The old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City

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

IT security vs. the construction industry

On the Risky Business podcast last week, Andrew Wilson, the CEO of Australian cryptography gear maker Senetas, stated that many businesses see the bad things that happen from poor IT security as just a cost of doing business.

Nothing revolutionary there. We’ve all seen it. Target is paying a steep price right now, but what about Michaels and Nieman Marcus? They got breached at the same time as Target, and nobody’s talking about them. Maybe Target thinks the cost of doing business got too high, and they’ve hired a CISO and I hear they’re hiring lots of new security personnel–I have coworkers and former coworkers in the Minneapolis area who tell me as much–but for Michaels and Nieman Marcus, the cost, at least so far, appears to have been manageable.

But Wilson added something that I hadn’t heard anywhere else before. Fifty years ago, he said, construction workers dying while building a large building was considered a cost of doing business. Fifty years ago that was normal. Today it’s unacceptable.

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What happened to the Crunden-Martin Manufacturing Co.

What happened to the Crunden-Martin Manufacturing Co.

Crunden-Martin was a manufacturer of wooden and metal household goods in downtown St. Louis for nearly 100 years, but sadly, the old complex has been sitting mostly or entirely empty since late 1990. Since there’s very little information online about the company, I thought I’d research it.

The imposing complex stands about a block south of the Poplar Street Bridge in downtown St. Louis, between I-55/I-44 and the Mississippi River. The painted signs on the building are still easy to see from the interstate.

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Is your neighbor hungry?

I heard something really disturbing in church this morning. Something not terribly surprising, I guess, but something that isn’t right. There are kids in that community that aren’t getting enough to eat.

I go to church in Oakville, Mo. Oakville is a sleepy, isolated, upper-middle class suburb along the Mississippi River. On the surface, it’s the picture of affluence: Nice cars, manicured lawns, big houses. But somehow, there are homeless people there. Or people who are having to choose between buying groceries or paying bills, apparently.

If it’s happening in Oakville, it’s happening other places.

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Airshows, photography and Linux routing

Gatermann and I went out shooting again yesterday. More exploration of the warehouse district, and we found out that the warehouse district is a halfway decent place to watch an airshow. A couple of cargo planes buzzed us, tipping us off to what was going on, so I went chasing. I’m not the airplane junkie my dad was (few people are), but I’m still a sucker for exotic military planes. I borrowed Gatermann’s telephoto lens and took shots as planes went by. A pair of vintage P-51 Mustangs zoomed by, so I got a few shots of those. A couple of modern fighters made a brief appearance, but I couldn’t get them into the lens quickly enough to identify them. Chances are they were F-16s; not as common a sight as they once were, but you still see them.
I was hoping for a chance to see the Stealth Bomber; about four years ago I was in St. Louis on the 4th and as Gatermann and I were stepping outside to go get something to eat, we heard a low rumble overhead, looked up, and got a spectacular view of the rarely seen and highly classified B-2. Of course there wasn’t a camera in sight so we didn’t get a shot.

This year, a B-52 came from out of nowhere. It was huge–I mean HUGE–and very obviously not an airliner. I’d never seen one in person before so I didn’t identify it immediately. I got it in the camera, zoomed in on it, and figured out what it was. I got several shots. The B-52 is an oldie but a goodie; we used it heavily in Vietnam and in the late 1970s we intended to replace it with the B-1. Carter cancelled the B-1; later Reagan re-initiated it, but it was a disappointment. The B-1 never fully replaced the B-52 and now there’s talk of decommissioning the B-1 completely.

The B-52 was followed by a series of stunt pilots. I guess that’s good for oohs and ahhs, but I wanted to see weird airplanes.

The grand finale was the B-1. It totally snuck up on me; I think Gatermann spotted the thing first. I recognized it but the camera couldn’t catch it–the autofocus wasn’t fast enough. I switched to manual focus and waited. And waited. I spotted it looping around on the east side of the river; most non-classified stuff makes two passes. But you can’t get a good shot from that distance with this lens. I never saw it come back. It didn’t really look like it was landing (Scott Air Force base is across the Mississippi River, in Illinois), but I couldn’t find the thing. I gave up, turned around, and started walking back when Tom yelled and pointed. I quickly turned around, and the B-1 was just barely in range. I pointed and shot as it disappeared behind a warehouse. I think I got it.

I shot more than a full roll of just airplanes.

After airplanes and lunch, we headed out to CompUSA. Gatermann wanted a KVM switch; I wanted Baseball Mogul 2002. A Belkin 4-port switch was $200. A Linksys was $150. Gatermann grabbed the Linksys. I came up empty on Baseball Mogul. We went back to his place, hooked up the Linksys, and it was a real disappointment. It doesn’t pass the third mouse button. Numlock doesn’t work. And it has a slight ghosting effect on the picture. I didn’t notice it but Gatermann did. Stepping the resolution down and lowering the refresh rate didn’t help a whole lot. He’ll be taking the Linksys back. (To Linksys’ credit, the box is made in Taiwan, though its wall wart is made in Red China. I’m not a fan of financing World War III, nor am I a fan of slave labor, so I try to avoid products made in Red China whenever possible. Gatermann does too. I’m not sure what his reasons are but Red China’s treatment of the seven prisoners of war after their pilot kamikazeed our spyplane probably has something to do with it.)

Bottom line: Belkin’s KVM switches are better. I like the Linksys’ metal case better than the plastic case on my Belkin, but the Belkin performs a lot better and its buttons feel more solid. I also like the ability to change displays from the keyboard, rather than having to reach over to the switch like the Linksys requires.

I’m generally not impressed with Linksys’ products. Their DSL router, though it looks really slick, doesn’t forward ports very well. If you just want to split off a cable or DSL connection, it’s great. If you want to learn how the Internet works and run some servers behind your firewall, it’s going to frustrate you. It’s just not as stable as Gatermann’s Pentium-75 running Freesco, which we cobbled together from a bunch of spare parts. Get a used Pentium-75 motherboard with 8 megs of RAM, put it in a $20 AT case along with a $15 floppy drive and a pair of $15 PCI NICs and download Freesco, and you have something much more versatile and reliable for half the price. And a lot of us have most of that stuff laying around already.

And Linksys network cards are absolute junk. Their workmanship isn’t good, their drivers aren’t stable, and the cards have a tendency to just die. Or they age really poorly, spitting out tons and tons of bad packets as they carry out their wretched lives. Netgears are much better, and not much more expensive.

I also gave Gatermann’s Linux configurations a look. Freesco didn’t appear to be forwarding port 80, even though we configured it to, and Apache was installed and I’d verified it was working by opening a browser and going to 127.0.0.1. I tried a variety of things–including forwarding the ports manually from a command line, using the ipportfw command if I remember right–but it never worked. Finally, I tried hitting the Web server from a Windows PC inside Gatermann’s private network. It was denied too. Workstation-oriented Linux distros tend to come locked down really tight by default these days, which is probably a good thing in general, but it makes it really hard to just turn on Web services to the world. I know it can be done but I wouldn’t know where to begin. So I had him download TurboLinux Server 6.5, which will probably solve all his web serving problems.

What can I say about Tuesday…?

Photography. Tom sent me links to the pictures he took on the roof of Gentry’s Landing a couple of weeks ago. He’s got a shot of downtown, the dome, and the warehouse district, flanked by I-70 on the west and the Mississippi River on the east.
I’m tired. I spent yesterday fighting Mac OS X for a couple of hours. It still feels like beta software. I installed it on a new dual-processor G4/533 with 384 MB RAM, and it took four installation attempts to get one that worked right. Two attempts just flat-out failed, and the installation said so. A third attempt appeared successful, but it felt like Windows 95 on a 16-MHz 386SX with 4 megs of RAM. We’re talking a boot time measured in minutes here. The final attempt was successful and it booted in a reasonable time frame–not as fast as Windows 2000 on similar hardware and nowhere near the 22 seconds I can make Win9x boot in, but faster, I think, than OS 9.1 would boot on the same hardware–and the software ran, but it was sluggish. All the eye candy certainly wasn’t helping. Scrolling around was really fast, but window-resizing was really clunky, and the zooming windows and the menus that literally did drop down from somewhere really got on my nerves.

All told, I’m pretty sure my dual Celeron-500 running Linux would feel faster. Well, I know it’d be faster because I’d put a minimalist GUI on it and I’d run a lot of text apps. But I suspect even if I used a hog of a user interface like Enlightenment, it would still fare reasonably well in comparison.

I will grant that the onscreen display is gorgeous. I’m not talking the eye candy and transparency effects, I’m talking the fonts. They’re all exceptionally crisp, like you’d expect on paper. Windows, even with font smoothing, can’t match it. I haven’t seen Linux with font smoothing. But Linux’s font handling up until recently was hideous.

It’s promising, but definitely not ready for prime time. There are few enough native apps for it that it probably doesn’t matter much anyway.

Admittedly, I had low expectations. About a year ago, someone said something to me about OS X, half in jest, and I muttered back, “If anyone can ruin Unix, it’s Apple.” Well, “ruin” is an awfully harsh word, because it does work, but I suspect a lot of people won’t have the patience to stick with it long enough to get it working, and they may not be willing to take the extreme measures I ultimately took, which was to completely reformat the drive to give it a totally clean slate to work from.

OS X may prove yet to be worth the wait, but anyone who thinks the long wait is over is smoking crack.

Frankly, I don’t know why they didn’t just compile NeXTStep on PowerPC, slap in a Mac OS classic emulation layer, leave the user interface alone (what they have now is an odd hybrid of the NeXT and Mac interfaces that just feels really weird, even to someone like me who’s spent a fair amount of time using both), and release it three years ago.

But there are a lot of things I don’t know.

I spent the rest of the day fighting Linux boot disks. I wanted the Linux equivalent of a DOS boot disk with Ghost on it. Creating one from scratch proved almost impossible for me, so I opted instead to modify an existing one. The disks provided at partimage.org were adequate except they lacked sfdisk for dumping and recreating partition tables. (See Friday if you don’t have the foggiest idea what I’m talking about right about now, funk soul brother.) I dumped the root filesystem to the HD by booting off the two-disk set, mounting the hard drive (mount -t ext2 /dev/hda1 /mnt) and copying each directory (cp -a [directory name] [destination]). Then I made modifications. But nothing would fit, until I discovered the -a switch. The vanilla cp command had been expanding out all the symlinks, bloating the filesystem to a wretched 10 megs. It should have been closer to 4 uncompressed, 1.4 megs compressed. Finally I got what I needed in there and copied it to a ramdisk in preparation for dumping it to a floppy. (You’ve gotta compress it first and make sure it’ll fit.) I think the command was dd if=/dev/ram0 bs=1k | gzip -v9 > [temporary file]. The size was 1.41 MB. Excellent. Dump it to floppy: dd if=[same temporary file from before] of=/dev/fd0 bs=1k

And that’s why my mind feels fried right now. Hours of keeping weird commands like that straight will do it to you. I understand the principles, but the important thing is getting the specifics right.

Why am I afraid of heights?

Well, our last photo shoot in the warehouse district didn’t go so well. Gatermann got some great shots, but the negatives ended up really hot and the processing lab didn’t know what to do with them, so the result was a bunch of washed-out pictures. The dark areas like the building and my black t-shirt ended up fine, but lighter areas, like, oh, my face, totally washed out.
So Tom Gatermann and I headed back out yesterday afternoon, with our buddy Tim Coleman tagging along. Tim provided comic relief; mostly at our expense. They found me a summer home–what looked like an abandoned ticket booth that was missing a door–and a couple of cars. One was an early eighties-something Oldsmobile with no tires. There was also a later-eighties GM car of some sort, smaller and front wheel-drive, also without tires. And there was an old Dodge van that had to have dated back to the late 70s. It had–honest–a Reagan ’84 bumper sticker on the back. On the other side it had a Bush ’88 bumper sticker. Tim noticed it first. I had to take a picture.

The warehouse district just seems to be the place to ditch a car that doesn’t run anymore and you don’t want to pay to tow away. Trust me–when you do, it doesn’t take long for people to start pillaging parts from it. You ditch your car, then the vultures swoop in and take anything usable from them. Strange system.

We ended up back at the old Cotton Belt Route Freight Depot. We explored that until about 8, then went off to get some dinner. Tim had told us about the place he was house-sitting. It’s an apartment on the 29th floor of The Gentry’s Landing, a high-rise downtown. It’s a corner apartment, with a great view of downtown and the Mississippi River. Open up the windows, and you can see it all. So after dinner we headed back there to check out how awful it is to be Tim these days. The view was every bit as spectacular as he said, and the windows were huge. I felt my fear of heights kick in when I stepped too close.

Out of curiosity, I looked the place up when I got home. Their apartment probably costs right around double what mine runs. Then again, it’s a whole lot bigger too.

Tom and I marveled at the view (Tom from right up against the window, me from the middle of the room), and then Tim said we ought to see it from the roof. So we headed up to the 29th floor, then took a flight of steps up onto the open roof. I proceeded–slowly–behind them. At one point Tim turned around. “We lost Dave. Oh,” then he looked my direction. I had trouble keeping up with them, and it wasn’t the soreness from the softball games. I hate heights. It’s weird, because I love airplanes, but get me high up in a building, or, worse yet, on the roof, and I go nuts.

Don’t get me wrong. It was nice. The breeze was fabulous up there, and the almost unobstructed view of St. Louis was great. From that distance, the Mississippi River is gorgeous. Turn your head and you see the Arch, I-70, the Trans World Dome… And it’s beautiful. Even I-70 is beautiful from that distance. I never knew an Interstate highway could be beautiful. I admired it all from the steps up to the main rail-enclosed platform. I looked around, all the while gripping the railing on the staircase, my hands dripping wet with cold sweat, my heart racing, and my legs tingling weirdly.

When Tom and Tim said, “Let’s go,” I didn’t argue. And somehow I moved a lot faster getting off the roof than I did getting on.

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