Tag Archives: consumer electronics stores

Digiland DL718M tablet: a review

The Digiland DL718M tablet is an inexpensive (sub-$40) tablet sold at consumer electronics stores like Best Buy. Make no mistake, it’s a basic tablet for basic needs. But given reasonable expectations you can buy one of these and be happy with it.

This isn’t a new market by any stretch. But it seems like tablets in this price range are usually Black Friday specials, or only available on online marketplaces far abroad. The Digiland DL718M is one you can get today if you want.

Continue reading Digiland DL718M tablet: a review

Advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0

I hear the question from time to time what the advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0 were. Windows 3.0, released in May 1990, is generally considered the first usable version of Windows. The oft-repeated advice to always wait for Microsoft’s version 3 is a direct reference to Windows 3.0 that still gets repeated today, frequently.

Although Windows 3.0 is clumsy by today’s standards, in 1990 it had the right combination of everything to take the world by storm.

Continue reading Advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0

How to clean viruses off other people’s systems safely

What should you do when someone hands you a computer, tells you they think it has a virus, and asks you to clean it?

Proceed carefully, that’s what. You don’t want to infect your other computers with whatever it has.

To get it gone safely and effectively, you really need two things: an antivirus live CD, and a spare router.
Continue reading How to clean viruses off other people’s systems safely

Save money on cables by not buying at retail

I’m ashamed to say I own one Monster cable. Hopefully if I tell you I bought it at a garage sale for $2, I’ll regain your respect. But there’s an easier way to save money on cables than buying at garage sales.

Unless you need it immediately, there’s no reason whatsoever to buy Monster and other overpriced cables at big-box consumer electronics stores. Profit margins are really thin on most electronics, even the big-ticket items, and they use the cables to make up for that. That’s the reason nobody includes cables in the box.

You’re always better off ordering cables online. Then you can get that $20 cable for much closer to its wholesale price, which will be single digits. If that.

Places like Newegg.com and Mwave.com sometimes run specials on certain cables (dealnews.com is a good place to look) but if you can’t snag a special, check pricing at Monoprice.com and, if you don’t mind futzing around with a wonky search engine and waiting a few days extra for shipping straight from Hong Kong, Dealextreme.com. For that matter, good old Ebay usually has a good selection of inexpensive cables too.

For example, I priced a 6-foot HDMI cable. At the home of blue shirts and extended warranties, you’ll pay $13 for a low-end, house brand cable. A “premium” house brand cable will run $40, and a Monster cable runs an insane $99.

There’s no reason to buy any premium HDMI cable. But even $13 is too much, considering something virtually identical will set you back 3 bucks from Monoprice, and about $6 from Dealextreme. Generally speaking, if you’re ordering one cable, Dealextreme may end up being cheaper. If you’re ordering multiple cables, Monoprice will probably be cheaper.

And if you think that price differential is crazy, try pricing Ethernet cables. At Monoprice, Ethernet cables are cheaper than garage sale prices.

There’s little, if any, truth to the claims you find on Monster packaging, especially when you’re dealing with digital signals. The only claim that has any validity is that gold oxidizes more slowly than other metals, but guess what? I have cables from the 1980s that still work just fine, including the cable connecting the very keyboard I’m typing on now. If they were oxidized, unplugging them and plugging them back in is usually enough to knock the oxidation off and get them working again. Failing that, a blast of De-Oxit will do the trick.

I keep a can of De-Oxit on hand, but I can’t think of a time that I’ve needed to use it on a cable. Keep in mind I live in St. Louis, and if there’s one thing St. Louis is known for, it’s humidity. If my cables can go 25 years here without getting oxidized, yours can too.

Buy a used business printer and save a bundle

I’m through with cheap consumer printers.

Due to the nature of my wife’s work, we print a lot by home standards. We buy paper by the case, not the ream, and a case of paper probably lasts us a little more than six months.

Our workload just isn’t practical for the kind of printers you find next to the telephones at consumer electronics stores. So I bought an HP Laserjet 4100. And even if a case of paper lasts you a couple of years, you might want to buy an office-grade printer too.A typical consumer monochrome laser printer, if you shop around for a good sale, costs around 60 bucks. Replacement toner cartridges cost anywhere from $50-$70, depending on capacity. And at some point, which could be as little as 20,000 pages, the drum or the fuser or some other semi-replaceable part will wear out and you’ll have to replace it, at a cost of $100-$150. Most people don’t do it, since it’s cheaper to just buy another printer. And by that point, the printer will be discontinued, replaced by a new model that’s a little smaller, a little faster, a little quieter–and uses different, incompatible toner cartridges. If you got lucky and found toner on sale and stocked up, you’re out of luck.

Let’s do the math. 8 toner cartridges at $60 apiece, plus the printer at $60 gives you a total cost of $540 to print 20,000 pages. That’s 2.7 cents per page over the practical lifespan of the printer.

Businesses are discarding old HP Laserjets like crazy, either because the maintenance contracts on them get to be too expensive, or because they’re replacing them with units that can print color, or units that can scan and fax in addition to printing.

This week I bought an HP Laserjet 4100 from a computer recycler for 30 lousy bucks. The toner cartridge still has about 5,000 pages left in it, and the fuser/drum assembly will be good for another 175,000 pages. It’ll take me 17 years to wear that out–and since the printer is already 7-9 years old, I don’t know if the rest of the printer has 17 years left in it.

But there are still Laserjet 4000s in service and that printer came on the market about four years earlier, so I’m pretty confident I’ll get four years out of the hardware.

I’m less confident of current consumer laser printers lasting four years doing what I ask of it.

It’s possible to find toner cartridges for HP 4100s at a cost of anywhere from $20-$50 and last 10,000 pages. The "maintenance kit" that includes a drum and fuser costs about $150. I probably won’t ever need one, but if you find an HP 4100 with more miles on it, you may.

Old toner cartridges have an expiration date on them, but you can ignore that as long as the cartridge is still sealed. Once the cartridge is opened, you can expect it to last 2-2.5 years. So buying old cartridges for $20 or $30 off Amazon or eBay is fine, and stocking up if you see a bunch of them is fine.

Let’s do the math on a less than ideal HP 4100 that needs a maintenance kit and toner cartridge right away. At $50 for the printer, $150 for the maintenance kit, and $100 for two cartridges, you’re looking at a cost of $300 to print 20,000 pages, yielding a cost per page of 1.5 cents.

I’m looking at more like half a cent per page, since I lucked into a low-mileage unit.

Either way you look at it, a used HP 4100 is a better deal than a consumer-grade printer. The cost per page is lower, and it’s a lot more convenient because you’ll be changing toner cartridges and filling the paper tray less often.

Even if you have your heart set on buying new, the economy is similar, but the financial hit up front is a lot higher. The HP 4014 currently costs $800, and the cartridges are around $100. At 10,000 pages per year, the cost per page is a reasonable 1.5 cents over the course of 15 years.

Personally, I’d rather buy a used older model that’s already depreciated, keep the up-front cost low, and recoup the savings quickly.

And yes, I am partial to HP. One of the reasons they’re common is because they work well. When I supported printers for a living, I could almost set HPs up and forget about them. They didn’t even jam all that often. I’ve also supported a lot of Lexmark printers. They were pretty reliable, but we had more strange issues with printing than I ever saw with HPs. And I see the same pattern at work today, though I’m no longer responsible for fixing the printers. The HPs just work, but about once a week the Lexmarks die suddenly with a weird error message.

And by virtue of being the most common, HPs will be easy to find in the first place, and in the long term, it will be a lot easier to find parts and toner for them. I owned a Lexmark 4039 laser printer for many years, but the toner was more expensive than HP toner because it was harder to find, and once the printer was old enough that I needed parts, I couldn’t find them at a reasonable price.

What about cleaning the printer up? Some offices are much more kind to their printers than others. My 4100 seems fairly typical. It had a couple of stickers on it telling where to call for service, and a number of black marks that looked like they came from shoes. Maybe it sat under someone’s desk for a while and got the occasional kick.

Labels come off pretty easily with lighter fluid. Squirt a little lighter fluid onto the end of a napkin or a cotton swab. In the case of paper labels, wipe them until they’re saturated with lighter fluid and let it dry, then repeat the process a couple of times. The label will peel off very easily. If any adhesive residue remains, another wipe or two will take care of it. In the case of plastic or metallic labels, just rub the edges and let the lighter fluid wick under it until one of the corners lifts. Pull that corner up some more, then dab some more lighter fluid underneath. Eventually the adhesive will weaken enough to allow you to peel off the label. Then wipe away any remaining adhesive afterward.

Some marks will come off pretty easily with lighter fluid too. Others don’t even require that much–some will respond just fine to window cleaner, or just a little soap and water.

Stubborn marks will usually come off by buffing with car wax or metal polish.

My 4100 looked a little rough when I brought it home, but it took me about five minutes to make it look more presentable.

So if you’re in the market for a monochrome laser printer, don’t go to any of the big-box stores. Search Craigslist instead for an old HP office printer. HP Laserjet 4000s, 4050s, and 4100s are in a sweet spot right now in regards to pricing and availability of toner cartridges. Toner for the older HP Laserjet 4 and 5 printers (which date to the mid 1990s) is harder to find.

Don’t pay any more than 50 bucks for a bare printer. Be prepared to pay more for one that has extras like networking, a duplexer, or an extra tray, but it’s not uncommon for people to sell those parts separately, since they’re often worth more than the printer. Networking is nice to have if you have more than one computer. Duplexing is nice but it won’t help you if you mostly print single-page jobs. If you don’t know what you’d use extra trays for, then you probably don’t need them.

Replace your video game system’s power cord cheap

This weekend I found myself in search of a power cord for an original Playstation. It’s the same plug that the Sega Dreamcast and Saturn and Sony PS2 use, but it seems like online almost everyone wants $10 for a suitable replacement. I learned how to replace your video game system’s power cord cheap, and I’ll share the secret with you, too.

I found out by accident that the local Game Stop sells them for $4.99. I had to run an errand about four doors away from a Game Stop anyway, so I dropped in. It took me a little while to find, but I found the cable.

It’s not the same. What they sell as a “universal” AC power cable has two round sides on the plug, not a round and a square like the original Sony cable. I knew I’d seen the connector on the end of that Gamestop cable before, so I didn’t pay $5 for it. It turns out it’s universal because it also fits the original Xbox. An Xbox cable works on a Playstation but not the other way around.

Replace your video game system's power cord cheap. Look for this connector.
This super-common power connector fits most video game consoles. If you find one of these in a junk drawer, it can replace a missing video game power cord. Image credit: Miguel Durán/Wikipedia

I did some digging, and I found that the official name for the connectior the Playstation uses is IEC 60320 C7P. The “P” stands for “polarized.” The “universal” connector on the cable Gamestop was selling is the IEC 60320 C7. The nonpolarized plug fits the polarized connector, but not the other way around.

A ton of home appliances use the IEC 60320 C7. Every tape recorder or boombox I ever owned, for instance. It’s the most common connector used for devices that draw 2.5 amps of current or less. Well, my boomboxes are long gone, so I raided my wife’s. Hers just happens to be different. Rats. I ended up swiping the cable from a dead laptop AC adapter. Wouldn’t you know it, it plugs right in to the Playstation’s power port. That old laptop cable was probably made in the same factory as the cables Gamestop sells as universal video game power cables.

I’m happy. I saved five bucks. (The wasted trip to Gamestop doesn’t count because I walked there from someplace I had to go anyway.)

It wasn’t long ago that you could find this type of AC cable anywhere for a two or three dollars, tops. By anywhere, I really do mean anywhere–discount stores, Radio Shack, consumer electronics stores, maybe even dollar stores if you’re lucky.

Cables are high markup items, but even at $3, these things offer a healthy profit margin, so they should still be readily available at something near that price. I know sometime in the last decade I’ve bought one of these things at Kmart.

So before you pay even $5 for a replacement cable, raid the drawer where you keep all your stray electronics wires and see if you can find one that fits. Failing that, look around for something else around the house, like a boombox, VCR, or DVD player, that has a power cord that will fit. If not, hit the electronics section of your local discount store. Odds are it’s closer than the closest game store, and a suitable cable should cost less there too.

Don’t go into a store asking for an IEC 60320 C7 because they won’t know what you’re talking about, of course. The name may be listed on the packaging. The United States doesn’t require that name to be molded onto the cable, although some countries do. Study the image above and you should recognize the cable on sight in a store. If worse comes to worse, print out the picture above and bring it with you to compare. Miguel Durán drew it to be helpful, so let it help you.

So why does Sony use the polarized connector? Probably to fool people into buying a replacement cable from them at an inflated price to replace a lost cable. They fooled me, and I should know better.

Microsoft getting into the backup business?

I take issue with this Register story, which says Veritas has a better name in the storage arena than Microsoft.

Enron has a better name in the storage arena than Veritas. Ditto BALCO and FEMA and Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart.

So Microsoft wants to get into the backup business? Good.I gave three of the best years of my life to the shrink-wrapped stool sample that is Backup Exec. I believed, wrongly, that the Constitution protects sysadmins like me from that piece of software in the clause that mentions cruel and unusual punishment.

After that last job put me out with Thursday night’s garbage, one question I always asked on job interviews was what they used for tape backups. Had anyone said Backup Exec, I would have walked out of the room immediately.

Nobody did. That was good. There are still some smart people in the world. My confidence in humanity was somewhat restored.

Microsoft’s offering will no doubt have problems, but when batch files and Zip drives are more reliable than your competition, who cares? Backup software is one area that desperately needs some competition. Microsoft entering with its usual less-than-mediocre offering will force everyone else with their less-than-mediocre offerings to either improve or die, because Microsoft’s offering will be cheaper, and there will be people who will assume that Microsoft’s offering will work better with Windows because nobody knows Windows better than Microsoft. (In this case, that assumption might actually be true.)

What’s wrong with Backup Exec? Ask your friendly neighborhood Veritas sales rep what they’ve done about these issues:

If a Backup Exec job backing up to disk contains both disk and system state data and it’s the second job to run on a given night, it will fail just as certainly as the sun coming up the next morning. Unless they finally managed to fix that bug, but I doubt it. I sure reported it enough times.

Remote backups happening over second-tier switches (D-Link, Linksys, Netgear, and other brands you find in consumer electronics stores) usually fail. Not every time. But more than half the time.

Those are just the problems I remember clearly. There were others. I remember the Oracle agent liked to die a horrible death for weeks at a time. I’d do everything Veritas support told me to do and it’d make no difference. Eventually it’d right itself and inexplicably run fine for a few months.

Maybe competition will fix what support contracts wouldn’t. And if it doesn’t, maybe Backup Exec will die.

And if Backup Exec must die, I want to be part of that execution squad. Remember that scene in Office Space with the laser printer and the baseball bat?

I never thought I’d say this, but now I’m saying it.

Welcome, Microsoft.

How DOS came to be IBM’s choice of operating system

The urban legend says Gary Kildall snubbed the IBM suits by making them wait in his living room for hours while he flew around in his airplane, and the suits, not taking it well, decided to cut him out of the deal and opted to do business with Bill Gates and Microsoft, thus ending Digital Research’s short reign as the biggest manufacturer of software for small computers.
Gates doesn’t talk about the incident. About all anyone ever managed to get out of him was, “Gary went flying.” That’s the likely source of the urban legend. I’ve never found Kildall’s account of the story, and he died in 1994, so he’s not talking.

Symantec founder Gordon Eubanks was around at the time and new both Gates and Kildall, and his recollection of what happened is pretty different from the story most people have heard.

Eubanks explains it pretty simply. Kildall didn’t handle the business deals. Period. His wife did. Kildall was a free spirit who wanted to write software on his own terms. He didn’t have much business sense and didn’t want it. When IBM came knocking at the door, his wife was talking already to Hewlett-Packard, who was Digital Research’s biggest customer at the time.

Hindsight says you tell HP to get lost and talk with the 800-pound gorilla. But remember, in 1980, IBM expected to sell a total of 50,000 IBM PCs. That’s it. Even IBM didn’t expect to become Kildall’s biggest customer. (The Z-80/8080 version of CP/M had, at the time, sold about 600,000 copies.) Since IBM was going to use an 8088 CPU, the OS would have to be reworked, so IBM’s 50,000 copies wouldn’t exactly be an easy 50,000 copies to produce. So it’s not difficult to see why Kildall was less than ready to drop everything for IBM.

By other accounts, neither Kildall nor his wife nor their attorney wanted to sign the non-disclosure agreement IBM had all its other partners in the project sign. Signing NDAs probably went against Kildall’s nature; his wife and their attorney feared that it was so restrictive it would be easy to unintentionally violate it and open the company up to legal action it couldn’t afford.

The situation was considerably different at Microsoft. Microsoft’s dominant product at the time was Microsoft Basic, as in the computer language. Its Basic was available for virtually every computer and was pretty much the industry standard. Microsoft was a smaller company with a smaller number of products and

The situation is also much better documented. It gets considerable play in Stephen Manes’ 1993 book Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry-and Made Himself the Richest Man in America. By Manes’ account, Gates was willing to do anything IBM asked. Gates, unlike Kildall, took the IBM PC seriously. In Kildall’s defense, IBM had consulted Gates on the design and Gates actually had access to a prototype. IBM had tried to enter the microcomputer field before and aborted those attempts, so Gates had a better picture. And Gates’ cooperation in the design of the IBM PC would leave Microsoft in a good position if it had only sold 50,000 units, or less. IBM intended to do a successor. Gates had pushed for, among other things, a 32-bit Motorola 68000 CPU in the IBM PC. The 68000 was far and away the most advanced CPU on the market at the time, and it could run Microsoft’s top-flight operating system, Xenix. Yes, if Bill Gates had gotten his way in 1981, Microsoft probably would be the biggest Unix vendor today.

If the IBM PC had flopped, Gates could just say “I told you so,” and start pushing again for a PC design utilitizing the 68000 and Xenix.

Microsoft had nothing to lose. Digital Research had everything to lose.

IBM had its mind made up that the IBM PC would use the Intel 8088 processor–a cheaper version of the 8086 that had an 8-bit data bus–but they needed an operating system and they didn’t know if they could get it from Digital Research. The 8088 wasn’t powerful enough to run Xenix.

Microsoft, of course, ended up providing IBM with an operating system. A friend of a Microsoft employee had designed an 8086-based computer for Seattle Computer Products, and quickly wrote an operating system, known as QDOS or SCP-DOS, for the machine. Microsoft bought QDOS for $50,000 and licensed it to IBM. Kildall called it a ripoff and insinuated that it contained some CP/M code. There are numerous stories about this. In the Bob Cringely book Accidental Empires, Kildall is quoted as saying, “Ask Bill why function code 6 ends in a dollar sign. No one in the world knows that but me.”

And in 1996, John C. Dvorak revealed another mystery: He mentioned that he knew someone who had a very early copy of MS-DOS that contained an easter egg that printed Gary Kildall’s name. CP/M had the same easter egg. I’ve looked, but I’ve never heard anything else about that story.

The IBM PC, of course, changed the industry. Illegal or not, MS-DOS went along for the ride and became the foundation of Microsoft’s empire.

Digital Research was bought out by Novell in 1991, then was resold to Caldera five years later. Several spinoffs and buyouts later, the direct descendant of the product that Kildall and Digital Research eventually did end up writing for IBM is now owned by DeviceLogics. And the name Digital Research has been recycled by a reseller of CD-ROM drives and other peripherals in consumer electronics stores.

How the mighty have fallen.

Ways to save money on your DVD player

If you’re the only person left in the United States without a DVD player, you might want some tips on how to buy them.
I know, I know, since this year was the year of the DVD player, this information would have been a lot more helpful a couple of months ago. I don’t always think of things as quickly as I should.

Believe it or not, your best bet for a DVD player is very likely the cheapest one on the shelf at your local store, the one that’s a brand you’ve never heard of and made in China.

The main reason most people want a cheap DVD player and don’t know it is old TVs. I’ve got a Magnavox console TV that looks like it should be sitting in a shag-carpeted living room with an Atari 2600 connected to it. DVD players have S-Video and composite outputs. The only words of that sentence my ancient TV understands are “have” and “and”.

There are two ways you can put composite inputs on an old TV like mine. You can connect an RF modulator to it–that’s an accessory you can buy at Radio Shack for $30 or most consumer electronics stores for $25 that plugs into your TV’s antenna jack and gives you composite and possibly S-Video inputs.

The second way to put composite inputs on an old TV is to connect a VCR to it. Chances are you already have a VCR. Every VCR I’ve ever seen has composite inputs, which are intended to allow you to chain two VCRs to a TV.

But most brand-name DVD players have copy protection circuitry that detects the presence of a VCR and degrades the picture to an unacceptable level. This is because Hollywood is convinced the only reason someone would connect a DVD player and a VCR in tandem is to make copies of DVDs. And since the lack of composite inputs on old TVs presents an opportunity to sell more stuff, and most big-name makers of DVD players also make stuff like TVs, they’re more than happy to comply.

The brands you’ve never heard of, however, really don’t give a rip. They care about making stuff cheap. And, well, extra circuitry means extra cost. So that’s one reason to leave it out. And China is notorious for thumbing its nose at Western copyright law anyway. (I find it really frightening that totalitarian China is more interested in my rights as a consumer than the supposed Republic of the United States, but that’s another topic.)

Connecting a VCR to a TV through its antenna doesn’t noticeably affect picture quality, because VHS’ picture quality is lower than that of broadcast TV. Connecting a DVD player through the antenna–whether through a VCR or an aftermarket RF modulator–does reduce picture quality. But the picture will still look better than VHS-quality.

Every time I’ve looked, I’ve been able to find no-name DVD players for $60-$65. Name-brand ones cost closer to $100. So a cheapie could potentially save you $70, if it saves you from having to buy an RF modulator.

But even if your TV has composite and/or S-Video inputs, you probably still want the ability to chain your DVD player through your VCR. Because chances are you still want to keep your VCR around for recording TV shows (don’t tell Hollywood) and watching all your old tapes that you don’t re-buy on DVD.

An awful lot of TVs that have those inputs have two sets of inputs, one on the front and one in the back. If you ever connect your camcorder to your TV, you want to save your front-mounted inputs for that, to save fumbling around. If you have a videogame console that you’re in the habit of disconnecting and reconnecting, you want your front inputs for that.

Having the ability to chain your new DVD player to your old VCR gives you more options in setting things up. Options are good.

If you just got a DVD player and you’re having problems with it, you might just want to exchange it for a no-name model.

Finally, if you’re into foreign films and want to import DVDs to get movies you can’t get in the United States yet (if ever), you’re much more likely to be able to disable region codes on a no-name cheapie than you are on a big name brand.

What about reliability? Yes, a $60 no-name model is probably more likely to break than a $100 brand-name one. How much more likely? It’s hard to say. Is it worth the risk? Absolutely. In all likelihood, by the time your cheapie breaks, you’ll be able to buy a replacement cheapie for 40 bucks. Or, since many cheapies use a plain old IDE DVD-ROM drive like your PC, and that drive is the only mechanical part in a DVD player, you stand an awfully good chance of being able to fix the thing yourself. It’s pretty easy to find an IDE DVD drive for $50 or less right now. Within 18 months, I expect them to be selling for $20. If not sooner.

Finally, a tip: If your TV has S-Video inputs, use them. Using S-Video instead of the more conventional composite gives you a sharper picture and better color accuracy. With VHS, this doesn’t make a lot of difference because the format is really low-quality to begin with, and tapes wear out and reduce it even more. There are a lot of things that can go wrong before the signal even starts to travel down that set of cables.

Since DVD has much higher resolution and doesn’t wear out, you’ll notice the difference.

Dave goes shopping.

Who do I remind myself of? My aunt and my grandmother.
I’d better explain.

One of my buddies showed up for Bible study ranting and raving about a band called Third Day. “Where have these guys been all my life?” he kept asking. “They single-handedly got me interested in contemporary Christian music!”

This, coming from a guy who’s met Frank Black (back when he was Black Francis, frontman for the Pixies) and still gets excited when he tells the story. OK, if Jon likes these guys, I’d better check them out.

So I went out last night to get a Third Day record. OK, a CD. But “record” just sounds cooler.

Meanwhile, I remembered that the department stores were all advertising Labor Day sales. Makes sense; if consumer electronics stores do it, other places probably do too. I just never paid attention before. So I looked around. I was only mildly impressed with JC Penney. I found a couple of shirts I really liked, but not in my size. I found a short-sleeved plain white dress shirt in my size for $13 that I almost bought, but if I’m going to buy shirts, I’m not just going to buy one. It’s a minor miracle that I’ve gone shopping for clothes twice this year, so I’m not going to waste the effort.

Against my better judgment, I figured, I went into Famous-Barr. It’s a more expensive place; exclusively a midwest chain if I understand correctly. I hit paydirt. I found a rack full of short-sleeved shirts marked down to $9.99. I guess someone forgot that August just ended Friday, and we’ll be seeing the high 80s for at least another week here in St. Louis. Short-sleeved weather doesn’t really go away until mid-October. These shirts will see some good use. I grabbed a tan and a grey Geoffrey Beene, and a white shirt of some other brand. They’ll see some use this fall, and come spring, they’ll all still look good. The same shirts cost $30 in May, and that was a sale price. I know, because I bought a pair of Beenes back then and they’re my favorite shirts because they’re failry dressy, but they’re almost as comfortable as t-shirts.

I need another brown belt, too, and I looked. I found a belt I liked, made in the United States. I know I shouldn’t buy things made in totalitarian countries (the States aren’t totalitarian, you say? Two words, buddy: Dmitry Sklyarov.) but that didn’t matter. The belt was too small for me. I have to say that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a belt too small for me. I found some other belts I liked, and all of them fit, but they were all made in China. I’d sooner let my pants droop than buy something made in China, so I put them back. I guess I should have asked the clerk if they had any belts not made in China, but people who do that kind of thing bug me. The clerk has no control over where the belts come from, and his bosses don’t care. So I left the store with three nice shirts. Total cost: 34 bucks.

I didn’t used to care about how I dressed–I’d wear whatever I had that was clean, and if it was black, bonus. Then one day, not quite a year ago, I went to read my daily User Friendly, and it was the strip that introduced Sid Dabster, the old-school Unix sysadmin known for wearing a tie. “Hey! He can’t be a geek! He’s wearing a tie!”

And then I remembered a conversation I had just before the last wedding I was in. I came out of the dressing room in my tux, one of the other guys in the party whistled. “You say you don’t get any respect at work? Show up dressed like that!

I’m 26, and I’ve spent my whole professional career in places where a 40-year-old is still considered a kid. You’re not an adult there until your kids are all married. So I figured, what the heck. I took off the polo shirt I’d put on that morning, grabbed my white long-sleeved dress shirt and a burgundy tie (rule #1: you can’t go wrong with black pants, a white shirt, and a tie that’s some shade of red–it’s completely unoriginal but it always looks good, unless you wad it up or sleep in it or something) and went off to work. People kept asking me where my job interview was that day. I just smiled mysteriously.

I went up to work on a pretty girl’s computer. “What are you all dressed up for?” she asked. Now, what I should have said was, “Because I figured I might see you,” but I’m not that smooth.

I continued the experiment for about a month. I noticed the things I said carried more weight. So, these days I wear a tie more often than my boss, more often than my boss’ boss, and even more often than the Director of IT. But that’s OK. They’re all older than me. In fact, since two of them have sons my age, they’re full-fledged adults.

After a month, the experiment stopped being an experiment and started being my daily routine. Good thing too. I ran into the prettiest girl from my high school class back in February or March. “You look nice,” she said, and then asked what I was doing these days.

I came back and told my cube neighbor I was glad I had the tie and trenchcoat that day, then told him all about it. He asked if I got a date. “No,” I said. ‘She’s married and has two kids.”

“Well then why are you worried about impressing her?” he asked, shooting me a really dirty look.

“You never know,” I said. “I doubt all of her friends are married.”

One of these days, I may figure out what colors look good together, but I pretty much cheat. If a set of colors is used on a tie, and the tie strikes me as looking good and not tacky, I’ll mimic that scheme with my choice of pants and shirt. Beyond that, I know navy blue and black don’t mix, and brown and black don’t mix either. But you’ll rarely, if ever, see those combinations on a tie.

Unfortunately, my pager is black. I’ll have to tell them to issue me a brown pager to wear some of the time so I can finally stop committing a major fashion faux pas several times a week.

Something tells me that request will get me a dirty look and nothing else.