Bethlehem Lutheran Church sacrificed its sanctuary for a greater good

If all (or even a slim majority of) Lutheran churches were like Bethlehem Lutheran Church, I would still be Lutheran. Since they aren’t, I’m not.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself, and made this way too much about me.

Late last week, there was a big boom at the corner of Salisbury and North Florissant in the north St. Louis neighborhood of Hyde Park. It sounded like a truck wreck, but it turned out to be the wall and roof of a 120-year-old sanctuary crashing to the ground. Read more

I think I found my next major purchase

At Costco today, I found a solar-powered attic fan for $319. I’ve been thinking about an attic fan for a while. Solar power solves at least one problem very neatly: no need to run wiring to the thing.

The idea is that your attic can reach 150 degrees, and blowing that hot air out removes that heat blanket, so your living space stays cooler and your air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard.Supposedly the savings is around $200 a year. So the fan pays for itself in about a year and a half. Not to mention making the house more comfortable.

I’ll be paying someone to install it though. I hate roofs. I hate heights and have a peculiar talent for injuring myself. So it’s worth it to pay someone else to install it, even if it costs a year or two of the fan’s savings to do it.

It’s worth it. A savings of $200 a year is significant.

Playing around with LyX

In what little free time I’ve had the past few days (we have a project that has us in the midst of a death march at work), I’ve been messing around with LyX, a typesetting program for Windows, Unix, and most other operating sytems. I remember messing with it about six years ago, when there wasn’t much else resembling a word processor available for Linux, but this time, I’m more impressed with what I see.LyX is a front-end for a typesetting system called TeX. TeX was developed by the legendary computer scientist Don Knuth when he was dissatisfied with the appearance of his galley proofs for the second edition of The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth had an eye for fine typography, and because hand-set type was increasingly being replaced by machines, he looked for a way to make a computer play by the same set of rules that experienced typesetters have used for the past 500 years.

I had my first exposure to TeX when I was working on a business analysis project with Charlie Sebold. There was a department Charlie and I both did a lot of work for, and supporting these 8 users had ballooned into a full-time job in itself. We had an expensive contractor billing an average of 45 hours a week to the department alone over the course of a year, and when I replaced him, I wasn’t able to knock that down much below 40. We believed there was something wrong with a department of 8 users spending $200,000 a year in computer support. Come to think of it, that may have something to do with why I don’t work there anymore, but I digress. Charlie and I embarked on a project to figure out what we could do to cut those costs. I don’t remember anymore how the writing duties got split up, but Charlie typeset the report in TeX. I remember him being surprised to hear that I didn’t know much about TeX, especially since I had written a book for O’Reilly at that point, and if you look at the early O’Reilly books, they look like they were produced by TeX on the default settings.

Well, intentionally or unintentionally, using TeX for the report was a stroke of brilliance, because the most influential people in the department were design snobs, and TeX produces better-looking output than anything PageMaker could ever do. The text is beautifully justified, with no rivers through it, and the kerning is always set just right, and it will even use ligatures when appropriate. Basically, it does all of the hallmarks of elegant design that they taught me in journalism school–stuff that takes hours to do by hand–and it does it in minutes.

So when Charlie handed that report out at the first meeting, he got us a whole bunch of instant credibility.

What I like about LyX is that it removes the markup stage from TeX. You apply an appropriate document style–book, letter, article, report, or whatever–and you mark lines as whatever they happen to be–standard paragraphs, headings, chapter titles, document titles, author, or whatever–and it handles all of the layout and everything else for you. It’ll even generate the table of contents for you. And if you want an index, just flag words as you write or edit, and it can generate an index.

It also handles the most frustrating aspect of writing that I faced when I was writing my book back in 1999. A good book shouldn’t spent a lot of time repeating itself, so there’ll be times when you’ll refer the reader to a specific chapter, or even a specific page. The problem is, these things change. I not only re-ordered the chapters about halfway through the writing process, I actually took a couple of chapters, combined the like topics, and turned them into two completely differently titled chapters. Finding my cross-references and keeping them straight was such a pain that I really didn’t do it all that much. With LyX, cross-references are easy. You just label a section, and insert a cross-reference to the label, and it inserts the page number and the name of the section for you. You can put a cross-reference on every page and not slow down a bit.

Now that I’ve spent a few hours with it, I heartily recommend LyX. In college I found I got better grades when I turned in papers using fonts other than Times and Arial, and the output from LyX adds a whole new degree of elegance to it. Succeeding in college is as much about playing the game as it is anything else, and LyX gives you that slight edge.

And, as you might suspect, I’ve been playing with LyX for a reason. I’m writing again. Over the course of the past year, I’ve prepared a 133-page manuscript (that’s single-spaced Times with no pretty pictures or formatting, so it’s more than it sounds). I’m in the process of editing and typesetting it now. It’s highly specialized, so I’ll be self-publishing it, rather than using a publisher. I’ll be happy if it sells 1,000 copies and thrilled if it sells 10,000, and no publisher is willing to touch a book anymore if they think a book will only sell 10,000 copies. If it sells 1,000 copies, it will have been worth my while to write. Modern print-on-demand technology makes that a much safer risk than it was in 1999, when I wrote and published my first book.

And while there are times when the help of a traditional publisher definitely makes a better book, I think this is a case where I can create a better product working on my own.

I’ll keep you posted.

A Bing in Marx clothing

The sign said "50% off all items $25 and under. Other items, make offer." I spied a table full of beat-up Marx trains. I picked through them. There were two 3/16 scale tinplate boxcars and cabooses, paired with a Marx Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive, marked as a "set." Price: $79. At least two of the cars were missing wheels and the loco had bad paint. Heaven only knew if it ran. The bundle wasn’t worth $20. Likewise for a six-inch bundle. Two common six-inch cars, rusty and one missing a coupler, paired with a locomotive with no wheels or engine or paint–about 90% naked, except for rust–for $65. I’d have been willing to pay $7.

I almost overlooked the three six-inch passenger cars that were almost completely devoid of paint. It’s a good thing I didn’t.At first glance, they looked like Marx 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t do 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t know why; I just don’t like ’em. Then I noticed that one of the cars had wheels that were too big for Marx. I picked it up and flipped it over. It had an uppercase "B" and the words "Made in Germany."

I looked at the price. "Set of 3. $39."

Now let me tell you the significance of the words "Made in Germany." Before World War I, most toy trains were made in Germany. The market leaders were Bing, which was the world’s largest toy company, and Maerklin, which was the company that everybody copied. The biggest U.S. maker was a company called Ives. Some upstart called Lionel was giving all of them a run for the money, but it was an also-ran. After the war, Ives and American Flyer lobbied successfully for protection, essentially pricing the Germans out of the U.S. market.

So this Bing car probably dates back to before World War I.

I picked up the other two cars in the set. "Made in U.S.A. The Lionel Corporation." Ah, so they weren’t a set. I double-checked them to make sure they would couple together. They weren’t a perfect match but they fit. And the wheel height was right.

Well, like I said, I don’t do six-inch passenger cars. Especially six-inch passenger cars that have no paint or have been badly repainted. But these weren’t just any six-inch passenger cars. And even though they were almost completely devoid of paint, amazingly they had little or no rust anywhere on them.

I hesitated. Then I ran through in my mind the value of the cars as parts. The wheels and axles were all in good shape. The couplers were all usable. The roofs were all nice and straight and even had decent paint jobs on them, considering their likely age. The frames were pretty straight. The bodies weren’t perfectly straight but they also weren’t dented, and they were rust-free. They were easily worth $20 as parts, I figured.

So I offered $20. The cashier looked at the price tag, then accepted without hesitation.

Still, it took me a while to justify my purchase. Call it shellshock from looking at Marx priced at 10x book value.

I explained it to my girlfriend this way. Yes, a Standard Gauge Lionel locomotive–the big mamas with the wheels 2 1/8 inches apart–is worth a minimum of $500 if it looks decent. It doesn’t even have to run. Cars are also worth a couple hundred apiece. Some rare sets go for five figures. Lots of people know this, so they automatically assume that any toy train is worth a small fortune.

Reality check: Lionel quit making those trains in 1938 because nobody could afford them. They’re worth that kind of money because they’re old and rare. And they look really cool. But Lionel made millions of trains in the 1950s and they ran forever. With few exceptions, they’re common and cheap. Marx made even more of them. You could buy Marxes anywhere with the change in your pocket. They’re even more common and even cheaper.

It’s like baseball cards. A 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card is worth a million dollars in best-possible condition. But that doesn’t mean my 1983 Johnny Bench baseball cards are worth even $100. They’re probably not even worth $10.

Back to the trains. What else can I tell from looking at them?

I found traces of red paint on the two Lionels and a slightly larger remnant of yellow paint on the German car (I’m guessing it’s a Bing, since the largest German makers were Maerklin, Bing, and Fandor, and only Bing starts with a "B"). I suspect the Lionels were red with black doors, roof, and frame, and the Bing was yellow with black doors, roof, and frame.

As for their age, no doubt they’re pre-War. Only Marx bothered to make six-inch tinplate cars after World War II. And since Bing had difficulty selling trains in the United States after World War I, the Bing might predate World War I. Lionel didn’t catalog O gauge trains until 1913 and they weren’t widely available until 1915. So maybe these are the same age as the Bing, or maybe the Bing is slightly older.

I set them up on a piece of display track. They looked pretty good there. Definitely rustic, but not bad.

But toy trains are meant to run. Even 90-year-old ones. I checked the coupler height against my postwar Marx 551 tender ($4 at Marty’s last week). It fit. I put the three cars on my track on my layout behind the tender, and lashed the tender up to my Marx 490 locomotive ($12 off eBay a few months ago). It looked good. I applied power. The Marx strained, but it pulled them.

After a few laps, I realized those cars probably haven’t seen oil in a good 70 years, maybe more. So I oiled the wheels and axles and spun the wheels to make sure they turned freely. I ran the Marx again, and it pulled them without difficulty.

I probably have no choice but to restore the cars. I expect they’ll rust quickly in my humid house, and chances are what paint remains on them is lead-based. I don’t want toys with lead-based paint in my house. So I’ll strip them down–I hear a long bath in a bucket of generic imitation Pine-Sol is all it takes–and repaint them after I manage to research how the cars were originally painted and lettered.

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