Kickin’ my wireless oldskool, WRT54G-style

I found a couple of old Linksys WRT54G routers and decided to load DD-WRT on them. The first one, an abandoned-by-Linksys WRT54GS model, gave me some trouble, which led me to buying a TP-Link unit to run DD-WRT on. The second unit, which was a vanilla WRT54G, still had firmware available on Linksys’ site, so the upgrade was somewhat straightforward–it went by the book, at least. I installed the latest Linksys firmware, then installed the DD-WRT mini build, then upgraded to the full build.

Linksys WRT54g obsolete
This Linksys WRT54G was one of the best pieces of computer hardware of its day. I can’t recommend it as a router anymore but it can still help you out as an access point.

After getting DD-WRT running on it, I configured it to behave as an access point on channel 6. I was surprised at how strong the signal was. Years ago, I ran a pair of WRT54G routers, and they struggled to cover the house. It’s possible that was due to age, or perhaps I was getting too much interference from my neighbors since we were probably all running our wireless on the default channel in those days because none of us knew better.

As for my WRT54GS, when I tried to upgrade it, I got a nice message stating, “Upgrade are failed!” Nice. Too bad it didn’t add “All your base are belong to us.” That’s when I learned you need to install the last Linksys upgrade first, then upgrade from that. So I downloaded that from some forum, tried flashing that, and received the same message. So I set it aside, figuring I bricked the unit. A few days later, after getting the WRT54G running, I fired up the GS, visited its configuration page, and… found DD-WRT running on it! Upgrade are failed? More like all your upgrade are belong to ME.

In all honesty, I probably got lucky. It’s always best to go by the book on things like this.

The WRT54G is limited, of course, to 802.11b and 802.11g (54 megabits max) but as a complement to a more modern router, it still has a few tricks left. If you have one laying around, it won’t cost anything aside from about 30 minutes’ worth of effort to load DD-WRT on it and see what it can still do for you.

And if you don’t happen to have one laying around, it’s not hard to find a used WRT54G. I find them at estate sales, garage sales, and rummage sales pretty frequently because a lot of people set them aside when they either buy newer, faster routers or their ISP forces them into an all-in-one unit. Don’t pay too much for it, because it’s aging technology, but I’d say they’re worth grabbing for $5 or less.

Don’t build a drill press out of PVC pipe

This past weekend, Lifehacker posted instructions for building a makeshift drill press out of PVC pipe. Although the finished contraption looks kind of cool, it’s not something you want to build yourself.

My drill press cost me $40. It’s far better and far safer, even though it’s still possible to injure yourself with it. But structurally it’s as sound as it gets, and acquiring it didn’t take me all weekend, either. Read more

Something that shouldn’t be there

I was standing in line to get a number for an estate sale this weekend–they’re what I do–and found myself standing a couple of people behind someone who talks too much.

I think some people talk because they want affirmation, and telling tales of what they’ve found is the way they get it. I’m very careful what I talk about, because I frequently see new people who look for exactly the same thing I look for, and if I just give away the knowledge I’ve spent years learning, it literally costs me money. But that’s not how a lot of people think, so if you keep your ears open, you can hear some good information.

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Teleworking on the cheap

As I’ve mentioned recently, my new job allows me to work from home one day per week. They provide me a laptop to take home, but that’s it. If I want other hardware, I have to provide it.

Fortunately for me, I was able to outfit my office on the cheap.

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Advice on scraping by

Here’s a good, timely Google search query: scraping by advice.

I looked, and I’ve never written anything that matched that query well. I know a lot of people are hurting right now. I’ve been in some tight spots and I’ve gotten out of some, so let’s talk about what I would do, on a really practical level, if I ran into another tight spot next week.

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Confessions and rememberances of an Amigaholic

My name is Dave. I am an Amigaholic.

I thought I was recovered. But I don’t think you ever recover. Not really.

You see, this week I was trolling Craigslist for garage sales. I look for trains, toys for my boys, and other things that strike my fancy. I spotted a sale that advertised an Amiga computer. I shouldn’t have put it on my list, but I did. I didn’t want to buy it, but I had to see it. I had to. Like I said, you don’t recover.

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Thrift-store PCs

In the comments of a recent post I did, reader Glaurung Quena brought up a good topic: secondhand PCs, acquired cheaply, strictly as rebuild fodder.

I like the idea, of course, because I’ve been doing it for years. In the 1990s I built a lot of 486s and Pentiums into former IBM PC/ATs, basically until all the board makers relocated the memory slots into a position that wasn’t clear on the original PC/AT due to a beam that supported its drive bays. And of course the adoption of ATX and MicroATX killed that, at least for a while.

But now ATX has been around as long as the old AT architecture had been when ATX came along, and efforts to replace ATX haven’t been successful. So that trick makes more sense again. Buy a secondhand machine cheaply, intending to re-use the case, and regard anything else inside that happens to be reusable strictly as a bonus. Read more

Improving DSL speed

I found some DSL speed tips. They work. If you have DSL, you should read them and do the same.I went from speeds all over the map to a fairly consistent 600 kbps just running a new CAT5 line for DSL. Replacing the cheap, flat, old-fashioned phone cord running from my modem to the phone jack and the other cheapie in my patch panel with UTP phone cords boosted me another 30-50 kbps. That extra boost varies, but it’s something, and I’m glad to be consistently above 600 kbps now.

Finding UTP phone cords is a challenge. Supposedly Lowe’s has them but I can’t verify that. I had one that I wasn’t using for some insane reason. I found another one at a garage sale, obviously from a DSL installation kit. I don’t remember what I paid for it, only that it was a lot less than it’s worth to me. Digging through boxes of random cables at garage sales can pay dividends.

The easiest way to get them is probably to make your own from scrap lengths of CAT5/5e/6 cable. Just crimp RJ11 modular plugs onto the ends instead of RJ45. Radio Shack sells a package of 10 plugs for $6. Overpriced, but convenient. There’s always a Radio Shack nearby.

Belkin sells a special shielded twisted pair modem cable as an “Internet cable,” for around $20. I’m sure it’s a very good cable, but it’s not worth 20 bucks.

When looking at a store, as a general rule, flat cables are always bad, but a round cable stands a chance of being good.

If you have a fairly new house, chances are your phone wiring is pretty good, in which case the most important thing is getting a good phone cord. If you have a house built in the ’60s like me, with phone wire run after the fact by a weekend handyman who either didn’t know or didn’t care how to avoid interference on the wires, that’s another story. If there’s 30 feet of bad wire between the telco and the modem, the quality of that last 6 feet of wire doesn’t make much difference.

While you’re at it, you might as well replace all your phone cords with these higher-quality models. Your voice calls will be clearer, and it eliminates the possibility of those cables introducing interference into the line. That interference shouldn’t reach the modem, but “shouldn’t” is no guarantee.

Tips for running a garage sale

On a forum I frequent, the discussion turned to garage sales, and some people shared some horror stories. As someone who visits a lot of garage sales, I’ve seen the ways people deal with some of the pitfalls. In the interest of encouraging garage sales, I’ll share my tips for running a garage sale.

tips for running a garage sale
Quick: can you spot the common (but very serious) error in this photo of a table at a garage sale? Keep reading and you’ll find the answer. This may be the most valuable of my tips for running a garage sale.

One problem is people showing up at 5 or 6 in the morning wanting to get in early. The best way to prevent this is to be vague about your address. Be specific enough that they can find it, but vague enough that they can’t find it early. What do I mean? Don’t say “2329 Jefferson” in your ad and streetcorner signs. Say “single-family sale, 23xx Jefferson.” Then, when you’re ready to open your sale, put a sign in your front yard and open your garage door. Last of all, have a helper go out and put some signs on nearby major intersections.

The early birds can still show up if they want, but they’ll have no choice but to sit in the car and wait for you, since they won’t even know for sure which house is having the sale. Only the people really, really serious about buying something will, and those are the people you want.

Lowballers are the other problem. I’ll admit, I’ve asked for discounts before when buying large quantities of stuff, but I don’t demand them. I see some people demanding discounts on everything, no matter how low the initial price is. Yes, I know that’s annoying. I’ve actually had people running sales ask me if I’m interested in the same thing they’re getting lowballed on, in hopes of selling it to me instead. Garage sale prices are already pennies on the dollar, but some people insist on squeezing out every last penny.

The best tactic is to lower your prices late in the sale, say, after 10 am. Advertise that prices will be 25% or 50% off at 10 am, and maybe knock something else off at 11 am. When a lowballer tries to play games with you, just say, “no discounts until 10 am.” They can come back then, assuming the item is still there. If they really want it, then they’ll pay your asking price.

Do be realistic about your prices, though. I once went to a sale, picked out 10 items (unmarked) and asked how much. I was expecting $10, maybe $20 at most, based on what I paid at other sales. She asked $60.

What did I do? I went through the pile again. It turned out half of it was stuff I could turn a small profit on at $6 each. Half of it was stuff I couldn’t sell for $6 myself. So I put those back. I reluctantly paid $30 for the other five. I honestly doubt anyone else expressed interest in what I put back. If it ever did sell, I’m sure she didn’t get $30 for it.

If you don’t know how to price something, visit a few sales yourself to get an idea what stuff goes for. Or at least visit your nearest thrift store and see what they charge for the kind of stuff you’ll be selling.

Leaving items unmarked and soliciting an offer encourages lowballers to offer 10 cents for things that ought to be priced a dollar. Or it leads to awkward exchanges like mine, where someone puts most of it back.

Do keep in mind a significant number of people who come to your sale are looking for things to re-sell. They may have a booth at a flea market or antique mall, they may sell on eBay, or something else. You’ll have some bargain hunters and curious neighbors, but most likely the majority will be resellers. Their profit margin isn’t your main concern. But the general rule of reselling is that 3x markup is the minimum that works. If an item sells on eBay for $10, the most you’re going to get from a reseller is about $3. The reason is because eBay is going to take $1.50 in commissions. The government is going to take another $1.50 or so in taxes. So the seller spends $3 to make $3-$4. But of course the seller would rather spend $1, sell for $10, and make $5-$6.

I’ve seen old Marx train cars priced at $50 at garage sales because the seller claimed he saw one just like it go for $100 on eBay. In the cases I’m thinking of, it’s always been a very common car worth no more than $20, so I know the seller was either lying or mistaken. If you think you have something really special, my advice is to attempt to sell it on eBay instead. You’re not going to get eBay prices at a garage sale. Essentially, as a garage sale operator, you’re a wholesaler.

If you don’t want to hassle with eBay, take a name and number from anyone who shows interest.

One tactic I see sometimes (and my family used) is to advertise a sale as a moving sale instead of a yard or garage sale, in order to get better prices. Advertising a moving sale can allow you to get better prices for your highest-end stuff, like furniture or nice electronics or perhaps name-brand clothes in nice condition. But things like used toys and VHS tapes sell for about the same price no matter what you call the sale.

Some people post phone numbers in the ad. Unless the ad runs the same day as the sale, this is a mistake. It’s just asking people to call you and want to see your stuff early. I admit I’ve done it myself. There have been a couple of times that I couldn’t find a sale, the ad had a number, and I called for directions and ended up buying a lot of stuff. But if you don’t want people calling you all hours of the day in advance, it’s probably not worth it. Putting a nearby landmark in your ad is just as effective and saves you the phone calls.

Finally, I’ve seen people take out ads a week or two in advance of the sale. I don’t see the point. Most circuit regulars don’t plan beyond the upcoming Saturday. So placing an ad early just forces you to do a lot of explaining to disappointed people that the sale is next week. The best day to advertise is the Friday before. The day of the sale is often too late, as many people have already made their plans. An ad in Saturday’s newspaper can draw in people who change their plans on Saturday morning, or people who plan spontaneously. But if you’re paying for the ad, Friday is best. If you advertise on Craigslist, run your ad early in the week and refresh it closer to Friday.

Did you catch the mistake in the photo at the top? Arguably there are two, but one of them is worse than the other. Organizing the stuff into logical groups would help it to sell better. The toy cars, the tools, and the electronics ought to all be together, rather than making it look like someone dumped a box of random stuff onto the table.

But the bigger problem is no price tags. The box of miniature light bulbs in the upper right would easily sell for $10 online. Mark it at $3, and it will sell. Unmarked, don’t be surprised if someone offers 10 cents.

And those are my tips for running a garage sale. I hope they help you have a less frustrating, more successful sale.

Lionel at Target

On Sunday, I went to Target largely because I had a coupon, but I also wanted to get a gift for my son.

I had heard Target was selling Lionel trains, and I’d seen a picture of the endcap, which included a Lionel teddy bear in addition to the trains. I wanted one.I got my bear, but there weren’t very many left. What I also take as good news is what else wasn’t left.

I saw two O gauge train sets. But I saw zero add-on track packs, and I also saw zero add-on cars. I know my local Target had them because I checked their inventory online on Friday. So it would appear that people are buying track and train cars.

I’ve always believed the problem with selling trains at retail is that since the 1970s at least, for the most part sets are all anyone has tried to sell. The sets sell poorly, and people assume it’s because nobody likes trains anymore.

The bigger problem is that a train running around in circles is only interesting for so long–and "so long" has been getting shorter and shorter since the 1950s.

That’s why you could buy add-on cars, track, and switches anywhere trains were sold, and to some extent even in the 5 & 10 stores, in the 1950s.

But ever since Louis Marx got old and retired, nobody has realized this. They just sell a short train with a loop of track measuring about 3 feet by 4 feet and wonder why half the sets remain unsold and the other half end up in closets.

Since people are buying extra track and cars at Target this year, and the extra track and cars appears to be selling out before the sets do, that suggests to me that some of these sets won’t end up in closets. I just wish they would sell switches and crossings. Lionel needs to try not to alienate its network of authorized dealers, but maybe if Lionel only sold its manual switches at Target, the dealers would be happy.

Many hobbyists wouldn’t be happy with the stuff Lionel is selling at Target, but established hobbyists aren’t the market here. It’s the people wanting a train to put around the Christmas tree, or the people looking for a $200 gift that’s something more traditional than a video game.

Some of those sets will become family traditions, hauled out of the basement or attic every November and tirelessly running laps until sometime a little after New Year’s Day before being packed back into a box again. Some of those families will add a car here or there and maybe add some more track, but many will probably run the sets as-is.

I’m sure I’ll see some in garage sales in a few years. That’s just reality.

And for some percentage of the people who get these sets, the train will grow into an obsession. That first train will lead to more cars and more track, and then to miniature villages populated with miniature figures and miniature vehicles, and, of course, more and more trains.

But what I saw at Target on Sunday makes me more confident that Lionel will be around a while longer. And that’s nice.