The kind of guy who could save America

I went to several estate sales today (it’s what I do on Saturdays, after all), but one was memorable. Some sales just jump out at you, and this one had evil genius/mad scientist written all over it.The estate belonged to a man named Carl. From what I could gather, Carl was Catholic, diabetic, and from my wife’s comments, must not have been married at the time he died. She mostly stayed upstairs while I rollicked around in the basement, which was tinkerer’s heaven.

“This guy was just like you!” my wife marveled when I resurfaced once. Well, she’s half right. I very much would have liked Carl. And yes, Carl liked computers and models and trains and didn’t see any point in buying anything he could make himself. But Carl’s knowledge of physics and other sciences went far, far beyond mine, as did his knowledge of electronics. I pulled out box after box after box of electronic components. Some of the stuff was pretty new, and some of it obviously dated to the early 1970s, if not earlier. It pains me to think most of that stuff is going to get thrown away, but there’s no sense in me buying it, even for pennies on the dollar, when I don’t know what it is, let alone what to do with it.

It’s entirely possible that Carl and I did cross paths, sort of. In the 1980s and early 1990s, BBSing was a common hobby among people who enjoyed electronics, amateur radio, and computers. People exactly like Carl. For that matter, it’s possible he might not have just dialed into BBSs, he fit the stereotype of a BBS operator like a hand in a glove. Who knows, maybe Carl ran a BBS I used to call.

Digging around Carl’s work area, I found lots of different things. I bought some moldmaking supplies and casting resin, Bondo body filler, and some tools. Carl took care of his tools. But on his workbench, I found a single file laying there that still had metal shavings on it. Perhaps Carl died before he was finished with it and cleaned it. I found a brush, cleaned off the file, and could picture Carl looking down, nodding approval. I bought the file and the brush. Both were better than the ones I owned previously.

Unfortunately, Carl is the type of person our society has been trained to fear, rather than respect, especially during this decade. I found plenty of literature that Homeland Security wouldn’t approve of. Instructions for making Tesla coils, and lots of instructions for making things that go boom in the back yard. I also found literature that dealt with alternative car fuels, converting cars to electric power, and generating your own electricity.

He was also obviously very interested in robotics and using computers to control things. In a spare bedroom, I found a pile of old Timex Sinclair 1000 computers and peripherals. He added I/O ports to most of them, and hacked another one to use a Texas Instruments keyboard instead of the cheap membrane keyboard that came with it. He must have used that Sinclair for programming. Another spare bedroom had a couple of barely started robotics projects.

Unfortunately, many people look at people like Carl, and are too quick to label him a deviant, or worse yet, a terrorist. The label is unfair. In fact, during natural disasters, amateur radio operators often are the people with the best information early, giving invaluable information to relief workers.

But the most important thing is the tendency not to think within the boundaries that “normal” people usually confine themselves to. Among his things, I found a book titled How to Patent Your Ideas.

Now I don’t know what kind of ideas he had floating in his head. As far as I can tell, he never published any of them (I have his last name, and I searched out of curiosity).

But with all this talk today about energy independence, I think it’s great that some guy in Crestwood, Missouri was thinking along those lines. I don’t know if any of those thoughts turned into anything tangible or not. But frankly, that kind of work is important–much more so than the tinkering I’m doing in my basement, which so far has resulted only in some wooden toys for my son to play with, and metal toys for me.

We need some new ideas, rather than just buying everything from abroad. I know there are still people like Carl out there, but I hope they aren’t a dying breed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden desire to go see what I can do with some of the tools I bought from Carl’s workbench.

Don’t expect this week’s gas-out to solve anything

Last Saturday a woman standing in line with my wife and I told us not to buy gas on May 15.

She beamed at her Ford Super Duty pickup. She said she’s tired of paying so much to fill it, and she’s looking forward to sticking it to the gas companies.

The gas companies love people like her.Voluntarily not buying gas on May 15 won’t solve anything because people are just going to buy more gas on May 14 or May 16. My wife sees this effect on her business, on a smaller scale, all the time. On and around April 15, she doesn’t sell much because people just paid their tax bills. So the cashflow dips, but then the customers are back with a vengeance within a couple of weeks. To a lesser extent, the same thing happens on most major holidays.

Business is like that. Every business has at least a few slow days in a year.

Gas-outs have been happening ever since the beginning of Gulf War II. I remember people at work talking about one in 2002, and another one in 2003. I’m sure there have been some since then but my e-mail filters usually catch them.

In case you don’t remember, in April 2002, gas jumped to $1.40-plus a gallon. Then in September of 2003, it surged to $1.70-plus a gallon, then it backed down into $1.50 territory. By mid-2004, we were in $2.00 territory, and it’s been there ever since. Well, except when it’s been $3 a gallon, that is.

Did you ever think $1.40 gas would sound good?

Gas prices are high right now primarily for two reasons. One is investor speculation. You can buy gasoline futures the same way you would buy stocks. And right now it’s a much safer bet that $100 invested in gasoline right now will be worth more in August than the same amount of money invested in, say, Time-Warner stock. So investors with a Las Vegas mentality (and there are lots of them) have been investing in gasoline and, in some cases, crude oil, which is the raw material gasoline is made from.

The second factor is, well, we’ve proven time and again that we’ll pay these high prices. We’ve been paying $2 a gallon for gasoline for three years. When gas prices go up, there’s no incentive for the oil companies to rush to fix the problem that caused prices to go up. We keep buying gas, and they keep raking in record profits year after year.

There are a couple of things we can do to drive gas prices down again. But none of them are short-term fixes.

Basically, we’ve gotta burn less gas. Driving less helps. Instead of running to the store the minute you remember you need something, make a list, plan out a route, and go get everything in one trip. Google Maps has a cool new feature now where you can punch in a destination, then add multiple destinations, and drag them around to try to find the optimal route and cut down on backtracking. Every little bit helps. I use this web site every single weekend. Besides saving me gas, it almost always saves me more time than I end up spending planning the trip in the first place.

But that Super Duty pickup truck is an even bigger part of the problem. Every day when I go to work, I see people driving ever-bigger pickup trucks. Or Chevy Suburbans. Pickup trucks are designed to haul cargo, while Suburbans are designed to haul families. As commuter vehicles, they’re doing neither. At 12 miles per gallon, all they’re really doing is burning a lot of gas.

My Honda Civic burns 1/3 the fuel that a pickup truck burns. It’s not even a hybrid. I get mad when it costs me $36 to fill its tank. But when a pickup truck with a 30-gallon tank is sitting on empty, you’re looking at $90 to fill it.

Most of us only haul stuff on weekends. Given that it costs $30 to rent a U-Haul, you would be better off driving a Civic during the week and renting a U-Haul on the days you need to haul a lot of stuff. Odds are you’ll find you really only need a lot of cargo space a few times a year anyway.

The same logic can apply to large vans and SUVs. A lot of people buy those and justify them by saying they go on a trip once or twice a year and they need to haul a lot of luggage and extra family members. Considering that monster vehicle is costing you anywhere from $30 to $60 a week more to drive than a passenger car costs, it’s costing you about $1,500 a year to drive that thing. And that’s just in gas–it’s not even counting the higher monthly payments. It would be a lot cheaper to rent the thing twice a year. Even renting a 15-passenger van would be cheaper.

And if you rented those vehicles when you needed them and drove a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla the rest of the time, you’d be burning 1/3 the fuel you’d otherwise burn. Drive a hybrid, and you might be able to drop that down to 1/4 or so.

Imagine what would happen if 100 million households decided to cut the amount of fuel they burn by a third. That would actually stand a chance of causing fuel prices to drop permanently.

I think the government ought to try to sweeten the pot a bit, offering incentives for owning any fuel-efficient vehicle, not just hybrids, in order to encourage this to happen more quickly. But that would make sense, and petroleum companies and most auto manufacturers would oppose it, so I don’t expect it to happen.

But as long as people keep driving huge vehicles with capabilities they only use a handful of times a year, and just complain about sky-high gas prices, those prices will stay high. Complaining alone doesn’t accomplish anything.

I’ve talked economics enough, so if anyone’s still reading, hopefully you’ll indulge me for a few minutes. Every time I turn around, I hear about the problems with the possible solutions to the gasoline. Ethanol, biodiesel, and hybrids all have their problems.


Why aren’t we combining them?

The fact is, hybrids do save energy that otherwise gets wasted, and if you drive them correctly, that means better fuel economy. So a gallon of ethanol gets fewer miles per gallon than a gallon of gasoline. Wouldn’t a hybrid ethanol/electric engine more than make up the difference?

Biodiesel isn’t quite as efficient as petroleum diesel. But diesel fuel of any type gets more miles per gallon than gasoline. Why aren’t we building hybrid diesel/electric engines to reap even bigger benefits?

And why are plug-in hybrids only available as hacks by garage tinkerers? If you plug in your hybrid, you can do your local stop-and-go type driving entirely on electricity and not burn a drop of gasoline. Why isn’t this benefit available to the masses?

And why not take it a step further? My car sits in the hot sun in a parking lot for 8 hours a day, five days a week. What if it were a hybrid with solar panels, using those solar panels to charge the battery? Of course the benefit wouldn’t be the same as plugging the car in overnight, but the energy doesn’t cost anything either, aside from the cost of the solar panels.

Maybe there’s a good reason why a diesel/electric hybrid that plugs into the 110 outlet my garage and has solar panels on it doesn’t exist. But the light bulb didn’t exist either, until Thomas Edison decided its benefits outweighed the pain required to invent it.

Maybe there’s someone out there who knows how to build the thing. The world would be a better place if someone would.

The tipping point of obsolesence

Gatermann just sent me a link to a $33 Dell P3-500 at Surplus Computers. It got both of us feeling old, because the day when that was a hot machine doesn’t seem long ago at all to either of us.

My initial reaction: That’s a lot of computer for 33 bucks. You get a 500 MHz CPU, 128 megs of RAM, and a 6 gig hard drive.

And then I got to thinking about it some more. I can think of people who could get by with that machine, but there’s a good reason why the P3-500’s star has fallen and you can get one for $33 without feeling like you’re at a Who concert.I guess first and foremost, you don’t get an operating system. That’s fine; OEM copies of XP home are cheap enough. Older versions of Windows are even cheaper because nobody wants them.

But even if you’re running 2000, you really want a minimum of 256 megs of RAM. For XP you want more than that; my mother-in-law’s PC, which is a Compaq with some flavor of Athlon in it, really drags these days because it only has 256 megs.

So I bopped on over to Crucial to see what I’d need to make that old Dell Optiplex GX1 rev its engine. And the price of a 256-meg DIMM was (sit down): $77.

So to max out the memory on this $33 machine, you’d need to spend another $231.

Gatermann just bought a gig of PC3200 DDR memory for $98.

So rather than spend $231 on 768 megs of PC133 SDRAM, you’d literally be better off buying the PC3200 and getting a $50 motherboard and a $60 CPU to put on it.

Trouble is, this is a Dell. You can’t swap off-the-shelf motherboards into a Dell. Some Dell cases will take a standard board, but you’ll have to replace the power supply. But the GX1 doesn’t use an ATX board.

That’s why this system costs 33 bucks. It’s pretty much at a dead end, and the memory it uses is no longer a mass-market item, so its price is inflated. It’s the same thing that happened to the 72-pin EDO SIMMs we used to put in our original Pentiums–you know, the ones that topped out at 233 MHz.

It’s a great machine for a tinkerer who happens to have a lot of PC100 or PC133 memory around, or for the Ebay addict. Obsolescent memory always sells more cheaply on Ebay.

I’ve always been in favor of upgrading a computer until it no longer makes economic sense to do so. If you’ve ever wondered when that is, this is a classic example.

Recapturing the charm of Dad’s Lionel train

I unboxed Dad’s old Lionel train Monday night. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Dad’s train led a rough life. My investigative reporting skills tell me he got the train sometime between 1949 and 1952, and then sometime after 1953 he got a new locomotive and cars. And then sometime in the 1960s, the trains ended up in a box. I remember him telling me it came out a few times in the 1970s for Christmas, but most of my memories of Dad’s train are four big pieces of plywood with rusty track mounted on it, sitting in the garage next to a stack of repurposed liquor boxes containing train parts.

Finally, when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my incessant pestering paid off and the train found a new home in the basement. Dad and I plugged the track back together, and Dad wired the transformer. Then Dad produced two locomotives out of one of the boxes. Dad’s fanciest locomotive didn’t work at all. The smaller locomotive sputtered and sparked when he put it on the track. That was more than the fancy one did. Dad’s answer to everything mechanical was WD-40, so he went back up to the garage, got the can off the top of the gun safe (there was always a can of WD-40 on top of Dad’s gun safe), came back down, and blasted the locomotive with several spurts of the tinkerer’s favorite. (Incidentally, for those of you here seeking advice on trying to get an old Lionel train to run, this isn’t a good idea.) This time, when Dad put it on the track, the train produced a lot more sparks and a lot more noise, and it even moved a little bit. He picked it back up and blasted it again, with similar results. I asked Dad why the WD-40 helped. He said it would lubricate the moving parts, but it’s also a conductor of electricity.

Dad eventually gave up and started paying more attention to the football game. I ran the train around the track a few times by hand. When I was in the fifth grade, this was more interesting to me than football. For that matter, it might still be more interesting to me than football. When I got bored with that, I decided to go over to the transformer and give the train some juice. The train hesitated, and it sure didn’t move fast, but it moved. I gave it some more juice, and it chugged its way around the track, gradually picking up more speed and creaking less. The more we ran it, the better it got. We started adding scenery. There wasn’t much of anything realistic about it, and Dad didn’t have much scenery short of a plastic diner and two train stations, but it was fun.

Well, we moved a couple more years later, and the train found itself back in boxes again. Eventually it made its way out of the boxes and into the new basement. If I remember right, this was Dad’s doing, and not mine. The second time around, Dad spent more time with the train than I did. But after I went off to college and my parents finished the basement, the train went back into boxes. After Dad died, the trains stayed in boxes in Mom’s basement. After I bought a house, one weekend the trains showed up in my basement, where they stayed for about a year, until this week.

What I found this week was a trio of dusty engines, three trailing tender cars, bits and pieces of scenery, one caboose, and a whole lot of rusty track. That was one more locomotive than I remembered and a lot fewer cars than I remembered. I suspect there’s still a box or two of train cars somewhere in Mom’s basement.

One of the locomotives was very clearly missing a few pieces. I set it aside. I recognized one of the others as the plain-Jane locomotive Dad and I first messed with. The other one was fancier. I took eight straight pieces and eight curved pieces and made a circle. One of the straight pieces had the contact piece for the transformer, so I connected the transformer with two pieces of wire. I put the fancy locomotive on the track, fired up the transformer, and recalled the episode from 17 years earlier.

I skipped the WD-40 this time. I didn’t have any, and the residue it leaves behind tends to attract dust, making the situation it was supposed to correct worse in the long run. I grabbed the other train. It was about as lively as I am first thing in the morning, but it made noise and it moved. I gave it a little push, and it moved even better.

Eventually I searched the Internet, and I consulted with Tom and his mechanically inclined sidekick Tim, and they suggested I clean the track with some 600-grit sandpaper to remove the oxidation. After doing that, both locomotives ran pretty well.

As for the engines, the first thing you want to do is use a soft brush to remove any dust you can find, both on the visible surfaces of the cars and locomotive but especially on the underside. The most common advice suggests a small, soft paintprush. I didn’t have one, so I ended up using an old soft-bristled toothbrush. That was fine, but you want to make sure it’s a soft-bristled one, such as an Oral-B. A paintbrush would definitely be gentler. The idea here is to get the dust off the equipment so it doesn’t find its way onto the track or, worse yet, inside the engine where it can gum up the gears and motor(s).

Next, use a light grease to lubricate the gears and a light machine oil to lubricate the other moving parts. I didn’t have any grease, but I have a little tube of oil I use to keep my electric razor working well, so I applied some of that to a toothpick and lubed some of the moving parts on the two engines. Honestly, I don’t know how much of a difference the oil made. It seems to me that just running the engines, pushing them around the track with power applied until they were able to move on their own, made a bigger difference than anything else I did.

If the only lubricant you have handy is WD-40, skip it. If you happen to have some compressed air, blasting some of that into the crevices after you’ve done a job with the brush probably will knock loose some more of the gunk that’s accumulated inside, but I wouldn’t bother unless the engine isn’t running well.

It doesn’t seem to take much to get a vintage Lionel working again.

There’s a train store on the way home from work that has a Lionel sign in the window. I stopped in on my way home tonight. I bought a very overpriced Lionel-branded maintenance kit–for $14.50 I got a little tube of oil, a little tube of grease, a bottle of some substance with the words “track cleaner” and “biodegradable” on the outside, and a pencil eraser. I bought it mostly for the directions on the back, and to hopefully help ensure that train store will be there a little bit longer.

Perusing the store and perusing the awesome Postwar Lionel Trains Library, I found out, not to my great surprise, that few of the pieces I’d unboxed were particularly rare. The only rarity was Dad’s caboose. That did surprise me. It wasn’t popular, so it wasn’t made very long, so now it attracts interest. Figures. But that’s how it always goes with collectibles.

The store had an elaborate Lionel layout in the front, with three trains and a level of detail I’m more used to seeing in HO- and N-gauge layouts. They used an aftermarket track with wooden ties and the middle rail painted black to make the notoriously unrealistic O-gauge track look much more like real track. The new locomotives had digitized sound effects and the whole layout operated by remote control. I have to admit, it was pretty impressive. But the cars and the engines looked cheaper and flimsier than Dad’s stuff made in the fifties.

“For $130 I can add sound effects to your old engine,” he said when I looked less impressed than most people probably are.

It sounded like a cool idea. But for now, I don’t think I want to mess with that. This set’s charm isn’t just about trains, and I’m not sure if jaw-dropping whiz-bang technology would enhance that charm or just cover it up.

DietLinux — a Linux that boots in under 10 seconds

The tinkerer in me just couldn’t stay away. I saw a reference on Linux Weekly News to DietLinux and had to look at it.
DietLinux is an example of a Linux distribution that can’t properly be called GNU/Linux, because the majority of its userspace didn’t come from the GNU project. GNU’s libc–the main API for Unixish systems, and I’ll call Linux a Unix just to hack off SCO–is replaced with an alternative, trimmed-down libc called dietlibc. It’s not feature-complete but it’s tiny. Those of you who programmed casually in the 1980s and 1990s probably remember a day when you could write a fairly sophisticated program in a few kilobytes. Under modern operating systems, a simple program that simply emits “Hello, world!” can take up 32K or more. Using dietlibc instead of GNU’s libc shrinks that program back down to a couple of kilobytes.

The majority of DietLinux’s userspace comes from Felix von Leitner, the author of dietlibc. Von Leitner reimplemented init–the program that bootstraps a Unix system once the kernel is loaded–and getty, which is the program that handles text-based logins. These unglamorous programs can eat up a fair chunk of memory, and since Unix systems typically go for long periods of time without being rebooted, it’s a bit of a waste unless you need certain features provided by the more traditional init and getty programs. He also wrote replacements for several standard utilities.

Obviously, not every program in the world designed for glibc will compile and run under dietlibc, so DietLinux won’t ever be a complete general-purpose distribution. But for network infrastructure glue-type servers providing services like firewalling, DNS and DHCP (all of which already function), it would be perfect.

I don’t know what the future plans for DietLinux are. The asmutils provide an impressive number of userspace and server utilities, written in assembly language with very low overhead, and would appear to be a nice complement to DietLinux’s infrastructure. Their use would limit DietLinux to x86, however. And the text editor e3 is tiny, full-featured, and emulates keybindings for vi, emacs, WordStar, and Pico, so it’s friendly to pretty much any command-line jockey regardless of heritage and takes little space.

It’s also not a newbie distribution. Installation requires a fair bit of skill and pretty much requires an existing Linux system to bootstrap it.

But it’s definitely something I want to keep an eye on. I’m highly tempted to put it on one of my 486s. I just wish I had more time to mess around with it.

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