, with Kansas license plate 550 CUV plainly visible.

Sgt McCluskey died for you too, Mr. Phelps.

How to fight the City of St. Louis’ red-light scam

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I’ve never had a traffic ticket. I spoke too soon. Thanks to the City of St. Louis’ new red-light camera scam, I have one.

It’s too late for me to fight it. But since I want others to fight it, here’s what I wish I’d known the day I got the ticket.First, when you receive your ticket in the mail, get a lawyer. Immediately. The scam works like this: They get the picture of you allegedly making a traffic violation (in my case, not making a complete stop when turning right at a red light, which is perfectly legal in St. Louis County). Then they dillydally around as long as possible. A few weeks or a month after your alleged violation, you get the ticket in the mail.

And there’s the problem. A lawyer needs at least three weeks to fight one of these things, and you’ll probably get your ticket right about three weeks before the court date. If you wait a day or five to mull over your options, you’re not going to be able to fight.

And here’s why I say "alleged"–do YOU remember what YOU were doing at 8:27 AM on Saturday, August 25? Without a photograph of you at the wheel (which St. Louis doesn’t have), they can’t prove it was you. And by waiting a few weeks after the alleged infraction, you may very well not remember if you were driving in that area on that day, or if you loaned your car to someone, or whatever.

In my case, the infraction happened in an area I rarely go. I can’t prove it wasn’t me behind the wheel, but I also can’t prove it wasn’t Francis Slay either.

That’s the reason St. Louis treats it as a non-moving violation. If it were a moving violation with points assessed, every attorney would fight it by saying the city can’t prove who was driving. And the attorney would win every single time.

In the meantime, if you don’t want to get nailed by cities changing right-turn laws on a whim (or by the car behind you if you stop at a yellow light instead of blowing through it for fear of a ticket), there’s a company that sells a $30 high-gloss clearcoat that supposedly causes the flash on the camera to overexpose, rendering your license plate illegible. I have no idea if the product works, and frankly, $30 seems a high price to pay for the fraction of an ounce of clearcoat it would take to cover four license plates. (Although it seems reasonable next to a $100 fine for not coming to a complete stop on a right turn with no other cars present.)

If you want to try to defeat red-light cameras and you don’t mind trying something that might not work, try taking off your license plates and giving them a couple of coats of either Future Floor Polish (which is really an acrylic clearcoat, not a wax) or Krylon clear gloss. I’d probably go with Krylon Triple-Thick Crystal Clear Glaze, since it’s glossier than the standard spray. A can of Krylon will cost about $5 and give you enough to spray your license plates and all of your friends’ plates also. And if it doesn’t work, you’re only out five bucks instead of thirty.

I hope it does work though. The City of St. Louis needs to find another way to raise revenue, other than making a stupid law, enforcing it by proxy, charging an excessive fine, and then stringing it along to make it as difficult for citizens to defend their records as possible.

I’ll see you at the hardware store.

And if you just got one of these unjust tickets in the mail, contact a lawyer immediately. A lawyer will cost more than the ticket, but the city is counting on honest citizens just paying the ticket because it’s cheaper and less hassle than fighting it.

And if you’re wondering where the red-light cameras are, they’re at the intersections of Hampton and Wilson (the entrance to The Hill) and Hampton and Chippewa.

St. George story seems all too believable

I’m sure almost everyone has heard the story about a 20-year-old getting harrassed by a police officer in a commuter lot and being told he could be arrested and he could just make up any old story as an excuse. The story’s been all over Digg and even hit some national news sites, such as USA Today.

It happened in St. George, Missouri. It’s the next town over from me, an obstacle on my way to my favorite hobby shop, pizza place, and batting cage.In high school, teachers actually warned us about that town, since the shortest route to the nearest Interstate takes you right through there. When I was 17, I did some computer work for someone who lived in St. George, and she provided me with a map indicating the precise location of each stop sign and gave me a stern warning to stop for a full five seconds at each sign. She told me a cop would be watching me with a stopwatch.

I did what she said and didn’t have problems.

Usually when someone has a flat tire or other car trouble, if a police officer is nearby and sees it, the officer will pull up behind them, angle the car and flip the lights on to keep passing drivers away from the scene. And it’s not uncommon to see the officer actually help the driver change the tire.

Not in St. George. In St. George the cop just keeps zapping motorists with the radar gun. I’ve seen it more than once.

I’ve been pulled over four times in my life. The first was a combination of factors: I made a U-turn, it was late at night, and my skin was the wrong color to be turning into that particular neighborhood. I was driving a coworker home. The officer let me go with a verbal warning.

The second time I was pulled over, it was by a cop who was notorious for harrassing kids. I know he was lying about the speed I was going because I knew the area and I didn’t like driving it much faster than 35 miles per hour (the posted limit). He said I’d been doing 47, which would have been suicide on that stretch of road. That stretch of road doesn’t even exist anymore, and for good reason. After he ran my record and found absolutely nothing, he let me go, but he said he’d go tell my mother what I’d been doing. I might have been a bit worried, if I’d been doing something wrong.

The third time I was pulled over was near the Lake of the Ozarks. The speed limit is 55 most of the way, but a lot of towns drop it down to ridiculous lows. I didn’t slow down enough, and I got pulled over. I didn’t get a ticket but I got a written warning.

The fourth and last time I’ve been pulled over was in St. George. It was late on a Friday, I was coming home from a Bible study (yes, really), and I was watching my speed carefully because I knew exactly where I was. When I saw the flashing lights behind me, I had no idea why. I pulled over, half expecting him to zoom past me, but he pulled over too. He told me right away why: The light over my license plate was burned out.

Up until then it had never occurred to me that there was a light over your license plate, let alone that it was illegal to drive without one. I’d been rear-ended a couple of weeks before, and that probably was the reason the light was out. He took my license, went back to the car and ran my record (as far as I know, still two words long: “No record”), strolled back to my car, and gave me a second lecture about the light over my plate. I told him I didn’t know the light was out.

“Well you do now,” he bellowed, and threw my license back at me.

So I drove my menace-to-society car out of St. George and back home, wondering all the way how many people have managed to get pulled over there and not get a ticket. Probably not many.

In this local account, the St. George police chief denies being a speed trap. “It’s not true. My officers are told to enforce the law. I want quality, not quantity. I want the drugs, the impaired drivers. Those’re the things that make a difference.”

I’ll believe it when I see it. If there’s any drug trafficking going on, it’s along I-55, just outside the city limits. There’s a small bar a mile or two away at the corner of Mackenzie and Gravois, but it’s not very big. I don’t think it produces many drunk drivers since there’s only room for about five cars in its parking lot.

I think they’re more worried about burned-out headlights, people stopping for less than three seconds at stop signs, and people who look like they might be under 18 violating curfew. I think the latter is the reason Brett Darrow was pulled over and harrassed.

If St. George is indeed cleaning up its act, it’s going to take a long time for the reputation to change. Twenty years ago it had a reputation for being a place where they’d pull you over if you didn’t shave that morning, and reputations like that don’t develop overnight.

Maybe a little national attention will give the cleanup a little more sincerity.

Meet Melvin.

I have a new un-friend now. His name is Melvin.

Thanks to Melvin, I can almost add library sales to places I’ve been kicked out of. It’s a short list, but it includes the library, church, Best Buy, and substitute teacher Rick Hannebutt’s seventh grade theology class.It began innocently enough. My wife and I arrived early. We were 10th in line. The problem was that within about half an hour, we were 15th in line. For example, one guy came in, asked where the end of the line was, and then walked up and took a spot two or three places in line ahead of us. He wasn’t the only one who did it, but he was the closest one.

The guy behind me said something to him. They had a brief exchange, then the guy who cut in line apologized, got in his car, and left.

It was stupid, because if he’d gone to his proper place in line, he would have only been five or six places back. There’s not much difference between being the 10th person in and being the 15th.

Then Melvin came staggering out of Applebee’s. He walked over to his black Chevy Celebrity (very much like the one my driver’s ed instructor drove, back in 1990), got out his bag, and then went to the front of the line and talked to the people standing up there. Nobody up there let him in, so he settled back, two places ahead of my wife and I.

Melvin seems to go to all the places I go, and he’s elbowed in front of me (or tried to) twice in the last two weeks. Furthermore, I saw him steal from an estate sale. It takes a special kind of scumbag to steal from an estate sale–the deceased’s survivors could be relying on the proceeds from that sale to pay for the funeral, for all we know.

Needless to say, I’m pretty tired of Melvin.

"Sir, I think you got here after we did," I said.

"You’re wrong, Junior. I got here two and a half hours ago, then I walked over there to have a couple of drinks. You can ask anyone here. Now why don’t we step over here into the parking lot and we’ll settle this. You’re messing with the wrong guy," Melvin said.

"If you take a swing at me, I’ll call the police. And keep in mind I do have your license plate number."

"If you call the police, I’ll call my lawyer and he’ll be over here so fast, and I’ll be sure to get your number too–"

I wonder what it says about Melvin that he has his lawyer on speed dial?

Just then, one of the people running the sale walked past.

"Ma’am, this guy is threatening me."

"Actually," I said, "He’s trying to start a fistfight and I don’t want a fistfight. I don’t want any trouble here."

She took my admission money and gave me the don’t-give-us-any-trouble look. I nodded and thanked her. She told me she’d keep an eye on him.

The guy standing behind me told me he’d heard people at a sale last week talking about Melvin too.

Melvin went up to the front of the line and started ranting at the people up there about me. They kept looking back my direction with confused looks on their faces.

None of the people up there are people I know well, but I see them often enough that I don’t want trouble with them. Melvin came back, took his place in line, and tried to burn holes through my skull with the laser death rays in his eyes.

For a few seconds I stared back, then I decided that was stupid. I tried to egg him on a bit. I looked back behind me, tried to look confused, looked back at him, and mouthed, "There’s nothing back there."

Well, the other people in line thought it was funny. That was probably too far over the top though.

Once I was pretty certain Melvin was going to stay put, I walked up to the front of the line.

"Hey, I don’t know what he told you, but he tried to get me out in the parking lot and start a fistfight. I just want you to know I didn’t threaten him. I’m not that way," I said.

They nodded. "So we’re cool?" I asked. They nodded again. I smiled, thanked them, and took my place in line.

Melvin continued his gaze of death. I turned around and made smalltalk with the guy behind me. He cracked a few jokes about drunks.

Finally we got to go inside. I watched my back pretty much the whole time. You can’t trust a drunk guy with his lawyer on speed dial, after all. Wherever Melvin was, I stayed away.

Finally, he walked up to the counter. I heard him say he had 10 record albums. I was standing a good 15 feet away with a big crowd in the room, so I guess a lot of people know he had 10 record albums. I breathed a sigh of relief when he left.

My wife asked if I found something I wanted. I told her I got what I wanted the most.

"What was that?" one of the people running the sale asked. "Anything good?"

"My fistfight buddy left," I said.

"Is that a CD or a book?" she asked. "I’ve never heard of that."

"Oh, it’s not a thing. The guy who tried to start a fistfight with me in the parking lot left."

"That was YOU?" she asked.

Yeah, I’m pretty harmless. I’m usually fairly polite too. But I guess the word was out about me now, even if the people who knew the story couldn’t place my face with it.

A few minutes later, I ran into one of my acquaintances from the front of the line. "You know Melvin’s gone now," he whispered.

I nodded.

"What happened?"

"He challenged me to a fight, and I said if he took a swing at me I’d call the police," I said.

"Ah, so that’s why he brought up the police. Nothing wrong with that. You have to protect yourself."

He told me a little more about Melvin, that he tends to be paranoid and he’d been drinking. When he’s sober he’s harmless, he said. He laughed when I told him Melvin told me he’d been drinking.

"In the morning he probably won’t remember any of it," he said. And he told me I’d handled the situation pretty well.

We’ll see how much Melvin remembers. I’ll see him again, I know. But I’m pretty sure the people who run the sales we both end up frequenting like me better than him. I don’t pick fights, and I buy a lot more stuff.

And they know it.

And now, since I know I’ll get asked about it, here’s the story behind the places I actually have managed to get kicked out of.

The library: It was closing.

Church: It was closing too. Yep, both of them sound a lot more interesting than reality.

Best Buy: I uttered a couple of colorful words when they wouldn’t honor the extended warranty I’d bought. The manager and customer abuse rep asked me to leave. I went to a different location and got my stereo exchanged under warranty there.

Substitute teacher Rick Hannebutt’s seventh grade theology class: He never liked me because I wasn’t a Cardinals fan. I didn’t like him much either. The kid sitting next to me hit me with a dusty mitten. I pushed his arm away and told him to quit.

"Davit," Hannebutt bellowed, "You may leave now."

I was really mad then. Twenty years later, I don’t know why. I don’t think anyone in that room wanted to be there, and I was the one who got to leave.

I think Melvin makes for the better story.

Incidentally, Melvin isn’t his real name. I would never mention someone who has his lawyer on speed dial by his real name.

It’s pretty close though. His real name is the same as that little Martian from Looney Tunes.

Speed traps in south St. Louis

I believe it is my duty to warn people about two speed traps in south St. Louis County. They’re fairly widely known, but not as widely known as I thought.

Both are tiny little suburbs along Interstate 55.The first, and perhaps more notorious of the two is St. George, which is west of I-55 at the Reavis Barracks exit. St. George extends roughly along Reavis Barracks from I-55 to an L-shaped bend in the road where Reavis Barracks becomes Mackenzie.

Rules of the road: The speed limit is 35. I generally keep my speed at 30-32. Funny thing is, when I drive through this stretch at 30, very few people ever pass me. Needless to say, at the stoplight at Huntington and Reavis Barracks, it’s best not to run a yellow light.

Reavis Barracks forms the southern border of the town. If you venture into town at all, make sure you stop for three seconds at any stop sign. Years ago when I did some computer work for someone who lived there, she told me the police will sit there with a stop watch and watch you. St. George is no place for the rolling stops St. Louis is known for.

Also don’t drive in St. George if you have expired plates or anything else that most departments overlook. I was pulled over once for the light above my license plate being burned out. I escaped a ticket, but probably because of my clean driving record. It was only the third time I’d ever been pulled over in my life. I was 27 or 28 at the time.

As far as hiding places go, they like to sit in a parking lot at the intersection of Huntington and Reavis Barracks, or along Reavis Barracks itself.

I have a few relatives who are police officers, and I’m told that St. George got a new police chief a while back and he tells other officers that he’s backed off on the speed-trap tendencies. I still don’t take any chances through there and neither should you.

To avoid St. George, use the Weber/Bayless exit, just a couple of miles north. It takes you a couple of miles out of your way, but it may be worth your while. Weber hits Gravois very near the intersection of Gravois and Mackenzie.

And speaking of Bayless, the other speed trap is Bella Villa, another small town just east of I-55 along Bayless between I-55 and Lemay Ferry Road. I imagine the correct pronounciation of the town would be something like bay-ya viy-ya, since it looks Spanish, but I’ve never heard a St. Louisan pronounce it. I imagine the local pronounciation is closer to bell-a vill-a.

The speed limit along Bayless through Bella Villa is also 35. Go 30-32. I see a police car virtually every time I drive through Bella Villa, and almost as often as not he has someone pulled over. Very frequently when I don’t see a police car in Bella Villa, I see him along I-55 with someone pulled over.

I have no firsthand experience with the Bella Villa police department, but someone I know who got a speeding ticket there didn’t get her license returned when the officer was done with it. It came back in the mail after she paid her speeding ticket.

If you need to avoid Bella Villa, chances are you’re on I-55 and trying to get to Lemay Ferry or vice-versa. There’s the Carondelet/Germania duo to the north, and either Union or Reavis Barracks to the south. You can only exit on Union if you’re southbound. Go east on Reavis Barracks and you’ll hit Lemay Ferry. Both Carondelet and Germania, which run on opposite sides of the mighty River Des Peres, run east-west between I-55 and Lemay Ferry. Lemay Ferry becomes Alabama at the Germania intersection, and Carondelet is called Weber where it hits Lemay Ferry.

Our inflated egos show on our streets

I hate SUVs. I hate irresponsible drivers. I hate Telegraph Road. I hate them I hate them I hate them.
There. It’s out of my system. I feel a whole lot better now.

Wait. I’m not supposed to hate drivers. OK, fine. I hate it when people drive irresponsibly. Put the newspaper away and save it for when you get there. (Not that it’s worth reading anyway, if it’s the St. Louis Post-Disgrace.) If you drop your cell phone, kick it away so it won’t get wedged under one of your pedals, then pull over to pick it up. OK?

And whatever you do, don’t ever, EVER, EVER (why don’t all browsers support the blink tag? This is perfectly appropriate use of it) stop for no reason whatsoever. OK?

There are people behind you, and you’re encased in a two-ton deadly weapon. Don’t you ever, ever forget that.

Here’s what happened to me today.

It was 2:45 pm. I was on my way to church. Special service. I was scheduled to ush. What’s ushing? Whatever ushers do. It was the intersection of I-255 and Telegraph Rd. The bad news is, when you pass that intersection, your IQ temporarily drops to whatever the square root of your IQ is. The worse news is, so does everyone else’s.

Well, some IDIOT went through the stoplight and immediately slammed on its brakes (yeah, I know the proper is “his or her,” but when you’re that stupid, you relinquish the right to human pronouns) for no good reason. The woman in the SUV ahead of me slammed on her brakes. I slammed on my brakes. I skidded into her. My license plate slammed into her trailer hitch. A woman in an SUV behind me slammed on her brakes and slammed into me. She put a tear in my rear bumper and put a dent in my trunk. I didn’t notice the damage on the scene–only later. She tore her front bumper up pretty good–I think she hit me pretty hard.

The IDIOT zoomed off unscathed, and probably blissfully unaware.

We were all in a huge hurry–which probably square-rooted all of our IQs yet again–and we didn’t want any trouble. None of us was hurt, our vehicles were all capable of driving and just sustained cosmetic damage, and none of us needed our insurance rates to go up, and certainly none of us needed a ticket. We didn’t even bother to exchange phone numbers.

The lady who slammed into me was going the same place I was, it turned out. Good thing I kept my cool, eh?

But I’m really sick of how people drive these days. Everyone thinks they’re so blasted important. They drive around yakking on the phone. They slam on their brakes because they think they’re about to miss a turn. Well, if you miss a turn on account of your own stupidity, who are you to inconvenience the two dozen people behind you? Turn off at the next road and loop back. Yeah, it costs you five minutes. But who are you to take time from two dozen other people?

In my case, I’m going to have to take off work to take my car into the shop, its going to cost me a few hundred bucks to replace a bumper, and I’m going to have to get a rental. But at least that IDIOT wasn’t inconvenienced at all. And that’s all that matters. In the IDIOT‘s mind. And when you’re King of the Universe, that’s fine. You can think that way.

Incidentally, detouring when I mess up is my standard practice. It’s called courtesy. It used to be called common courtesy, but it’s pretty rare these days. Probably because people notice discourtesy, but it’s often impossible to see courtesy, so courtesy isn’t appreciated. But I’d rather be unnoticed than get noticed because I inconvenienced someone.

But stopping suddenly isn’t the only thing IDIOTs do. They cut you off and then they slow down. They run red lights because it’s much more important for them to get where they’re going than it is for you to get where you’re going. That’s my really big pet peeve. I stick my car’s nose into the intersection with my horn blaring when they do that. Usually they smile and wave. The nerve of them.

Once I even saw an IDIOT in a left-turn lane wait through a light, then cut across two lanes of traffic going straight and make a right turn! No one ever taught that IDIOT that three lefts make a right.

But rather than shaming people into obeying the law, or enforcing red lights with cameras, instead we buy ever bigger and bigger cars and Station-wagon Utility Vehicles. It’s a big arms race. Guys like me lose out. I’m 5’9″. A Dodge Neon has more headroom than I need. A Station-wagon Utility Vehicle is completely impractical for me. I can’t afford the sticker price, and I can’t afford to keep gas in it. Neither can most of the people who buy them, but I guess that’s what credit cards are for.

If the only people who bought Station-wagon Utility Vehicles were the people who really needed them, it wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is, every other person has one. So we make our roads unsafe by killing everyone’s visibility and ensuring that accidents are more serious by driving cars with twice as much mass as we need, and we make our world unsafe by unnecessarily funneling billions of dollars to the Middle East, so Mohammedan millionaires can turn around and fund terrorists who blow up Israelis and Americans.

So I guess it isn’t just the intersection of I-255 and Telegraph that square-roots our intelligence, huh? Maybe it’s the water. Nah, I’ll blame television.

If we’d all just come down off our pedestals and realize our proper place in life, we’d all be a whole lot better off. We’d be a lot safer, and I’ll bet you anything we’d all get just as much done.

But the way we act right now? No wonder the rest of the world hates us. We deserve it.