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A couple of links, one with a quote from Yours Truly

Speed traps. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch couldn’t find anyone willing to speak out about them, for fear of becoming a target. Until my phone rang.

The Slackers were right. I pretty much agree with this editorial. I did things a bit differently. But I think the GenX way is more sustainable.On the speed traps story: Minor infractions, like tail lights, speeding by 6 MPH, and illegal window tint catch criminals. So I see that. But Bella Villa and St. George take it too far. I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to rob a bank and then drive through either of those towns.

To me, there are much bigger problems than minor traffic infringements. I see kids riding mini-motorcycles at high speeds on the street all the time. They don’t follow traffic laws, they don’t have licenses, and they’re a danger to everyone: pedestrians, other vehicles, and themselves. Nobody ever seems to bother them, though.

Meanwhile, when you’re certain you’re going to get pulled over for something, you become too self-conscious and make mistakes. It makes you a worse driver. Everyone loses, except for the dinky speed-trap town’s bank account balance.

On GenX: I didn’t buy the total nomad philosophy. I got married, but late. I bought a house, but one I could afford. I realized early enough that I was a mercenary in every potential employer’s eyes. I did buy a small car and continue to drive it. I buy lots of used stuff. I lived sustainably, while putting down shallow roots and making changes that allowed me to do that. And I paid for that car and that house early. Real early.

And I did it while voting Republican, although since I don’t like neoconservative philosophy that relationship is strained. I want the government to live sensibly like I do.

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.

The Maryville church killing suspect was denied insurance for mental health treatments

There’s no explanation for why some crimes happen, but in the case of the murder of Pastor Fred Winters last week during his Sunday sermon at First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., there is an explanation. And it’s troubling.

The suspect was receiving treatment for mental illness. It seemed to be working. But the insurance company didn’t want to pay for it.

Thanks to this decision, a wife is without a husband, two teenage daughters are without a father, and a church is without a pastor.This part of the story is buried in paragraph 6 of a story that ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on March 10. The money quote:

Drug treatments that seemed to help weren’t covered by insurance. A doctor recommended treatments in a hyperbaric chamber, but they also weren’t covered by insurance. And the chamber Abernathy wanted to use was in Florida.

Where’s the outrage?

Most likely, Terry Sedlacek is going to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Already, early reports say his family claims he’s insane due to lyme disease. By other accounts, there’s only ever been one case study demonstrating that lyme disease causes insanity, and it’s never been duplicated.

But the cause of his insanity doesn’t matter. By all accounts, something was certainly wrong with Terry Sedlacek. His neighbors were afraid of him. So were his coworkers. He was getting treatment, and the treatment seemed to be working before the insurance company cut it off. The treatments they were willing to pay for didn’t work all that well. And the evidence available today suggests Sedlacek marked last Sunday as “death day” in his planner, loaded up enough ammunition to kill 30 people, and drove to church.

To many people, this story is all about gun control. Left-wingers say if Sedlacek couldn’t have gotten guns, this wouldn’t have happened. Right-wingers say if there’d been a few people with guns at church that morning, someone would have gunned down Sedlacek before he killed Pastor Winters.

Well, mass shootings happen in countries with strict gun control also, and it would have taken a really good, really quick shot to save Pastor Winters’ life since four shots went off in those few seconds before he died.

I don’t see this as a gun control case. Had Terry Sedlacek’s doctor been permitted to practice medicine without interference from insurance company employees–who by all rights would be practicing medicine themselves if they actually knew anything about medicine–then he would have either been in a better mental state on March 10, or he might have been in an institution. In either case, nobody dies.

It’s time for the Winters family, First Baptist Church, or someone–anyone–to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Sedlacek’s insurer. This isn’t just about money. This is about calling attention to a broken system that should have been abolished years ago.

How many more people have to die before we fix this?

Self-Perpetuating Depression

My longtime friend Steve brought up a good point as we discussed our job situations. He said he read that some companies may be using the current DEPRESSION (I hate that r-word, let’s call things what they are) as an excuse to lay people off that they’ve been putting off because it would hurt morale.

The idea makes a lot of sense.I’ve been privvy, unfortunately, to management waiting for an excuse to get rid of people in the past. It’s a strategy that can backfire, but nobody likes confrontation, and waiting for an excuse is an easy way to avoid confrontation. Or to avoid having to fix problems you really don’t want to deal with.

But that creates a problem. While one business is using economic depression as an excuse to cut staff, so are lots of others. That puts more people out of work. That means they have less money, and that means they spend less.

So your neighbors’ former employees aren’t patronizing you anymore, and your revenue drops. Welcome to the vicious circle. At some point, you probably end up laying off people you really never wanted to get rid of.

It kind of sounds like a conspiracy, but really it isn’t. All it takes is a few people having that bad idea.

And there’s no real way to prevent it. Everywhere I’ve ever worked, going all the way back to high school, I’ve seen people in management positions who had no business being there. And that won’t change.

You can try to work in depression-proof industries, but is there such a thing? Everything’s connected together.

You can do what I did and minimize the way a depression can affect you. With no mortgage and no car payment, I could support my family on very little.

Of course, economists wag their fingers at people like me. Part of the problem is that people like me aren’t buying new cars because we realized there’s nothing at all wrong with the cars we have. Bad Dave.

Then again, unlike some people, after I borrowed large amounts of money, I paid it back. And part of the reason for that was because I didn’t sign on the dotted line until I did the math to figure out what life was going to be like with that mortgage payment and whether I was willing to live like that. If more people had actually paid attention to the amount of money at the end of the document–the amount that you’re going to end up paying over the course of the mortgage–and been scared, then we’d be in a lot better shape than we are now.

I do think this depression is forcing us to be a little less materialistic. And I think materialism and conspicuous consumption was what sucked us into this hole to begin with.

And in the meantime, it’s forcing some companies to look at themselves and make some hard decisions. Some aren’t surviving. Some will be missed more than others.

It’s affecting me a whole lot more now that I’m suddenly in the job pool with that other 7.2 percent. I’m sure I’ll complain a lot more. I know it’ll take a lot longer than I want for me to find employment because it already has. But I’ll be OK. I’m Scottish. I’m scrappy and tough.

And I think in the long run our country will be OK. Maybe we’ll even be better for it.

How far we’ve fallen

It’s job interview time again. I haven’t lost my job, at least not yet, but I’m not waiting around to see if I’m going to. I’m hitting pavement, talking to potential employers, whether they’re connected to what I’m doing now or not.

So, it was off to the mall to buy some clothes this weekend for the interview because all my dress clothes are from 1991. They fit (I wore them to my last interviews in 2005), but when your clothes are old enough to vote, it’s probably time for something new.What I found at the mall was depressing. There were lots of vacancies, including places I remember having something the last time I was at the mall. That might have been October, but October isn’t that long ago. And I’m not talking as someone who owns clothes that are old enough to vote. In business, October is yesterday. I’m still dealing with projects at work that started around then.

I also found people with college degrees working retail. Not 2-year degrees. I’m talking 4-year degrees from good schools.

At a job fair today, someone scoffed at my journalism degree. Frankly I’m getting tired of apologizing for my journalism degree, especially from people who wouldn’t know how to spell "journalism" correctly, or at least don’t know that paragraphs generally have more than one sentence in them. Engineering isn’t the end-all of life. And a journalism degree from the University of Missouri isn’t a cakewalk. It’s one of the top three schools in the country, and there’s a reason for that: It’s hard.

And I won’t apologize for it because that degree allowed me to write an O’Reilly book at the age of 24.

I also won’t apologize for it because if I’m not deemed worthy to keep the job I’ve been doing for three years, I should be able to make enough as a freelance writer to keep the utilities on and keep food in my son’s stomach without being a burden on the taxpaying public.

And finally, I won’t apologize for it because I’ve survived in this industry since early 1997, in spite of having a degree in a seemingly unrelated field. In the mid 1990s, no four-year university was teaching what I do. Want to guess what the best sysadmin I’ve ever met majored in? Interdisciplinary studies. That’s a polite way of saying "nothing." But the people who come from all over the country to hear him speak couldn’t care less what he majored in.

But I’ve gotten off track. I guess I’m in a bad mood because this week I also had to sit in a meeting where I listened to someone tell 20 people that they won’t be retained, and 20 temporary employees who’ve been with the company for a month will be retained, "because they’re doing a helluva job."

No, those temps will be retained because they’re cheaper. The people in that room have busted their butts for that company for years. But in some cases, the management doesn’t even know those people’s names or job titles, in spite of the number of years and long hours they put in.

Of course you don’t want to let a temp go. You shouldn’t want to let anyone go. But that’s always a risk when you’re a temp. I was a temp twice. Once I was let go myself. The second time they kept me, but let go another temp from the same company who started the same time I did. And I knew from the start that it was a possibility.

But I think the thing that depressed me the most was seeing the long lines at that job fair, where I applied for my current job and tried not to show offense when someone ridiculed my journalism degree. The majority of people who showed up at that fair won’t get jobs. And you could tell from the looks on their faces that a lot of them knew that. But what else were they going to do? They had to try.

I don’t know how much longer this is going to last. A local economist on the news Sunday morning said he expected 6-18 months. That means he thinks things will be bad at least until July 2009, and perhaps as long as July 2010.

And from what I can tell right now, my best bet for recession-proofing my career is Sun Solaris 10. Should I find myself with ample free time in the near future, I’ll probably try to spend a lot of it learning that.

The Western Electric 500

Another year, another cordless telephone/answering machine.

I bought a cordless phone to replace an aging and failing 2.4 GHz model this week. Our luck with modern phones makes me long for the old days.

western electric rotary phone model 500

The Western Electric model 500 rotary phone is as indestructible and reliable as it is iconic.

I like the old Western Electric 500 (also known simply as “The Bell Phone”) because it was specifically designed not to break.We own three. My wife and I both have a habit of picking them up when we see them cheaply at garage and estate sales. I see at least five a year, but I only buy if it’s cheap. Maybe there’s some book somewhere that says a Model 500 in a common color is worth $20, but I won’t pay that much for one.

They’re annoying to use for dialing, of course, since they’re strictly old-school pulse. But we can use the cordless phone when we need to dial, or the green Southwestern Bell Freedom Phone I bought for my first apartment, which somehow still works after 10 years.

When it comes to just answering the phone and talking on it, they’re just like any other corded phone, except the handset is a bit heavier.

The other annoying thing is that they don’t ring, but tonight I found a cure for that. Opening the phone up and moving one wire usually cures that problem. (Follow the link and scroll to the last section of the page.)

How reliable are they?

Well, tonight I opened up the one I keep in my office to rewire the ringer, and I found it was made in 1957. After 51 years, it’s still going strong.

We have one in the bedroom too. It’s a later model, made by Stromberg Carlson under license, dated September 1978. Although it looks just like a Western Electric, it feels a little bit lighter and less rugged to me. Nevertheless, after 30 years it still works fine.

Those are really good track records, in an age when we tend to think of things as nearly indestructible if they manage to last five years.

And I’ll admit I like the retro look they have about them. Although I’m not old enough to remember the days when it was illegal to plug anything not made by AT&T or a subsidiary into your phone jack, these are the phones pretty much everyone had up until 1984, when the government temporarily broke AT&T up. My parents and grandparents used these phones. And when my house was built in the mid 1960s, it was almost undoubtedly equipped with a 500 too, and I’d be willing to bet that 500 served as its primary phone well into the 1980s.

I wouldn’t want to trade everything in my house for 1949 technology, but just like my old IBM Model M keyboards, I definitely have a thing for those heavy old-fashioned phones.

What I\’ve learned about working with Marmoleum click tiles

After spending the better part of two weekends on it, the kitchen floor is exactly six tiles away from being complete.

I guess this is as good of a time as any to share what I’ve learned.If you mark the tiles with pencil, the pencil marks come off really easily with a little soap and water. This is good, because I don’t think I ever got my measurements right the first time.

The later at night it gets, the more likely I am to measure something wrong. I cut two tiles close to the counters too short. I can cover up the gap, but I shouldn’t have needed to. Note to self: Check measurements at least one more time than seems necessary.

T-rail is ridiculously expensive. I’m not going to pay $25 apiece for the t-rail I need for the two doors. I’ll buy a couple of $3 3-foot lengths of hobby wood, then I’ll stop off at the hobby shop for a piece of 1/4″ square basswood if I can’t find something similar at the big box store (I’ll probably need a dollar’s worth). I’ll glue and clamp them together, then finish it how I like, and probably have something better for 1/6 the cost.

Quarter round is ridiculously expensive too. The original baseboards from my kitchen are in the basement. A previous owner reused some of it in place of quarter round the last time the kitchen floor was redone, but there’s plenty left. I’ll use some of that instead.

Use at least a 25 TPI blade to cut the tiles. Tom Gatermann came over yesterday to help me cut some tiles. He found that coarse blades just don’t cut the tile as quickly or easily as a fine blade does.

Using his bandsaw, I can cut a tile in about five minutes, even for weird cuts like around doors. I think Tom might have taken a bit longer than that sometimes, but his cuts are a lot straighter than mine too. But that’s the nice thing about click tiles–the cuts will be hiding under quarter round or baseboards or some other kind of moulding.

Don’t leave difficult spots in the middle of the room, like around your stove, until later. It’s really hard to come back and click tiles into place when the surrounding tiles are already down. You can do it, but it takes a lot longer, and your chances of leaving a gap somewhere are a lot higher.

Get a pullbar for laminate floors, and use it to slam the tiles together. You can get one for about $7 at a big-box store, and it’ll save you hours. It might be the best seven bucks I ever spent.

Most of the time, the pullbar is the right tool to put tiles together. Occasionally, you’ll need to bang the tiles with a piece of 2×4 to get them to move together. It seems to me that about a 10-inch length of 2×4 is about perfect for those cases.

This stuff never should have fallen out of fashion. I guess linoleum fell out of favor in the 1960s and 1970s because vinyl offered a greater variety of colors and patterns, but that’s a shame because it’s wonderful stuff. It’s extremely easy to clean. It’s durable and to an extent, it’s self-healing. I’ve watched it heal itself after minor mishaps. Linoleum is expensive, and the Marmoleum click tiles border on ridiculously expensive, but it will outlast pretty much anything else you can put down and it won’t drive you nuts trying to keep it clean.

And now I know why kitchens are expensive. Everything that goes into them is expensive, and you end up needing a lot of little things. Some of these things are easy enough to make yourself–transition pieces for other types of flooring come to mind, but that requires some time and at least a little skill. So you’ll either pay for material, or you’ll spend more time to save some money.

DIY paper CD cases

I have no idea why I never found this sooner: papercdcase.com.

Type in an artist and album name (or publisher and software name) and a track list, and this thing generates a PDF that you can print and fold into a paper case/envelope, complete with spine.I printed a couple at work for discs I use frequently. I think it would take about 10 to really master the folding technique.

This is much cheaper than buying plastic jewel cases, the result is more useful, and you’d still have to print and cut out inserts to put in that jewel to make it useful anyway.

I’ve made these myself manually, but it’s much easier to just type the information into a web form and have a computer do the formatting for me.

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.

Why you should always stop at railroad crossings

I always stop at railroad crossings, even if the gates are up and there are no lights flashing. I won’t stay long if I don’t see anything coming, but I don’t want to take a chance.

It’s no exaggeration at all to say that a train hitting a car is like a car hitting a soda can.I just read a magazine article, written by a locomotive engineer, making this point. A full soda can weighs one pound, while a typical car weighs 3,000 pounds. If you hit a soda can with your car, you might not even know it, but there won’t be much left of the can.

A train that weighs 3,000 times as much as your car is considered at best a medium-sized train. Some weigh much more than that. So if that train hits your car, the result will be comparable to your car hitting a soda can. At best.

Also consider that by the time the engineer sees your car, it’s really too late to stop. The engineer will probably try, but at that point, the question isn’t whether the train will stop, but at what speed it will be going when it hits the car.

I’ve never tried it, but I’m pretty confident my car can crush a soda can just fine even at 5 miles per hour.