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A story of a truck, some trains, a vet, and a possible scam

I think I’ve been taken for another Internet scam.

Of course the Internet is ripe for this kind of thing. The story of Kaycee Nicole Swenson is one infamous example. Unfortunately I fell for that one too, although not as hard as some people did. All I really wasted in that case was some bandwidth and a little disk space. That’s more than I can say for the people who sent her gifts and other things.Some people are skeptical of everything they see online. When I was younger, it made me mad. Not anymore.

People can come and go as they please with their blogs, but forums are an even easier target. Back in April, a disabled veteran showed up on a forum that I frequent. He had an interest in trains. My father in law, Jerry, was a disabled Vietnam vet. Jerry was hit by machine gun fire the first time he saw combat and received a Purple Heart. He never walked without a brace again. I don’t want to say the time in Vietnam ruined Jerry’s life, but it certainly sent everything off in a different direction.

By the time I met Jerry, he wasn’t bitter. He shared my love of baseball. He was a rabid Cardinals fan, so we’d talk baseball. We’d also talk about playing baseball and softball, because we both used to be outfielders. It’s always fun to hear another person’s take on playing the position you played. The difference was that at 29, I could still play center field. By 29 I had almost certainly lost a step out there, but my loss was due to age. At 29, all Jerry could do was coach. Jerry’s loss was from serving his country in an ill-advised war.

Jerry died in 2005. He had cancer, but his treatment was working, or so we thought. Then one day he started having a lot more abdominal pain than he was used to having. One Saturday afternoon they took him to the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine visit to find out what was going on with the pain, and he never went home.

I didn’t know Jerry very long, but he certainly influenced my life. Jerry was the first person who told me I could be completely debt-free in seven years or less. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. Now I probably had those tendencies before I met Jerry, and maybe I would have gone down that road regardless. But the first time I ever heard the idea was sitting on a porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, drinking coffee with Jerry.

I miss Jerry.

When I heard this guy’s story, something reminded me of Jerry.

He came from out of nowhere. He’d bought this old Lionel train at a garage sale. He was a disabled veteran (I can’t remember if it was Gulf War I and Gulf War II, or just Gulf War II), he shopped at garage sales, and he liked Lionel trains. What was there not to like about him?

But there was more to it. He was young, was married and had a kid or two while he was in the war, was wounded in combat, and when he came home, his wife and kids had left him. He’d served his country and nearly died and lost everything that meant anything to him in the process.

Regardless of what you think of Gulf War II, that story tugs at your heartstrings.

I wanted to help this guy. It started with me offering him some advice on getting that old train running. It was similar to a train that had belonged to my Dad. I’d worked on that kind of thing before, and I had some books with some advice in them. He never did get it running. I couldn’t tell if the problem was his locomotive or the track, so I offered to send him a cheap Marx locomotive and a loop of track. He told me he would have a hard time paying me. I told him not to worry about it because the stuff I was sending was probably worth about $10. It wasn’t; a fair price for it probably would have been closer to $20. It all shipped for about $7. Regardless, we aren’t talking huge sums of money. I can make that in an hour, and it would probably take more than an hour’s work to extract that value out of the stuff.

He thanked me profusely, but then I never heard from him again. Not directly, at least. I assume the box got to him, both because it’s unusual for a package that size to get lost in the mail, and because he made reference on the forum to having a Marx locomotive. But he came back with weekly tales about his garage sale finds. Part of me was a bit suspicious. He was finding stuff every week. I go to a lot of garage sales. I get up about 6 or 6:30 every Saturday morning, drive all over the St. Louis metro area, and the only time I’m home before noon is during December or January when there are only a couple of sales to hit. There have been days that I’ve gone out at 6 am and come home at 2 pm. I find trains about once or twice a month, and it’s probably about half as often that what I find is priced realistically.

He’s not exactly from a small town, but the metro area is 1/10 the size of St. Louis. There’s every reason to believe he should find about 1/10 the number of trains I find. Maybe less, since much of that area was probably still farmland when Lionel was in its glory days.

Looking back, I probably should have sensed some Tom Foolery going on.

I guess a lot of people started giving this guy some stuff. Train hobbyists can be pretty generous. Stuff we’ll never use tends to accumulate in boxes underneath our layouts, and the stuff we don’t give away probably won’t ever see the outside of that box for a very long time. It’s always been an unwritten rule to let useless stuff go to someone who can make better use of it. I’ve made a few trades in the past with people I’ve met online and never had any trouble. In most cases, I think we both walked away thinking we got the better end of the deal. And that’s how a deal should end–with both parties happy.

Then one day the guy disappeared. That happens. We get busy with other things sometimes. Word came that he was in the hospital. Then he reappeared. He had fantastic stories about his various medical conditions. Only there was one problem–other people on the forum had been in the hospital for the same thing, and the things he was saying weren’t consistent.

Then some people from other forums, one related to remote control cars, boats and planes and another related to the military, came looking for him and posted on the train forum. He’d told similar stories there–but the differences in the stories he told in each forum contradicted each other.

I’ve bounced back and forth between thinking whether it was a scam or just a misunderstanding. At first I wasn’t sure that I cared. Like I said, I’m out about $27. I can recover from that. But there are other people who are out a lot more than $27. At least one person sent him a brand new train set. After shipping, they were probably out closer to $300. Does that guy make 10 times what I make? Not likely.

Actually, I was wrong about not ever hearing from him again. He e-mailed a whole bunch of people, including me, yesterday while all of this was going on. It started out saying, “The evidence against me is overwhelming but this much is true.” And then he went on to rehash his story. It was pretty much all stuff I’d heard before.

The problem is, people don’t like being lied to. When part of the story is exposed as being a lie, it’s impossible to know if any of the rest is true. And then when someone turns up saying he sent him a $300 R/C truck two months ago in trade for something that never showed up, people are inclined to believe the guy. He may be a total stranger, but at least he’s never lied to them. And if the person in question has been scamming this stranger, it’s only natural to wonder if he’s been scamming other people too. Including you and your friends.

I suspect the next time someone comes along on that forum who needs something, a few people might not be feeling as generous. And that’s unfortunate.

And as for this one? I responded to his e-mail. I had several suggestions for him, including that he make things right with the guy who sent him the $300 R/C truck. He told me he would.

We’ll see. I know where to find the guy who sent the truck.

I got a Pentax K110 digital SLR camera last month

When the Nikon D40 came out in November priced at $599, it seemed like the whole world went ga-ga over it. After all, we’ve pretty much been conditioned to expect to pay $1,000 to get into the digital SLR game.

But then I found out about the Pentax K110D. It’s also a digital SLR, and costs about $100 less than the Nikon. There wasn’t much information out there about it. So, after consulting the one person whose opinions on cameras I trust, my wife and I got one.Pentax isn’t the biggest name in cameras but is hardly a no-name either. The Pentax K1000 camera, first released in 1976, is a legend.

The K110D is a basic 6-megapixel digital SLR. It uses SD flash memory cards for storage and rechargable NiMH AA batteries for power. (Batteries are included, an SD card isn’t. But I couldn’t tell if the batteries were rechargeable because the writing on them is in Japanese.)

Most importantly, someone like me, who knows very little about photography, can take a good shot with this camera. While you can set all of the ISO settings you want, you can also put the camera on fully automatic, where it decides everything for you. In fully automatic mode, if you can frame a decent shot and get it in focus, the camera will take care of the rest.

You can see some shots I took this way with the camera at The Gauge. I shot these through a department store window, so there’s some glare. That’s not the camera’s fault.

The camera’s quality is good. You don’t want to play catch with it or expose it to any rough handling that you can possibly avoid, but it doesn’t feel fragile in your hands either. In case you’re wondering, the camera is manufactured in the Phillipines, while the lens is manufactured in Vietnam.

While 6 megapixels may seem a bit wimpy in this era of 10-megapixels and above, you don’t really need the extra resolution unless you’re making really large prints. A cheap 10-megapixel point-and-shoot could actually take a worse image than this camera if its optics and sensor aren’t of comparable quality.

If you’re looking for more versatility than a point and shoot will give you, but don’t care to spend four figures on a camera and a couple of lenses, the K110D or its bigger brother, the K100D (which adds image stabilization) is a good bet.

I like this camera a lot and would buy it again without hesitating.

What to do with those e-mail forwards

Coke is unpatriotic and anti-God. Pepsi is unpatriotic and anti-God. Target doesn’t support veterans. Dennis Miller supports the war in Iraq. Andy Rooney doesn’t like the French. An atheist made the FCC make CBS discontinue Touched by an Angel.
If you actually read the 72 e-mail forwards that are probably in your inbox when you come in to work every morning, you’ll find lines like those in them. Makes me think I should be glad most people have forgotten the 1993 Diet Pepsi can scare.

Forget needles, pins, screws, crack vials, bullets, and Mercedes-Benz hood ornaments. I found O.J.’s bloody glove in my can of Diet Pepsi! Wait. O.J. didn’t happen in 1993. I must be a time traveler!

When someone told me the other day that Target didn’t support veterans, I suggested looking at Snopes. I checked myself. Sure enough, the rumor contains only a hint of truth and was originally perpetuated by someone with an axe to grind. While Target didn’t provide money to one particular Vietnam War memorial (the applicant didn’t apply correctly), according to the VFW, Target did provide money to fund another Vietnam War memorial.

The next time someone sends you an e-mail forward, you might wish to reply back with a couple of links:

Good thing: It’s baseball season. Better thing: My Royals won

Every time I turn on the radio or go online, I hear about how the Bush Dictatorship has plunged us into another Vietnam or how I’m a redneck just like everyone else who ever voted Republican. And at work, I’m buried in Backup Exec problems, a program so bad that it continues to make me think its main purpose for being written was industrial sabotage.
Am I glad it’s baseball season? You betcha. I need a distraction. Take your pick: baseball or booze. I’ll take baseball. It’s cheaper and healthier.

So we’re 12 days into this war and it’s another Vietnam. People seem to have forgotten it took us 6 weeks to drive the madman out of Kuwait. Did we really expect him to roll over and play dead when we hit his mother country?

And for some reason people seem to think appeasement is the way to go. A little over 60 years ago, people said the same thing about a guy named Adolf Hitler. You might have heard of him. Neither man had any qualms about overrunning their neighbors or killing their own people. Fortunately for us, they have comparable technology.

But I’m either preaching to the choir or a redneck. So I don’t think I wanna talk about it.

The Royals, on the other hand, I’ll talk about. They shut out the Chicago White Sox 3-0. That doesn’t happen often. Shutouts are rare in Kansas City anymore, especially against pennant contenders. And on opening day. Nice. New rookie closer Mike MacDougal got the save. That’s a good sign, because for the past four years or so, a three-run lead has been an adventure. You couldn’t count on Roberto Hernandez or Ricky Bottalico to hold that lead. There was a time when you could count on Jeff Montgomery, but not in his final season. So it’s been 1998 since a three-run lead in the 9th was a given.

And they did it in front of a sellout crowd at home. And visions of 1985 danced in Dave’s head. I know it’s too early to believe. But I think I’m gonna anyway. When it comes to baseball, I’m hopeless. I’ll grasp at anything that looks like you can hold onto it.

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 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.

Memorial Day: Thank a vet

It’s Memorial Day. Memorial Day for many means barbecues, maybe a trip to the lake. We’re far enough removed from war that it’s mostly become another excuse for a three-day weekend. Yes, we fought a war 10 years ago, but it was so quick it didn’t really seem like war, and it was undeclared. And our previous administration involved us in plenty of skirmishes, but that wasn’t exactly war either. And I know, to many of us Vietnam seems like it was just yesterday, just like the first Bush administration seems like it was just yesterday to me, but Vietnam was long enough ago that there’s an entire generation of adults who view it exclusively as an historical event–by the time I was born, we were out of there.
One of the elders at church told me this week that 1.2 million U.S. soldiers have died in combat over the course of our history. That’s a lot of lives to gain and protect our freedom. And yes, as screwed up as our country is, we’re still a lot better off than much of the world. The dangers we face today are the dangers of our own making. There is no foreign dragon looming over our heads waiting to devour us.

So if you know any veterans, thank them the next time you see them. If you don’t, at least take a minute to thank God for their sacrifice.