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The old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City

I remember the old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City. I spent plenty of time in the sprawling complex at 6200 St. John Avenue in Kansas City near the intersection of Belmont Boulevard.

When I was growing up, the three most dreaded words in my (and my cousin’s) vocabulary were “Ward’s over town.” That was what our family called the monstrosity, which was home to a regional distribution center, an outlet store, a catalog store, and corporate offices in a mere 2 million square feet.

When we were eight years old, this store was where Saturdays went to die. I don’t know how many of its 2 million square feet were open to my mom, aunt, and grandmother to look for bargains, but there was plenty of room for bargains to hide, and if there was ever anyone willing to spend the whole day in that store stretching a dollar just as far as it could go, it was my aunt.Read More »The old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City

The worst test I ever took

I’m gearing up (finally) to take the CISSP, a 250-question marathon of an exam that covers everything from firewalls and intrusion detection systems to how tall the fence or wall around a building should be and what kind of lights to use in a parking garage.  And everything in between. Three of my colleagues have had CISSP certifications for several years, and on Friday two of them were telling me what to expect.

And the worst test I’ve ever taken came to mind. No, it wasn’t Security+. I had a pretty good idea I was going to pass that one, which I did. The worst test I ever took was Dr. Walter Johnson‘s Fundamental Macroeconomics (Economics 1) makeup final at Mizzou, circa Winter 1994.

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Running a marathon with no plan

Yesterday I commented on a popular financial blog about using a debt snowball to pay off debt. Another commenter said she would never use such "psychological aids" or some other derisive name, if she ever found herself in debt.

I commented back, saying she could call it whatever she wanted, but I’d call it what it is: a plan. And if you’re going to pay off debt, you either need a plan, or some phenomenal luck.

Just deciding to pay off debt without a plan is a lot like me deciding to run a marathon. A couple of people told me I’m pretty quick running short distances, so hey, I might be able to win, right?

Well, every time I’ve tried to run long distances, I took off and usually built up a pretty nice lead early on. But since I didn’t pace myself, not only did I fall behind, but usually I was struggling just to finish. What about winning? In my dreams, maybe.

And that’s why the debt snowball works. It sets a pace. Follow the plan, focus on just the next month rather than on the big numbers, and whether it takes you six months or seven years, you eventually write that final check. And then you’re debt free.

Sure, you can argue about which debt to pay first and all that, but it’s just details. Do it wrong, and you pay your debt off a month or two later than if you do it optimally. That’s not so bad. You still save thousands, whether you do it right or wrong.

My critic said she got out of debt by selling a condo she’d been renting out. That’s great for her. Unfortunately, five years ago I didn’t have a condo to sell. I still don’t. And neither do most people.

I could have waited for a windfall. But if I had, I would still be in debt.

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.

How to heal

I had a conversation with a friend over the last couple of days. I won’t go into specifics to protect the people involved, but this friend is in the unfortunate situation of being surrounded by people with problems.
One of those people called on Tuesday night. It was a two-hour conversation. I asked how it went. Short version: The caller received a long list of things to do that will help solve the problem. But my friend wasn’t optimistic and fully expects to hear back from this person again in a couple of weeks, miserable as ever, and having not done a single thing on the list.

Someone else in this person’s life is facing a horrible disease. This disease wasn’t my dad’s area of specialty, but it was an area of interest for him. He wrote about a form of the disease in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in 1979. I wished aloud that Dad was still alive so I could get his opinion on what this person needs.

Then I realized it doesn’t take Dad’s Bachelor’s degrees in physics, chemistry and biology and his Doctorate of Osteopathy and his 23 years of practicing medicine to understand what this second person needs. I don’t know much about this second person’s needs, but I saw a common thread between the first and the second.

Neither of them want help enough.

I’ve been there. I battled depression from the ages of about 14 to 21. I wasn’t willing to do anything about it until spring of 1995. I was used to it and I’d always managed to live with it. Part of me believed I thrived off it. My favorite writers were always depressed, so to me, being pessimistic and gloomy all the time was an asset. And I still believe to this day that some of the best stuff I ever wrote was written during a mood swing. I knew–or at least suspected–that I had a problem, but I wanted that problem.

Then one day, that problem became too much to bear. I woke up one morning and realized I couldn’t live like that anymore.

I relapsed a couple of years later. You see, I hadn’t wanted the depression to go away. I just wanted a milder form of it. Or I wanted to be able to invite it back over for a visit, because it was my crutch. I was fortunate. When it came back, it came back harder. It crushed me under its weight. I couldn’t get to work on time anymore, and when I did get there, I was unproductive. Most of the people I worked with couldn’t stand to be around me. My friends from that time period felt sorry for me, but I only have one friend left from those days. Some of those friendships would have gone away anyway, but I think part of it was just that it was too much work to be my friend right about then.

I knew life couldn’t go on that way. And in both cases, getting help was a lot of work. I came away from my therapy sessions with more homework than I got from some of my college-level classes. And the work was harder than a lot of my 300-level Journalism classes.

When you’re lurking in the Valley of the Shadow of whatever, and it took a culmination of events that took place over a lifetime to get you there, you can’t expect a two-hour phone conversation to change it. And you can’t expect it to go away on its own.

But I wanted to beat it badly enough. I was willing to do my homework. I wanted it gone, at any cost. If that meant I’d never write again, so be it. Better to be unpublished and happy than published and miserable. And–this will come as a shock to some, and as an “oh, duh!” to others–once I was rid of my problem, I found I didn’t need it. I went on to publish a book that went so far as to be’s #1 seller in Canada for a couple of weeks–and the concept was something I thought of after therapy, so it’s not like I developed it in depression and saved it up for afterward–and then I published a handful of magazine articles across the Atlantic.

So take it from me. You can turn around, even when you think you have everything to lose by facing your problem and getting it fixed.

So how do you pray for someone who doesn’t want help?

I think it helps to remember that there is one prayer that God will always answer yes to, no matter who prays it, no matter when they pray it, and no matter how they pray it. When someone says get lost, God complies immediately. And when our lives without Him become so miserable that we can’t take it anymore and we want Him back, He’ll come back even more quickly than He left, if that’s possible. But I think those are the only two prayers that are guaranteed to be answered with a yes.

When a person doesn’t want help from you or me or their doctor or their therapist, they don’t want help from God either. And it’s not really in God’s character to butt in uninvited and give unwanted help to somebody. It seems like sometimes He intervenes anyway, but I have to wonder if it isn’t because His back was against the wall and He had to do it for somebody else’s sake. (This is just me talking; don’t get any ideas about me being a prophet or anything.)

So how do you effectively pray for someone in that situation?

I think it’s pretty simple. They have to want help. They have to want it enough to be willing to change. I knew I was on the right track when I wanted my depression gone so badly that I didn’t care if I ever wrote effectively again. I was willing to pay any price to beat my problem, including giving up the most important part of my identity.

You can’t truly be helped until your problem is so big and so crushing that you’re willing to do absolutely anything to get rid of it. My friend Mark once said that nobody knows that they have the will to survive until they really need it. I’d rather say nobody knows that they have the will to survive until they really want and need it. Mark would probably agree. He didn’t say it in so many words, but I got the distinct impression that he didn’t really want the will to survive until he had to pick out his own coffin. The problem wasn’t real to him until then. But something about picking out a coffin did it for him. But once the problem became real and he wanted to beat it, he did. “There’s no way… I was going to let them put me in that box,” he told me. And even though it was more than 10 years after the fact, he still had the determination of a marathon runner in his eyes when he talked about it.

So when a person doesn’t want help, I think it’s premature to pray for healing. Pray for the problem to become real to the person who has it. Pray for the problem to become crushing if necessary. Pray for something to happen that will make the person want help. At any price. It hurts to pray like that for someone you love. Even when you know God loves that person more than you do.

I know, as Christians we’re supposed to pray for miracles. But you know what? I’ve spent a lot of time around apathetic people. I think being cured of apathy is a bigger miracle than being cured of almost any disease. Praying that way still leaves plenty of room for God to work, which opens the door to lots of other nice possibilities, like praying with that person be so much better than merely praying for that person. And of course, that’s the perfect time to pray for that second miracle.

Recovery time.

Taxes. I think I’ve actually filed my taxes on time twice in my adult life. This year isn’t one of them. I filed Form 4868, so Tax Day for me is actually Aug. 15, 2002.
In theory Uncle Sam owes me money this year, so I shouldn’t owe any interest. I’ll have a professional accountant test that theory soon. Make that fairly soon, because it’d be nice to have that money, seeing as I expect to make the biggest purchase of my still-fairly-short life this year.

Some people believe filing a 4868 is advantageous. The thinking is this: Let the IRS meet its quota for audits, then file. That way, the only way you’re going to get audited is if you truly raise red flags, which I shouldn’t because I’m having a professional (and an awfully conservative one at that) figure the forms. That’s good. I’d rather not have to send a big care package off to the IRS to prove I’m not stealing from them.

Adventure. Steve DeLassus and I dove headlong into an adventure on Sunday, an adventure consisting of barbecue and Linux. I think at one point both of us were about ready to put a computer on that barbie.

We’ll talk about the barbecue first. Here’s a trick I learned from Steve: Pound your boneless chicken flat, then throw it in a bag containing 1 quart of water and 1 cup each of sugar and salt. Stick the whole shebang in the fridge while the fire’s getting ready. When the fire’s ready, take the chicken out of the bag and dry thoroughly. Since Steve’s not a Kansas Citian, he doesn’t believe in dousing the chicken in BBQ sauce before throwing it on the grill. But it was good anyway. Really good in fact.

Oh, I forgot. He did spray some olive oil on the chicken first. Whether that helps it brown or locks in moisture or both, I’m not quite sure. But olive oil contains good fats, so it’s not a health concern.

Now, Linux on cantankerous 486s may be a health concern. I replaced the motherboard in Steve’s router Sunday night, because it was a cranky 486SX/20. I was tired of dealing with the lack of a math coprocessor, and the system was just plain slow. I replaced it with a very late model 486DX2/66 board. I know a DX2/66 doesn’t have three times the performance of an SX/20, but the system sure seemed three times faster. Its math coprocessor, L2 cache, faster chipset, and much better BIOS helped. It took the new board slightly longer to boot Linux than it took the old one to finish counting and testing 8 MB of RAM.

But Debian wasn’t too impressed with Steve’s Creative 2X CD-ROM and its proprietary Panasonic interface. So we kludged in Steve’s DVD-ROM drive for the installation, and laughed at the irony. Debian installed, but the lack of memory (I scraped up 8 megs; Steve’s old memory wouldn’t work) slowed down the install considerably. But once Debian was up and running, it was fine, and in text mode, it was surprisingly peppy. We didn’t install XFree86.

It was fine until we tried to get it to act as a dialup router, that is. We never really did figure out how to get it to work reliably. It worked once or twice, then quit entirely.

This machine was once a broadband router based on Red Hat 6.1, but Red Hat installed way too much bloat so it was slow whenever we did have to log into it. And Steve moved into the boonies, where broadband isn’t available yet, so it was back to 56K dialup for him. Now we know that dialup routers seem to be much trickier to set up than dual-NIC routers.

After fighting it for nearly 8 hours, we gave up and booted it back into Freesco, which works reliably. It has the occasional glitch, but it’s certainly livable. Of course we want (or at least Steve wants) more features than Freesco can give you easily. But it looks like he’ll be living with Freesco for a while, since neither of us is looking forward to another marathon Debian session.

Nostalgia. A couple of articles on Slashdot got me thinking about the good old days, so I downloaded VICE, a program that can emulate almost every computer Commodore ever built. Then I played around with a few Commodore disk images. It’s odd what I do and don’t remember. I kind of remember the keyboard layout. I remembered LOAD “*”,8,1 loads most games (and I know why that works too, and why the harder-to-type LOAD “0:*”,8,1 is safer), but I couldn’t remember where the Commodore keyboard layout put the *.

I sure wish I could remember people’s names half as well as I remember this mesozoic computer information.

It stands on shaky legal ground, but you can go to and grab images for just about any Commodore game ever created. The stuff there is still covered by copyright law, but in many cases the copyright holder has gone out of business and/or been bought out several times over, so there’s a good possibility the true copyright holder doesn’t even realize it anymore. Some copyright holders may care. Others don’t. Others have probably placed the work in the public domain. Of course, if you own the original disks for any of the software there, there’s no problem in downloading it. There’s a good possibility you can’t read your originals anyway.

I downloaded M.U.L.E., one of the greatest games of all time. I have friends who swear I was once an ace M.U.L.E. player, something of an addict. I have absolutely no recollection of that. I started figuring out the controls after I loaded it, but nothing seemed familiar, that’s for sure. I took to it pretty quickly. The strategy is simple to learn, but difficult to master. The user interface isn’t intuitive, but in those days they rarely were. And in those days, not many people cared.

Spontaneous system reboots

Steve DeLassus asked me the other day what I would do to fix a PC that was rebooting itself periodically. It’s not him who’s having the problem, he says, it’s someone he knows. He must be trying to show up someone at work or on the Web or something.
So I gave him a few things I’d check, in order of likelihood.

Static electricity. A big static shock can send a system down faster than anything else I’ve seen. Keep a humidifier in the computer room to reduce static electricity. If you’re really paranoid, put a metal strip on your desk and connect it to ground (on your electrical outlet, not on your PC) and touch it before touching your PC. Some people metalize and ground part of their mouse pad. That’s a bit extreme but it works.

Power supply. This is the big one. A failing power supply can take out other components. And even if you have an expensive, big-brand box like a PCP&C or Enermax, they can fail. So I always keep a spare ATX power supply around for testing. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one–you just want something that can run the machine for a day or two to see if the problem goes away.
Overheating. Check all your fans to make sure they’re working. An overheated system can produce all sorts of weird behavior, including reboots. The computer we produced our school newspaper on back in 1996 tended to overheat and reboot about 8 hours into our marathon QuarkXPress sessions.

Memory. It’s extremely rare, but even Crucial produces the occasional defective module. And while bad memory is more likely to produce blue screens than reboots, it’s a possibility worth checking into. Download Memtest86 to exercise your memory.

CPU. If you’re overclocking and experiencing spontaneous reboots, cut it out and see what happens. Unfortunately, by the time these reboots become common, it may be too late. That turned out to be the case with that QuarkXPress-running PC I mentioned earlier. Had we replaced the fans with more powerful units right away, we might have been fine, but we ended up having to replace the CPU. (We weren’t overclocking, but this was an early Cyrix 6×86 CPU, a chip that was notorious for running hot.) Less likely today, but still possible.

Hard drive. I’m really reaching here. If you’re using a lot of virtual memory and you have bad sectors on your hard drive and the swapfile is using one or more of those bad sectors, a lot of unpredictable things can happen. A spontaneous reboot is probably the least of those. But theoretically it could happen.

Operating system. This is truly the last resort. People frequently try to run an OS that’s either too new or too old to be ideal on a PC of a particular vintage. If the system is failing but all the hardware seems to be OK, try loading the OS that was contemporary when the system was new. That means if it’s a Pentium-133, try Win95 on it. If it’s a P4, try Windows 2000 or Windows XP on it. When you try to run a five-year-old OS on a new system, or vice-versa, you can run into problems with poorly tested device drivers or a system strapped for resources.

Another good OS-related troubleshooting trick for failing hardware is to try to load Linux. Linux will often cause suspect hardware to fail, even if the hardware can run Windows successfully, because Linux pushes the hardware more than Microsoft systems do. So if the system fails to load Linux, start swapping components and try again. Once the system is capable of loading Linux successfully, it’s likely to work right in Windows too.

Troubleshooting advice: When you suspect a bad component, particularly a power supply, always swap in a known-good component, rather than trying out the suspect component in another system to see if the problem follows it. The risks of damaging the system are too great, particularly when you try a bad power supply in another system.

And, as always, you minimize the risks of these problems by buying high-quality components, but you never completely eliminate the risk. Even the best occasionally make a defective part.