Tag Archives: Chrysler

Ex-Commodore Prez Mehdi Ali proves you can spin anything

I found the thumbnail biography of one Mehdi Ali recently. It reads, in part:

“His prior experience includes serving as the President of Commodore International, where he accomplished a major operational turnaround.”

I don’t think he and I share the same definition of “major operational turnaround.”

Continue reading Ex-Commodore Prez Mehdi Ali proves you can spin anything

Department 56 scale: The definitive guide

The Department 56 product line is rather extensive, but there are items they don’t produce and likely never will. If you want to complete your village with other items, or use Department 56 in other settings, such as a train layout, then scale might matter to you—and “Department 56 scale” is undefined. Here’s how to make sure the things you want to use together will go together, size-wise.

The answer, by Department 56’s own admission, is that it varies. But since I see the question come up again and again, I’m going to tackle it. It varies, but there’s a method to it the madness.

Continue reading Department 56 scale: The definitive guide

Stunt Hacking: Why Charlie Miller hacked a Jeep driving on I-64

St. Louis-based security researcher Charlie Miller and his collaborator Chris Valasek got themselves in the news this week by hacking a Jeep driven by Wired journalist Andy Greenberg on I-64.

The reaction was mixed, but one common theme was, why I-64, where lives could have been at risk, rather than an abandoned parking lot?

I don’t know Miller or Valasek, so it goes without saying I don’t speak for either one of them, but I think I have a pretty good idea why they did it that way.

Continue reading Stunt Hacking: Why Charlie Miller hacked a Jeep driving on I-64

Striking royalty.

It wasn’t what I set out to do, and it definitely wasn’t what I expected to do. But genealogical breakthroughs rarely are either, it seems.

My mother and I have now collected more than 9,000 relatives in our genealogy. Needless to say, you literally need a computer to keep track of all of that. There are three families I feel the greatest affinity for. Two of them are Scottish, and Highlander families at that.Both of those families are pretty much dead ends. I can trace one of them back to Scotland and go back a generation or so. I can find plenty of people with the name, but can’t prove relation, mostly because the church that contained most of the birth and baptism records burned in the 1780s.

The Farquhars are tougher. I have an idea when the patriarch of my family was born. Of course I know he was a member of Clan Farquharson. I know he was born in Aberdeen, possibly as early as 1714 and possibly as late as 1729. I found an Adam Farquhar in Aberdeen–with parents even!–during the right time frame, but the death dates didn’t match up. I don’t believe there were more than a dozen or so Farquhar families in Aberdeen in the early 1700s, based on the books I can find, but, once again, without parents’ names, I can’t prove relation to any of them.

So the holy grail–tracing my roots directly back to Farquhar Shaw, patriarch of Clan Farquharson–remains elusive. For now at least.

My search for clues about Adam Farquhar’s identity led me to his second wife, Elizabeth Andrews. I suddenly realized I’d never researched her at all. I researched Adam’s first wife, because it was an interesting story. His father in law disapproved of the marriage, apparently because Adam wasn’t a Quaker, and disowned her. But besides that, one of the descendants of Adam Farquhar and Hannah Gaskill married Walter Percy Chrysler. So I chased those stories, even though they were outside my main bloodline.

Soon after Hannah Gaskill died, Adam married Elizabeth Andrews, daughter of a Quaker minister and missionary. I found the Andrews family had been in the United States since the first half of the 17th century, and the line lost steam at Edward Andrews, born in Barbados in 1618. Pretty impressive.

But Samuel Andrews, a carpenter and shipwright who settled in New Jersey, married Mary Wright in 1663. Mary Wright’s parents emigrated from England, and the Wright family happens to be very well documented. Normally, when a line gets to be a certain age, you start expecting dead ends. The Wright line itself was, but the mothers’ lines just kept on going, and usually with precise dates. Not "about 1630" like I’m used to seeing. I’m talking "18 October 1476."

And once I got into the 14th and 15th centuries, I started seeing titles and French names. I started to get suspicious. I got especially suspicious when I searched Google for more information on some of these people and found they had Wikipedia entries.

Last night I stopped for the night at John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. Skimming his Wikipedia entry, I saw he fathered a king. Literally. Henry IV, King of England, was John of Gaunt’s son.

I shouldn’t have stopped. I learned today that John of Gaunt’s father was King Edward III of England–one of England’s most successful kings, known for a number of things, among which was war with Scotland.

War with Scotland? ARGH! What was my full-blooded Scot great great great great great grandfather thinking?

I’m sure the bigger question to most people is how a middle-class guy from Missouri who spent five years of his childhood in Farmington–Farmington!–could be related to a king. Directly.

Think about it. The genealogies of commoners burned, so they were lost. I’m sure I have ancestors who lived in the 1300s who were potato farmers with no money, but I have no idea who they were.

The royal genealogies were preserved. And somewhere down the line, the royalty with the least chance of ascending to the throne had to marry someone, and if there wasn’t any royal blood left to marry, they had to marry commoners. Wealthy commoners, hopefully. But commoners nevertheless. But as the generations wore on, the chances of those descendants marrying royalty lessened. Some couldn’t even get land, so they emigrated to the colonies.

Most genealogists believe that every modern European is related to Charlemagne. And if you have English blood that emigrated in the 1600s, I’ll say there’s a very good chance you’re related to William the Conqueror. Both of my parents are.

I haven’t traced Henry III back to William the Conqueror and Charlemagne yet. Yes, the two of them were related. That’s just a matter of time.

I’d frankly be more excited about tracing one of my Scottish families all the way back to the founder of the respective clan, but I’ve just hit the genealogical equivalent of a home run. A World Series-winning home run, perhaps.

I’ll take it, and wait for technology to help me get those holy grails. Perhaps DNA testing will help. The option is on the table.

My hot water heater: 1984-2008

I think my hot water heater died today. I thought my shower seemed colder than usual today, and in the late afternoon my wife reported no hot water in the kitchen.

It could be something simple, but even if it is, it’s time.Let’s consider this. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was president. The Kansas City Royals went to the playoffs. The big name in video games was Atari. People were predicting that video game consoles had no future. The big names in personal computers were (alphabetically) Apple, Commodore, IBM, and Radio Shack. Only one is still in that business. It was the year that Chrysler popularized the minivan. It was the year Apple introduced the Macintosh, popularizing the graphical interface and the mouse. Not only did MTV still play videos, but that was all they played. Not every home had a VCR. For that matter, not every home had a microwave. It cost 20 cents to mail a letter, and on average, a gallon of gas cost $1.21. (I remember it being a lot less than that in Missouri.)

The world that built that hot water heater is a lot different from the world we live in today.

About four years ago, a plumber came out to work on it. It was giving me problems then, but under the conditions of my home warranty, he had to bubblegum it back together. I asked how long it had. He said its realistic life expectancy was about 12 years, so it was about 8 years beyond that. It could last another six months, but it could last years.

So now the question is what to replace it with. The stingy Scottish miser in me sees tankless water heaters claiming to save you $150 a year and really likes that. I went to Lowe’s this evening and tried to buy one. There were several reasons why I don’t own one right now.

First, they don’t keep very many in stock. They had exactly one, even though their website said they had two of two different models. The one they had wasn’t the model I really wanted.

Two, they don’t install them. They’ll sell one to you, but then you have to find someone to install it on your own.

Three, they cost more to install than a conventional tank heater. Sometimes as much as the heater itself.

And then I found a controversial column that did the math, and said that a tankless heater might not actually save you any money anyway. I can’t find fault with his logic.

One thing I noticed is that the tankless heaters that the big-box stores sell are 85% efficient. The tank heaters are 76% efficient. The propaganda for the tankless heaters always assumes lower efficiency than that. As best I can tell, the heater I have is 67%, a little lower than the literature assumes.

So it seems to me that if a tankless heater that’s 18% more efficient than what I have now will save me $100-$150 a year, then a conventional heater that’s 76% efficient ought to save me $50-$75 per year, right?

The tank heaters sell for around $320, and installation is about $260. By the time you pay for taxes and the nickel-and-dime extras, it’s $600-$700.

Half the savings for 1/3 the price sounds pretty good. And I can buy one pretty much anywhere and have it installed tomorrow if I make the purchase before noon.

And it will pay for itself in 8-12 years. A tankless heater would pay for itself in about 13, if all the claims are true. If I make a mistake today, either way I go I’ll be likely to be revisiting it in about 12 years anyway. By then, tankless heaters will be more common and probably cost less than they do now (adjusting for inflation of course).

I’ll call the plumber who bubblegummed my old unit back together in the morning. Depending on what he says about the cost of installing a tankless heater, I’ll make a decision. But at this point, I think I’m leaning towards buying the most energy efficient conventional heater I can find.

How Generation X can take this country back

I’ve done some reading in recent days. First I read that GenXers aren’t happy with Corporate America and the feeling is largely mutual. It appears I’m not the only one.

But I see an opportunity in this. We have a window to take this country back. And I have a plan.The way I see it, the unholy triumverate of big government, big corporations, and big labor has done its best to ruin this country. Big government’s mess needs no introduction. While big labor drove some necessary reforms, it lost its way, asked for too much, and today we see the result when we look at the sticker prices of GM, Ford, and Chrysler vehicles. And as for big business, I could get into specifics, but I see the problem like this: Large corporations think only quarter to quarter, chasing short-term profits and never considering the long term. They hand out raises to their workers that don’t keep pace with inflation, while their CEOs make six- and seven-figure salaries plus equally large bonuses, no matter how badly they do their jobs. Since the people who do the work feel undervalued, they tend to jump from job to job a lot, so institutional memory becomes a thing of the past.

Forget them. It’s time to escape and start over. Here’s the plan.

Minimize the risk.

You can’t very well escape corporate America’s stronghold while you’re saddled with debt. Most small businesses die within three years because at some point in that timeframe the owners find themselves unable to pay the bills. So as long as you have debt, you are corporate America’s slave.

But you can escape. It doesn’t really matter how much you make or how much money you owe–you can be debt free in seven years or less. The main reason this works is because creditors generally won’t loan you more money than you would be able to repay in seven years.

I don’t know how long this movement has existed. My mother and father in law did it in the 1980s. A classic entrepreneurial book by William Nickerson, published in the 1950s, mentions the phenomenon, so it must have existed then.

There are lots of subtle variants on the plan, but it boils down to this. Gather up all your debts–car payment, credit cards, mortgage, student loans, furniture, whatever. Figure out the minimum payment on them. Now take 10 percent of your monthly income. Pick one bill, and add that 10 percent of your monthly income to what you pay on it. (If you can afford more than 10 percent, pay that.) Make the minimum payment on all of your other bills.

After you pay off that first bill, take what you were paying on that bill and apply it to the next one. Let’s say you have two $300 car payments and a $1,000 mortgage. You could start paying an extra $300 a month on one car, for a total of $600, and pay $300 on the other car, and $1,000 on the mortgage. When the first car is paid off, the $600 moves to the other car, for $900 on the car and $1,000 on the mortgage. Once the other car is paid off, pay $1,900 per month on the mortgage.

The hardest part is initially coming up with that $300. The rest is fairly easy because you’re always paying the same amount every month, but the longer you go along, the faster you’re retiring your debt because you’re paying more principle and less interest.

How you pick the order is up to you. Mathematically speaking, you’re always best off applying your extra payment to the debt with the highest interest rate. But in every analysis that I’ve seen, the difference between paying them off in the best possible order and worst possible order is only a month’s worth of payments. Many people suggest paying off the debt on which you owe the least first, so you get the psychological boost of having eliminated one debt.

I started in November 2004. It took less than a year to pay off my car. Not long after that I got married, and it only took a few more months for us to pay off my wife’s car. Right now the only debt we have is the mortgage and my wife’s student loans. Barring unexpected emergencies this year, we should be able to pay off our remaining debt by the end of the year. (We may keep one of my wife’s student loans, since the interest rate is lower than the rate we get on one of our bank accounts.)

This is the most important thing: I fully expect to own my home outright at age 33. If I played by the rules most people play by, I’d make my last payment on it at age 58.

Here’s why I say to eliminate your debt. Take a look at what you spend every month. When my wife and I looked at our spending, we found we were spending more than $2,000 a month on car payments, the mortgage, and her student loans. Meanwhile, we were spending less than $1,000 on food, utilities, and everything else. So in theory, without debt, we could live on $12,000 a year.

Which leads to the second part of the plan.

Find a business you can start that will make you more than $12,000 a year

I’m not talking about multi-level marketing or any garbage like that. Start a real business that you control and makes money for you.

I won’t tell you what business to start, because I only know what works for my wife and me. But I’ll give you some questions that will get your mind rolling.

What can you do better than anyone else? There must be something that you know how to do really well and can leverage. Find it.

What do you know how to find or make less expensively than anyone else? This can replace the question above, or supplement it.

What do you enjoy doing? If you actually enjoy doing it, you’ll work harder and more productively. I would moonlight fixing Amiga computers if there were any money in it. Frankly I find modern computers uninteresting, so I don’t moonlight fixing other people’s computers at home, because I find it boring and stressful.

And finally, what problem do people have that you might be able to solve for them?

Mull those questions. It’s OK if you don’t immediately know the answer to any of those questions, or if you know the answer but they don’t bring a business plan to mind. Keep thinking about it, and keep looking around for opportunities.

I started looking for something in mid-2004 when I realized I didn’t make enough to support my wife and me if she was in school. I don’t remember now when I first had the idea that ultimately worked, but I followed through on it in June 2005. It took two weeks for anything to come of it, but it did finally work, and it’s still working today.

Once you get an idea, explore its feasibility. Look and see if anyone else is doing it. See if you can do it better or cheaper, or in a slightly different way than everyone else does it.

If the idea looks feasible, start doing it part-time. Don’t quit the job yet. The idea is to get established while you still have the safety net of a 9-to-5 job. If you’re thinking about a service, start advertising on Craigslist. If it’s a product, eBay and Craigslist are possible venues. The upside to Craigslist is that it doesn’t cost anything to advertise there. The real key is to look at your questions as an opportunity to get creative, rather than as blockades to your progress.

Here’s one strategy for dealing with those questions. Ask yourself those questions, especially around bedtime. Your subconscious will mull over the question even while you sleep. The answer will take some time to come, and will probably come at an unexpected time. But I’ve tried it and it works. Your subconscious mind may be the most powerful tool you have.

Notice I didn’t say to go borrow money. One of the reasons businesses die young is because they can’t pay their debts. Keep your overhead low, and you have a better chance of being successful. Operate on a shoestring.

Once you have an idea and something to do, give it a try on a small scale. At this stage, don’t put up any more money than you’re willing to lose, and don’t be afraid if your initial attempts don’t get anywhere or fail. You’re learning. If you’re starting while you still have a job and you’re in the process of paying down your debt, you can afford to fail a little. At the early stages, gaining information and wisdom and knowledge is more important than success. Get enough of those three things and you will find success, and if and when success wanes, you’ll find it again.

The problem with big government, big corporations and big labor is that they are successful, but by and large they are not well informed, they aren’t knowledgeable, and they certainly aren’t wise. That’s why we’ve seen so many spectacular failures in the last 10 years.

I see lots of small business owners who aren’t informed, knowledgeable, or wise either. When their success runs out, that’s probably the end of them. But there are also small businesses in St. Louis that stood the test of time and became institutions. Lots of Fortune 500 companies have come and gone in St. Louis since Ted Drewes Sr. opened a frozen custard stand on Natural Bridge Road in 1930. And lots more will come and go before the two Ted Drewes locations close up for good.

During this time that your small business is struggling and you’re gathering knowledge abd wisdom, you’re still working for someone else and you’re paying off your debts. But along with those struggles, you should have some encouraging successes. Follow those successes, and tweak things along the way.

Chances are, by the time you have your debt paid off, you’ll have a successful small business that’s capable of bringing in enough money to support you full-time. So you can step out of the corporate world and into business for yourself. From there, the sky’s the limit, because you’re no longer working hard to make money to support the pyramid of management above you–you only have to support yourself. And without the burden of personal debt and corporate overhead, you’ll be more free to be successful.

And how does this save America?

On May 11, 2006, Robert X. Cringely wrote, “I’m counting on Google and eBay to save America.” He didn’t elaborate, but here’s what I think he meant.

Just before the dawn of the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of large corporations in the United States, but there were plenty of bright entrepreneurs with ideas. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the Wright Brothers are examples.

The problem today is that large public companies don’t breed great people like Edison, Ford, and the Wrights. The shareholders won’t stand for it. Shareholders care only about the profits on the next quarterly report, and if the company doesn’t deliver, investors dump their shares, the stock price drops, and then (and only then) executives start losing their jobs. So companies tend to play it safe to protect their executives.

We’re seeing this problem with eBay right now, of all things. While eBay remains hugely profitable, its investors got spoiled with exponential growth. Now that the profits are steady but growth has leveled off, investors are whining, and eBay is trying all kinds of goofy things to try to recapture the magic. None of it’s really working, but they sure are alienating a lot of their best merchants.

Two years after Robert X. Cringely wrote those words, I no longer know if eBay is the right company for this recipe to save America, but it has the right business model. Someone else will pick it up if eBay decides it doesn’t want it anymore.

The small entrepreneur can’t afford to compete head to head with General Motors. But Google gives small businesses affordable, targeted advertising, while eBay and other online marketplaces provide small businesses with a low-overhead distribution channel. Google and eBay (or their replacements) won’t directly save America, but the small, bright, nimble businesses that they enable will. Small businesses can afford to think long-term, they can deliver a better product with better service (and do it faster) than the huge, lumbering behemoths, and they aren’t slaves to whiney shareholders who have lots of money but little idea how to run the companies they invested in and no vested interest in the company’s long-term health because in five years they’ll have their money somewhere else.

And since small businesses have more control over their own destinies, they’re in a better position to adapt.

If we believe the Businessweek article I linked above, corporations need us GenXers. But in my experience, as well as the experience of hundreds of people who commented on the article both at Businessweek and on Digg, by and large the corporations don’t want us. So the best thing for us to do is to compete with them. And in the long run, I think this country will be better off for it.

Why I never kept up with the Joneses

I had a bit of a financial epiphany over the weekend.

I have a well-deserved reputation for being a tightwad. Part of it is in my blood; I’m largely of Scottish descent, and Scots just tend to act that way. But I think part of it is what I observed growing up.My wife and I were sitting at my mom’s kitchen table, and for whatever reason, we were talking about my teenage years. In 1988, we moved to a new subdivision in Fenton, Mo. Fenton is a boomtown today, thanks in part to urban sprawl and also because of its first-rate school district, but in 1988 it was still largely an industrial town. Lots of people worked there, and not many wanted to live there. But in the late 1980s, the McMansions started sprouting up like weeds, and lots of families started moving there, ours included.

We talked about our neighbors, and something immediately occurred to me. Most of them were in their early 30s. They were the same age I am now. Not only were they my age, but they drove new cars, and most of them had at least two kids. Meanwhile they were trying to make payments on houses that cost $125-$150,000 at the time. According to inflation, they should cost a quarter million today. Not only that, though, in 1988, interest rates were a lot higher–10 percent wasn’t uncommon according to my quickie research.

Dad could afford that lifestyle–barely. He was a doctor and had been practicing medicine for 15 years. But even we made sacrifices in order to afford to live in that house.

The problem is, I shouldn’t say "even." Most of our neighbors had nicer furniture than we did. Some of them drove fancier cars. And their kids had bigger, costlier toys.

The absurdity hit me. I wouldn’t even try to compete with the lifestyle of a 45-year-old doctor. Not at 33. I make enough that a bank probably would let me have a mortgage of a quarter mil. I could lease cars that don’t depreciate quickly in order to keep my monthly payments down. But there wouldn’t be much of anything left at the end of the month, and I could probably forget about retiring any earlier than 73 (which is what Social Security is saying my retirement age should be). Just because I could make the payments doesn’t mean I should.

I wondered why so many of them got together every weekend and drank themselves senseless. And I don’t think I consciously ever realized I was living in a neighborhood full of people living way over their means–even the family next door, headed by a young dentist trying to establish his practice with five kids and a wife who insisted they needed a Jaguar.

Suddenly, sitting there at the table, telling old stories, I realized why that woman was such a psycho. She couldn’t pay her bills.

And that was also probably why another neighbor wouldn’t go anywhere without a thermos full of wine, and why another young couple who lived nearby smoked pot every Saturday night.

They had everything any reasonable person could dream of having at 32, but if anything at all ever went wrong–a layoff, an extended illness, or a serious injury–they would be in serious danger of losing it.

For whatever reason, I never measured my lifestyle against them. My first few jobs didn’t make me a lot of money, but they let me do pretty much anything I wanted. I had a nicer apartment than Dad had at a comparable age. I could go out to eat any time I wanted. I could buy a new computer every year if I wanted to, as long as I didn’t go overboard on it, and for a few years I did. I drove small cars, but there were always at least two or three cars in the parking lot that weren’t as nice as mine, so I was content to drive my 1992 Dodge Spirit. When it died, I got a 2000 Dodge Neon. It wasn’t a status symbol, but it had power locks and windows, which were two things Dad’s 1981 Chrysler LeBaron didn’t have. It had a nicer radio too. And that LeBaron was supposed to be a luxury car.

My lifestyle was far ahead of where Dad’s had been at my age. And not only that, I had money left over at the end of every month.

There were two things I wasn’t happy about. At the time, I didn’t have a steady girlfriend. And my apartment rent was going up by about $50 a year but the management company wasn’t taking care of the place. When stuff broke, they fixed it halfheartedly, and I didn’t want to pay $575 a month to live in a slum.

When my rent hit $575, I told them I wasn’t going to pay it. They offered me a seven-month lease at about $550. Conveniently, I had enough in the bank for a down payment on a house, and I figured I could afford to pay a couple hundred more every month for a mortgage. I just didn’t want to throw that kind of money away on rent.

So I bought a house. There was a neighborhood about a mile away that reminded me a lot of the neighborhoods I grew up in. I found a house about the size of the house we lived in before we moved to St. Louis. It cost more than I had planned, but it was big enough that I could get married and have a family there and not have to move again. I hate moving. Plus, it was (and still is) in a good school district, all the schools are close by, and anything I could need was close. I didn’t know it right away, but in an emergency, the nearest grocery store AND the nearest car repair place are both walking distance.

For an extra $100 a month, it just made sense. I bought the house. And every night, I filled up that Dodge Neon with everything that would fit, drove to the house, and unpacked. Several friends with vans or pickup trucks helped me move the stuff that wouldn’t fit in my tiny car.

Even though my 1-bedroom apartment was stuffed to the gills, it wasn’t nearly enough to fill a 3-bedroom house with a living room, family room, a study, and a basement. But it didn’t take long for that problem to solve itself. Several people offered me some nice furniture. They were hand-me-downs, but there wasn’t anything really wrong with any of it. Before I knew it, the house was full.

A couple of years later, the right girl came along too. At first she wanted me to get nicer stuff. The problem was, even though I’d gotten promoted to a server administrator at work, they were still paying me my old desktop support salary. The house had wiped out my savings, and I couldn’t really take on another monthly payment on anything. We fought about it a little. I showed her how little was left at the end of every month, and I argued that everything in the house was nicer than anything my parents had at my age. For that matter, most of it was nicer than the stuff they had when I was a kid.

She relented. I don’t know how happy she was about it then. But she didn’t complain.

A few months after we got engaged, I lost my job. I was mad about it. I was convinced I would lose everything I’d worked for. I guess for a minute I thought I was like those neighbors.

But because I’d lived within my means, I survived and soon I ended up with a job with a competitive salary for the first time in my professional career.

Something else came out of it too. The day we got married, neither of us had a job. We started a small business out of necessity. Our final paychecks made the mortgage payments during that summer, and we used our wedding gift money to get the business going. Soon it was bringing in enough to make our utility payments and buy groceries. When I got a full-time job, she took the business over and I helped out at night and on weekends. It allowed her to not have to work outside the home. There are probably things she could do that would make more money, but she doesn’t have a lot of stress, and she enjoys the flexibility.

The odd thing is, we’ve been able to upgrade our lifestyle on the cheap. For example, there are three light fixtures we’ve been wanting to replace for a long time. This weekend I found two light fixtures at a yard sale for a buck apiece. My sister rolled her eyes when I told the story, but these fixtures don’t fit the yard sale stereotype. A sticker on them says they were made in February 2005. Home Depot still sells the same fixture (or something extremely similar) for about $30. That’s not terribly expensive, but $1 is a lot less than $30. The third fixture we need to replace is smaller. We can get something that will look fine with them, and look much better than what we have, for under $20. The result will be a significant upgrade in how the kitchen and living room look, at well under 1/3 the price.

That $60 savings may not sound like a lot, but we’re constantly finding ways to save a few bucks here and there like that. We’re never the first to have anything, but it seems like we always end up getting whatever it is we want or need, and meanwhile we’re socking money away and whittling down on that house payment.

Judged against the standards of my neighbors in 1988, one could argue I’m a failure. I drive a five-year-old car and most of the time I use a six-year-old computer, and the four shirts I bought in 1998 to comply with my then-employer’s dress code are still in my rotation today.

But let’s look at things another way. Not only do my wife and I have nicer stuff than my parents had when Dad was 32, we also have an easier time finding money for necessities like groceries. She can shop at the health-food stores even though they’re more expensive. As long as nothing unexpected happens, we’ll own everything outright and have absolutely no debt–no student loans, no car payments, no mortgage–well before I turn 40. I stress over some things, but money isn’t one of them.

In my early 20s, I watched some of my friends from high school rack up massive credit card debt. At least it seemed like massive debt at the time. I knew then I didn’t want to be like them, at least not in that regard. Now I know that the average American family has $9,900 in credit card debt. That’s about what one of those friends owed, and about twice what another one owed.

I know who I want to be like. I want to be like my wife’s parents. They paid off all their debt sometime in their late 30s or early 40s. Today, when my mother in law sees something she wants, she doesn’t think about it. She can just buy it. Not only that, she’s retired, and she’s nowhere near 73.

I’m not saying I want to buy anything and everything I see on a whim. But not having to think much at all about money seems really nice.

And I guess on some level I’ve known that for almost 20 years, since I was in my early teens.

A couple more ideas for saving gas

Chrysler criticized oil companies a couple of weeks back for padding their profits and not trying to do anything to help gas prices. There were some fallacies in their arguments; I’m not even going to try to touch it. I’d rather try to solve the problem: Figure out how to burn less gas. So here are some tricks for saving gas.

I’ve got two cheap tricks that seem to work.You can try the first one the next time you get your oil changed. The last time I changed my oil, the guy at the quick-lube place said my oil looked awfully dark and that I ought to have them flush the oil reservoir (at a price, of course–$15, if I remember right). I said OK. I had the same treatment done on my wife’s car when I had hers changed later the same day.

All I can say is that since having that done, my car gets better gas mileage. Right when I first got it, it could occasionally get 39 miles per gallon on the highway. Gradually, my highway mileage declined. Well, after that treatment, I’m back up in the 39 MPG neighborhood again in my 2002 Honda Civic.

I’m sure that having it done every time is overkill, but it’s not a terribly expensive experiment. I have a 12-gallon tank. If it saves me two miles per gallon (which is about right), that saves me a gallon roughly every second tank of gas ($3). Since I get about 400 miles per tank of gas, that’s 10 fillups between oil changes. So the maintenance will pay for itself if gas prices hold.

I’ve heard about another trick, where people are putting a couple of ounces of acetone into a full tank of gas and reporting better gas mileage and better engine performance. I don’t really want to mess around with acetone. But one of the advocates said something interesting: He claimed that the main ingredient in most fuel treatments is acetone.

Well, I’m pretty sure fuel treatment won’t void my warranty, although I’m not sure about acetone.

I used to giggle at the “Use every tank!” sticker on gas treatment. When gas cost $1.09 a gallon, it didn’t make much sense to spend $1.50 to try to squeeze out another mile or two per gallon. But at $3 a gallon, it makes sense to use at least every other tank.

Here’s a tip: Don’t buy it at the gas station if you can avoid it. It’s cheaper at discount stores. Sometimes I even see it at dollar stores. When the goal is to save money by burning less gas, it doesn’t make sense to overpay for gas treatment.

I think both of these things are worth doing, even if they prove only to be break-even propositions. If everyone did them, it would reduce usage, and when demand falls, price usually goes along with it.

I noticed one other thing yesterday. At my sister-in-law’s, 89 octane gas is actually cheaper than 87, at some stations, because the 87 octane gas is 100% gasoline, while the 89 is 10% ethanol. When there’s a price difference, buy the cheaper one.

Relief for high gas prices?

My local paper ran a story this week about E85, which is a gasoline/ethanol blend that’s 85 percent ethanol.

The good news is, your vehicle may be E85 compatible without you knowing it.

E85 is difficult to find, and you don’t get as many miles per gallon with it, but when gas prices are over $2/gallon, the price undercuts gasoline enough that you get more miles per dollar with E85.

The fuel has its critics. No, you don’t get as many miles per gallon with it. No, it’s not as cheap to process as gasoline. But let’s think about a few things.

E85’s primary ingredient is corn. Corn happens to grow really well in the United States. Would you rather depend on American farmers or OPEC? I’d rather take my chances with American farmers. So it takes more energy to produce a gallon of E85 than it takes to produce a gallon of gasoline? Grow more corn!

Not all cars are E85-compatible. My Honda Civic is among them. While it’s theoretically possible to convert incompatible cars to run on E85, the EPA has made conversion illegal. I wonder how much OPEC and Big Oil had to pay to make that happen?

This is clearly a case of the government talking out of both sides of its mouth. Auto manufacturers get credits for making a certain percentage of its vehicles E85 compatible, but the end result of these incentives has been the production of ever-larger trucks. So if your name happens to be Ford or General Motors or Daimler Chrysler, you can use E85 as a loophole. If you’re a consumer looking to save a couple of bucks and/or support the farmer a few miles away and/or cut down on the amount of smog you produce during your commute to work, you can’t use it.

Another nice thing about E85 is that it does a nice job of cleaning out your fuel system. A clean fuel system is an efficient fuel system, so running your car on E85 whenever it’s convenient can improve your fuel economy when running on conventional gasolines as well.

Some people complain about the inefficiency and say it’s not that much cheaper. But cheaper is cheaper. If you have to fuel up four times a week and you save $2 each time you do it, at the end of the month you have $8. That’s more money than you save by using a credit card with gas-related incentives on it, and people don’t seem to object to using those.

I don’t know what it is about gasoline that clouds people’s thinking. I overheard a couple of coworkers talking this week about their vehicles and fuel economy. One is disappointed in his SUV’s fuel economy. It gets 20 miles to the gallon. So he wants to trade it in for a Suburban, because, in his words, “It only gets 4 miles to the gallon less.” Only four miles to the gallon? That’s 25 percent. When your fuel economy is that low, every mile to the gallon counts. That 25% decrease in fuel economy, at $2 per gallon, translates into $10 more per fillup. It’s worse at $3 per gallon, of course.

E85 isn’t the long-term solution (hydrogen is), but it looks like a reasonable way to take some of the bite from the current crisis.