Selling Tyco trains

I got an inquiry last week about selling Tyco trains. As a child of the 70s and 80s, I certainly remember Tyco, and in recent years Tyco has gained a bit of a following.

If you’re looking to sell some Tyco gear, you certainly can do it, but you have to keep your expectations realistic. You’ll probably be able to sell it, but don’t expect to get rich off it.

Read more

Happy birthday, Rubik’s Cube!

Rubik’s Cube turned 40 this week. In a reflection of how much faster the world moves today than it used to, I remember Rubik’s Cube from the early 1980s, when it was a big, national craze. I had no idea at the time that it was invented in 1974 and took six years to reach the U.S. market. I asked for one for Christmas in 1981, and so did everyone else I knew. We all got one. And none of us could solve it. Granted, some of that may have been because we were in grade school, and the early years at that. My best friend’s older sister, who was in sixth grade or so, had a book, and she could solve it with the book’s help.

It was even the subject of a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon. I only watched it once or twice. It turns out it’s not easy to make engaging stories about a six-sided puzzle. There were tons of cheap knockoffs out there too, but unlike the knockoffs of today which are generally regarded as better, the 1980s knockoffs were generally worse. After a year or three, the craze died down. We moved in 1983, and I don’t remember anyone in our new town talking about Rubik’s Cube. Mine ended up in a drawer. I’ve looked for it a few times over the years, but never found it. Read more

Putting right E.T. for the Atari 2600

Hacking vintage video games has been a popular trend this year, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I saw this: A hobbyist spent a few weeks this year fixing the infamous E.T. cartridge for the Atari 2600, and kept a detailed analysis of the project. I found it interesting.

Read more

Go-Bots vs Transformers: My small-town perspective

Internet pal Rob O’Hara posted a photo of a whatzit antique mall find earlier this week. I knew I’d seen it before, and I knew some of my friends had it, but its identity escaped me. The answer got me thinking about Go-Bots vs Transformers.

A commenter identified it as a Go-Bots command center. I seem to recall it doubled as a carrying case as well. Go-Bots, if you missed that particular month of the 1980s, were transforming toys, like Transformers, that transformed from robots to vehicles. I was in third or fourth grade when they arrived in the small town where I was living, an hour south of St. Louis. They were made by Tonka, a mighty toy company, but they were a flash in the pan.

Read more

Giving and receiving criticism in writing

Internet pal Rob O’Hara wrote last week about why he hasn’t published a book in five years. The resulting discussion has the potential to get ugly–not that I think it will, but the potential is there. Writing about writing, and criticizing writing, is difficult.

I don’t have the solution–I can just tell you it’s difficult.

Read more

How abandonware gets abandoned

From time to time on classic computing and/or videogaming forums, the question of how to track down the current copyright holder to a particular given title comes up. Sometimes someone knows the answer. Frequently they don’t.

This week, when George Lucas announced he’d sold Lucasfilm to Disney, illustrated precisely how this kind of thing happens.

Read more

Creative play with boys

On Saturday morning, my wife went out for a few hours to run errands and left me home with the boys. And when she came home, I was on the living room floor building a garage out of Mega Bloks (an oversized Lego knockoff for toddlers) with them. My oldest is really, really into Cars right now (the Pixar movie, not the New Wave band), and that improvised Mega Blok garage was just about the greatest thing ever–well, maybe just all day, which in a 3-year-old’s mind, might as well be forever.

“I never would have thought to do that with boys,” my wife said.

Read more

How to make more money, but more importantly, keep more of what you earn

Most GenXers don’t spend their money wisely.

That’s not an insult on my peers; there’s plenty of blame to go around. Yes, we want what our parents had at 50 and we want it at 25, but part of the problem is the images all around us tell us we have to have all that. And if my education is any indication, the only financial education I received in school was an aside in a U.S. History class.

Let’s talk about how to earn more to dig out of financial ruin, and how to stay out.First and foremost, usually when people get to the point where they start typing “earn more money now” or something similar into Google, usually they need immediate help. A year ago, I was in that situation. Talking it over with the higher-ups didn’t help–a few months later I lost my job. Ouch.

I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t bitter. I still am. But in a way it was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it forced me to look for opportunities. I already had been, but it forced me to find others that I probably wouldn’t have, otherwise.

There are a few ways to make a little money but it won’t necessarily happen immediately. If you have a web site, put Google ads on it. Click my link to find out how. Whether you get your first check in a month or in a year depends on how much traffic you get. A faster way to make a little money is to sign up for some online surveys. You won’t get rich, but a dollar here and five bucks there adds up. Sometimes you’ll hit the jackpot and qualify for a $25 survey. That won’t pay the mortgage but it will pay for a few meals.

Here’s another idea: Become a mystery shopper. Google for it. But don’t pay anyone to become a mystery shopper, not when there are legitimate outfits who are willing to pay you. Just keep in mind some of them want references. That’s actually a good thing. It protects your reputation and theirs. Again, it’s not big money, but it’s fairly easy money.

But I’ll be blunt: If you’re in some real trouble and there’s a bill that’s due in two weeks and you can’t pay it, then it’s time to make some sacrifices. Do you have any recent video games? Any collectible CDs or DVDs or VHS tapes? Collectible toys, such as Star Wars figures? There are lots of places that are willing to buy things like that, but to get top dollar you have to sell it yourself. Search eBay, find out what your items or something similar are selling for, and think seriously about liquidating some stuff. Don’t sell your family heirlooms, but if there are things that you can sell now to get you out of trouble and replace later when you’re out of trouble, consider it. While collectibles do increase in value, I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: Most of them are doing well to keep up with inflation. None will increase as quickly as your debt–not for a sustained period of time, at least. If you have something that is, sell now. The bubble will burst, and you’ll be able to buy it back cheaper later.

And something sobering will happen as you research what some of the things you own are worth. You’ll find a lot of them aren’t worth anywhere near what you paid for them. There’s a lesson there. It’s much better to spend your money on things that hold their value than on things that have bling factor but have no value once the 14-day return period is over.

So when you have money again, spend less on worthless things so you have more to spend on things that do hold their value. A big truck turns heads and lets you bully people on the road (and the ads to some degree encourage it) but can you really afford $40 a week to keep gas in it? Do you have to haul stuff often enough to justify that expense? For the majority of people, it’s much better to drive an economy car and put the money you save on the lower payment and less gas towards paying off debt. Borrow or rent a truck those occasional times when you need to haul something. So skip the Hummer and get a house. You need a house anyway, and while a Hummer will lose value when you go to sell it, a house usually will gain.

Let’s go back to the eBay thing for a minute. Ebay does a lot of good things. Once you’ve sold your stuff, you have the option to go buy more stuff to sell. Buy what you know and only what you know, and only if you can buy low and sell high. If you can’t either double your money or make $10, don’t bother. It’s best to find something that lets you do both. But if you have the ability to do that, you have an asset that stands a chance of turning your financial situation around within a few years.

But it also does something else. It teaches you how to sell. There is no better, more useful ability than how to sell. Not everyone sells merchandise for dollars, but everyone has to sell ideas. If you regularly find that people don’t listen to you, then that’s a good indication that you need more salesmanship ability. Yeah, but those people are idiots, you say. Even better. There are more idiots out there than smart people. Most rich people got rich by getting idiots to buy their junk.

I remember reading a line in a book once that asked me if I could make a better hamburger than McDonald’s. Of course I can. So why did Ray Kroc have more money than me?

By the way, I don’t mean any insult by any of this if people don’t listen to you. There are a lot of people who don’t listen to me either. I need to work on my sales skills as much as anyone.

I did something else before I started selling my stuff. I took a walk. I walked at least once a day. But I didn’t just walk. I was picking up aluminum cans. At 40 cents a pound, an aluminum can is worth about a penny. There’s no way I can pick up 100 cans in an hour, so it’s a lousy way to make money. But nobody else was paying me to do anything else during that time. I made sure I didn’t walk during working hours so I wouldn’t be out if the phone rang with a job opportunity. At least I felt like I was doing a little something. It was very little, but it kept my mind off things so I didn’t get as depressed. It also helped me watch for opportunity. Those cans aren’t worth anything, but the ability to quickly spot things of value from far off is worth something. It made a few house payments when I didn’t have a 40-hour-a-week job.

That’s enough talk about making money. I’ll admit that they’re just general ideas. I can’t give specific advice because something that works where I live might not work 100 miles away. Something else works there. The nice thing about the United States is that there always is an opportunity, no matter where you are. Although politicians seem to be trying their best to destroy that, they can’t destroy opportunities as quickly as you can find them.

I read a study this past week that said 70% of college graduates today can’t balance a checkbook, and when presented with a 20-ounce jar of spaghetti sauce for $1.99 and a 32-ounce jar for $2.49, they don’t know how to figure out which one is the better deal. That should scare some people.

But it occurred to me that I didn’t learn how to do that in school. I learned it from my mother. And I think she learned it from her mother, who must have known it because she managed to raise 11 kids and her husband didn’t have any money.

They don’t teach that kind of thing in school. To me, that’s the only thing math is good for. But I don’t know how old I was when I realized math was useful for that. Before that I thought math was just something teachers used to prove they knew something I didn’t.

There are lots of books out there that try to teach you how to make more money. But a more valuable skill is learning how to spot the good deal. Learn how to calculate the cost per ounce and use it. Carry a calculator with you if that’s what you have to do. There’s no shame in that. A calculator is also a useful tool for keeping a running total of the cost of the stuff in your cart. So it might be a good idea to carry two calculators. They’ll pay for themselves the first time you use them.

And if you have any influence with math teachers, please hand them this word problem. It’s the only good use of math I can think of for a non-engineer:

A television costs $199 at a store two miles from you. The sales tax rate in your town is 5.75%. The same television costs $179 at a store 100 miles away. The sales tax rate in that town is 6%. Your car gets 25 miles to the gallon. Gasoline costs $2.00 a gallon. Is it cheaper to buy the television at the store two miles away, or is it cheaper to buy it 100 miles away?

I’ll conclude with the secret of getting rich. The secret isn’t to make lots of money. It’s human nature to spend more money as soon as you make more money. The secret is to spend less.

I remember when the first of my college classmates bought a house. He told me that at the end of the paper, it told him how much money the loan was for, and how much money he would pay between then and the end of the term. “Am I really going to make that much money?” he asked. Then he laughed it off.

He will. So will I. So will everyone. Most people living in the United States will make a lot more than a million dollars between their first job and retirement. The question is whether Nike and General Motors and Phillip Morris and Coca-Cola get to keep most of it, or whether the wage-earner gets to keep most of it.

I really don’t like the tone of this rant–and it basically is a rant–because it sounds like someone who made it looking back. I’ve only started the journey myself. I started 14 months ago. But my wife and I already have something to show for it. We have no credit card debt, we own two 2002 Honda Civics outright, and if we can keep up our current pace, we will own our house outright in a little over three years. Five years is probably more realistic.

Remember, around 12 months ago there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills. So if I can do it, lots of people can.

Well, Episode III could have been worse…

I went and saw Revenge of the Sith tonight. I can say it definitely felt good to see a Star Wars story in the theaters one last time. (This is supposed to be the last time, after all.)

What else can I say? They weren’t the atrocities the first two movies were. Overall I still don’t think it was any better than the originals, but I do think there was a lot of room for improvement. (Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers here.)Let’s talk about the good first. First and foremost this is an action movie, which is good, because action is what George Lucas does best. This is a fast-paced movie that doesn’t get bogged down in committees, which is good. If you want committees, you can watch CSPAN and it won’t cost you $8 all the time.

There are plenty of special effects here, but it seemed like Lucas tried to rely on special effects to make up for the shortcomings in the first two movies. There’s less of that in this one. I can’t think of a point in the movie that looked like special effects just for the sake of special effects. In a time when Pixar and Dreamworks SKG each release a movie a year featuring entire computer-generated worlds, that trick doesn’t work anymore, and it’s good that Lucas realized it.

Oh, and what about Jar Jar Binks? He makes a brief appearance, but it’s just a few seconds at most and he doesn’t say anything.

So what’s wrong with it?

Dialogue still isn’t Lucas’ strong point. It’s better this time than sometimes (at least someone asks "What’s the matter with you?" in this one; I remember an earlier movie having a line "What’s troubling you?" which just isn’t the way anyone talks) but the things people say still seem contrived, and at times it seems like the actors and actresses might as well be reading cue cards.

Examples? The most blatant examples surround the character of Anakin Skywalker (played by Hayden Christensen), of course. The movie centers around Christensen’s struggles. And that’s the problem. We don’t get to see him struggle so much. We see him cry, but that seems out of place. I feel safe in saying this, since I think everyone knows what happens to Anakin Skywalker, so I’ll say it: Would Darth Vader cry? No? So why is Anakin Skywalker, the 20something hotshot Jedi, crying? It’s out of character. So what does someone who can’t let his guard down but really wants to cry do? Unfortunately, you won’t find out by watching this movie.

Similarly, Natalie Portman’s talents are wasted on the character of Padme. There is no actress alive better suited to play the prodigy Padme. Padme would have been a lot better with more Natalie Portman pontifications and fewer George Lucas pontifications coming out of her. The relentlessness of Portman’s character from Garden State is missing. And at at least one point in the movie, she breaks Anakin Skywalker’s heart. Portman proved in the movie Closer that she can break a heart like nobody’s business. Had she been allowed to truly break the heart of Hayden Christensen and every male in the audience, it would have been a better movie.

Both Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) get very angry with Anakin Skywalker in this movie. At one point, Jackson says, "If you’re right, you’ve earned my trust." Inappropriate. Where’s the Samuel L. Jackson attitude? The cold stare? "You’ll earn my trust when you’re right!" is a good start. Of course in most movies, Jackson would include a couple of f-bombs and end the sentence with a word that starts with the letter "b." Especially if the person he’s talking to happens to be male. Lucas keeps that kind of language out of Star Wars, but Samuel L. Jackson can say those words with his tone of voice even without the actual words coming out. He should have been allowed to.

Ewan McGregor is similarly handcuffed. At the movie’s darkest hour, McGregor’s words don’t match his actions. McGregor sorely needed to drag back out some of the attitude he showed in Trainspotting.

The writing suffers also. Some of the characters are inconsistent. There are minor characters in the movie who seemed larger than life earlier in the movie, yet they died without a struggle. I understand needing to get on with the story, but had they died fighting, it would have been all the more tragic. And besides, had those stories been told, maybe then there would have been 30 seconds spent on the love story rather than 10 minutes.

Gatermann tells me there were some lame attempts at humor in the movie. I didn’t catch anything that even sounded like an attempt at humor. It’s not like this movie had bad actors in it, so this movie should have had its moments.

Kevin Smith compares the movie to Othello or Hamlet. Well, for some in my generation, I’m sure it is. But this movie isn’t going to be remembered much past my generation. My generation’s children will like it for a while because we dragged them along to go see it. But will it capture their imaginations the way it did ours nearly 30 years ago? No. Will it take a seat next to The Wizard of Oz, or Gone With the Wind? No.

And that’s what’s frustrating. George Lucas came up with a good story. He did his homework. All the elements are there. He studied his mythology and mimicked it well. His psychology seems pretty sound. And his characters, especially the key characters, are all very compelling.

This movie had all of the potential for greatness. Probably not Shakespearean greatness, but it had the potential to be the movie of the decade, and, like Anakin Skywalker, it just didn’t live up to it. It won’t even be the best movie to come out this year.

That observation does more to help me understand how Obi-Wan Kenobi felt than Ewan McGregor’s acting did. And that’s really a shame.

So the Department of Homeland Security is now the copyright police?

The Department of Homeland Security just shut down a Star Wars-hosting Bittorrent site.

What does copyright infringement have to do with terrorism?People downloading the newest installment of Star Wars (or buying bootleg DVDs) is hardly a threat to national security.

Actually I’m kind of wondering if it’s a threat to much of anything. Think about it: The people who grew up with the franchise are going to go see it in the theaters so they can see it on the big screen. I know I went and saw Episodes I and II in the theater twice each. I only go to the movies once every couple of months, so for someone like me to see both of those movies twice is something. Most people my age saw them a lot more than that.

My point is, the people who download Revenge of the Sith or buy an illegal DVD are going to see it in the theater anyway, and they’re probably going to see it a lot of times. And when the legitimate Episode III DVDs come out, they’re going to buy those two. And when the collector’s edition of the trilogy, and the extra-special collector’s edition of both trilogies come out, they’re the people most likely to buy those too. George Lucas is going to get plenty of opportunities to sell this movie thrice.

I know it’s illegal. The ethics are questionable–I have a lot less problem with people copying it if they’re going to buy the legitimate copy anyway once it’s available. But is this going to cause measurable damage to a multi-billion-dollar franchise? No.

And the Department of Homeland Security’s involvement just makes it look more like Homeland Security is more about Big Brother than it is about stopping terrorists.

If Star Wars is a big enough crisis that it shows up on these guys’ radar, then that’s a sign to me that it’s time for the department to be rethinking its relevance. Nobody is going to die because somebody saw Star Wars without paying for it.

The government needs to get its priorities straight.