Skip to content
Home » General » Page 3


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.

The international man of mystery

I’ve been following the Clark Rockefeller story with a lot of interest, perhaps because I’m a parent now, and perhaps because the early news stories kind of made it sound like I should know who he was, although I’d never heard of him before.

Now that the new details are out there, I don’t feel nearly so bad now. Even the people who knew him well didn’t know the half of it.The Telegraph has a good rundown on the current theory about the man. Personally, I think it’ll make a great book and perhaps a movie someday.

The story basically goes like this. Last week, an eccentric and mysterious Boston millionaire disappeared with his daughter during a custody visit. Rumors about their whereabouts spread quickly, including the Caribbean, but the two were eventually found in Baltimore, in an apartment he had recently purchased.

There was no trace of the man prior to 1991. The famous Nelson Rockefeller had a son named Michael Clark Rockefeller, and this Clark Rockefeller seemed to want people to think he either was that person or somehow related to him, but Michael Clark Rockefeller died in 1961 at the age of 23.

As people around the country followed the story, they started noticing this man looked familiar, but they didn’t know him as Clark Rockefeller. But they knew various other people who certainly looked and acted a lot like this Clark Rockefeller, and like him, they would just appear and vanish mysteriously.

Rockefeller appeared in New York in 1991. He never said much about his background, but was well spoken, appeared to be highly intelligent and educated, and could converse with authority on various subject matters. He soon talked his way into high society circles, participated in community groups, and gained influence, particularly in New England, where he settled with his wife, Sandra Boss, an ivy league graduate and wealthy executive. They had a daughter, and he played stay-at-home dad while she earned $1.4 million a year. They divorced in 2007, partly because she believed he might not be what he said he was. Unable to produce any kind of government-issued identification, he didn’t put up much of a fight in the divorce proceedings.

No marriage certificate was ever filed. I wonder if this could cause legal problems for Rockefeller now. After all, if the marriage was never legal, why is there need for a divorce and a settlement? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story seems to begin around 1979 or 1980. A German teenager named Christian Gerhartsreiter or Christian Gerhart Streiter met an American and exchanged addresses. The American said to look him up if he was ever on this side of the Atlantic. Surprisingly, he showed up on their doorstep in Connecticut not long afterward. Unable to accommodate him, they put an ad in the paper. A nearby family who had sponsored a number of exchange students answered.

The young German attended school but seemed put off by a middle class lifestyle. The people who knew Streiter remember him as condescending and arrogant, yet charming. He claimed an elite background, yet there is some indication that his father actually painted houses for a living.

He also could creep people out, so he lived with several different people during the school year, although he remained in touch occasionally with his first host family. After a year of school in the United States, he headed west, first to Minnesota, then to California, where he said he was using the name Christopher Crowe.

In the early 1980s, a man named Christopher Chichester appeared in high society circles in California. Claiming to be British, he charmed his way into belonging. During this time, it appears Chichester applied for a stockbroker’s license and perhaps a driver’s license as well. The fingerprints he provided would prove interesting a few years later.

In February 1985, Chichester’s landlords disappeared. A couple of months later, he disappeared as well. Although Chichester wasn’t a suspect, the authorities wanted to speak with him.

In 1988, a man identifying himself as Christopher Crowe surfaced in Connecticut, where he attempted to sell a truck belonging to John Sohus, the landlord who had vanished back in California. Crowe couldn’t produce the paperwork for the truck, so the potential buyer alerted police. But Crowe disappeared again.

In 1994, human remains turned up on the former Sohus property. Authorities believed they had found John Sohus, although his wife has never been found. Authorities still wanted to question Chichester, who they described as a con man who would mingle in social circles and make friends with wealthy, influential people.

But it was 13 years before any trace of Chichester appeared again.

In August 2007, after Baltimore police arrested Clark Rockefeller, people in California noticed that Rockefeller bore a striking resemblance to Christopher Chichester and started calling police. After Rockefeller was fingerprinted, California authorities checked the prints against the prints provided by Chichester more than two decades earlier. They seemed to match.

Rockefeller has said little. Through his attorney, he says that he has little or no memory prior to his marriage in 1995, that as far as he knows his name is Rockefeller, and he most definitely isn’t Christopher Chichester. Other than that, he refuses to stay anything. He sits in a cell, held without bail, because prosecutors don’t believe any amount of money will guarantee he will show up for trial.

And investigators don’t buy the memory story. While they’re giving limited information to the press, new details about Clark Rockefeller’s possible past appear every few hours.

Some questions certainly remain. Early on, some people observed Clark Rockefeller had the distinctive Rockefeller nose, saying it was either genuine or a very good copy. Is the resemblance coincidental? Did someone note once that he looked like a Rockefeller, planting the idea of a new identity in this man’s mind? Or did the former Christopher Chichester decide to take on the Rockefeller identity and have plastic surgery in the late 1980s or early 1990s to make the claim look more believable?

And while it’s possible to track the movements of the various aliases from New England to California and back from 1981 to 1985 to 1988 to 1991, what happened in those gaps?

And perhaps most chillingly, if he wasn’t a suspect in 1985, why did Christopher Chichester flee? If he had nothing to hide, why wouldn’t he answer investigators’ questions?

Some may wonder how a mediocre student could display such knowledge of travel and physics, among other subjects, but it looks like this guy has a fondness for libraries and hasn’t had a job in 28 years. I’m guessing if he spent a significant part of the day in libraries with his nose in books while everyone else is at work, he could become conversant in pretty much anything.

Of course I also wonder how he managed to travel the country and keep up appearances for nearly a decade and a half without a job. Travel and housing cost money, and how did he finance his expensive taste in clothes? Marrying a millionaire certainly helped during the last 12 years, but where did he find the money to woo her?

This story is only going to get better. But I do hope there are no more literal skeletons involved.

More on Manhunt, plus revisiting Dr. Mudd

I’ve finished Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. My impression is still favorable.

The short of it: It’s a well-told story in dramatic fashion, with good research to back it up.

For the long of it, you’ll have to read on.For one thing, the book explores a number of alternative possibilities. What if Booth had missed? Booth actually made a number of tactical mistakes, including the use of a Derringer, which meant he only had one shot. In contrast, one of his co-conspirators had six shots and still failed to kill Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, the same night. But that’s another story.

I won’t ruin the story, but the book provides a compelling argument about how the outcome of that fateful night would have been very different if Booth’s shot had been off, or if the gun misfired, or if anything else had gone differently at Ford’s Theater.

The book also does a good job of telling what became of all the other players, major and minor, in the aftermath of Lincoln’s murder.

I wish the book had spent a little more time on the trials themselves, but since Booth is the principal character of the book and didn’t live to go on trial, I can see why only a couple of pages were devoted to it.

Having finished the book, I understand its treatment of Dr. Samuel Mudd a little bit better. I still maintain (and the book seems to agree) that although Mudd and Booth knew one another in passing, that there was no way Mudd was expecting that early morning visit from Booth, nor did Mudd know what Booth had just done. Furthermore, when Mudd did find out what Booth had done, he didn’t approve.

In that regard, Mudd was not guilty of conspiracy. He wasn’t in on this conspiracy. He was dragged in because Booth injured himself in the escape and needed medical attention. For that matter, Booth actually went several hours out of his way to see Mudd. Booth’s escape plan was to head south into Virginia just as quickly as possible, and from there, get into the Deep South, where he could find shelter in the small pockets of the Confederacy that had not yet surrendered. Booth’s ultimate goal was to throw the government of the north into disarray, giving what was left of the Confederacy a chance to reignite the war.

Booth had no use for Dr. Samuel Mudd in this plan. That is, not until he injured himself in his escape from Ford’s Theater, but that wasn’t part of Booth’s plan.

And furthermore, had Mudd been expecting Booth, wouldn’t he have had better implements on hand for making a splint? Mudd fashioned a crude splint from bits of a crate. He was hardly prepared to set a broken bone that morning when Booth came calling.

The position of the Mudd family all along has been that Booth showed up at his front door, and it was Dr. Mudd’s duty to treat this unexpected patient as best he could, the same way every doctor in earshot of Lincoln did his best to prolong Lincoln’s life, even once it was obvious to all that his wound would kill him.

But Swanson pointed out several things that make it more clear why Mudd served time in prison for helping Booth. Mudd would have been the hero of the story if he’d gone home after he found out what Booth had done, sent Booth on his way, then told the authorities that he had treated Booth’s broken leg and he was now heading south-southwest, destination Virginia. Had Mudd done that, he not only would have avoided jail time, he also would have received a reward.

But Mudd didn’t do that. He sent his cousin to give a vague secondhand account of what happened, and initially the authorities didn’t even follow up on the lead.

Once Booth’s path went cold and the authorities remembered Mudd, they questioned him, noticed he was visibly nervous and his story had inconsistencies, but worst of all, it contained false information that may have delayed Booth’s apprehension.

So Mudd did, in a sense, participate in the conspiracy. It’s just that he wasn’t involved at the beginning. Certainly Mudd committed no crime by treating Booth’s broken leg, and I think even a military tribunal would agree with me on that. His crime was giving misinformation that slowed down a criminal investigation.

Mudd escaped the death penalty by one vote. I wonder, if Booth had killed anyone else during his escape attempt, if Mudd would have been executed along with four others who had aided Booth in one way or another.

A book I\’ve been meaning to read for a very long time

I’ve been reading Manhunt: The 12-Day Search for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson.

I’m not done but I like it.I’ve been fascinated with Lincoln for as long as I can remember (at least since kindergarten). You can’t be interested in Lincoln without having an interest in Booth, and I’ve been interested in Dr. Samuel Mudd since fifth grade. Dr. Mudd was implicated and imprisoned for conspiring with Booth in Lincoln’s murder.

I haven’t gotten to see all of the evidence against Mudd (presumably lots of it is in the book, since there’s lots of other stuff I’d never read before in it). Personally, I believe Mudd was innocent. Yes, he knew Booth, yes, he agreed to help Booth kidnap Lincoln, but no, he did not approve of the murder, and no, I’ve never seen any compelling evidence that on the morning of April 15, 1865, when Booth’s escort knocked on Mudd’s door and asked for medical treatment, that Mudd was expecting them or knew at that time what Booth had done.

Indeed, it was Mudd’s duty as a medical doctor to treat Booth’s injury. Mudd probably should have alerted the authorities sooner than he did, and he should have given them better information, but the authorities chose to ignore his lead anyway.

I’ll revisit some of the topics of this book when I finish reading it. But so far, I can say the book is well researched and tells the story in a very lively manner, changing back and forth between the major players’ points of view when appropriate.

Make something! Fix something!

Clive Thompson: I’m sitting on the floor of my apartment, surrounded by electronic parts… It’ll look awesome when it’s done. If it ever gets done — I keep botching the soldering. A well-soldered joint is supposed to look like a small, shiny volcano. My attempts look like mashed insects, and they crack when I try to assemble the device.

Why am I so inept? I used to do projects like this all the time when I was a kid. But in high school, I was carefully diverted from shop class when the administration decided I was college-bound. I stopped working with my hands and have barely touched a tool since.

I can relate a little too well.I think part of the reason I was misunderstood for so much of my career was because I used to do stuff like this. I still remember the day when a new OS arrived for my Amiga 2000. It came on a ROM chip (remember those?) and some floppies to install. I had the Amiga completely disassembled, sitting on Dad’s orange OMT table in the basement. Dad came downstairs, his eyes got big and his jaw dropped, he pointed, and then looked at me. “You going to be able to get that back together?”

I barely looked up. “Yep,” I said, continuing whatever I was doing.

Granted, the Amiga’s design made it look like an onerous task–you had to remove the power supply, the assembly that held all the disk drives, and at least one plug-in card to get at the ROM chip I needed to replace. But at this point, I’d disassembled at least a couple of PC/XTs even further than that. It wasn’t long before I’d replaced all those parts that were strewn about Dad’s table and fitted them back into the case, just as they all belonged. I powered it up, and immediately knew I was successful–all those royal blue screens of Amiga DOS 1.3 were replaced with the gray screens of 2.1.

Dad watched me put it back together, and although he didn’t say much, I think he was impressed.

That wasn’t the only modification I did to that computer. Amigas operated a bit differently in Europe and in North America because of the differing video standards. Software designed for European Amigas didn’t always run right. There was a soldered jumper on the motherboard to switch between PAL and NTSC operation. I bought a small slide switch from Radio Shack, soldered a couple of wires to the motherboard, and ran them to the switch, which I hung out an opening next to the mouse port. Elegant? Not at all. Functional? Totally.

There were tons of homebrew projects for Amigas in the early 1990s. Some worked better than others. But you learned a lot from them. And I think that’s part of the reason I look at things differently than people who grew up with Macintoshes (a closed black box if there ever was one) and PCs. Sure, people have been assembling their own PCs from components for 20 years now (ever since PC Magazine declared on a cover that you could build your own PC/AT clone for $1,000). But there’s a subtle difference between assembling components and modifying them. No two 286 motherboards were the same, while the design of Amiga motherboards tended to change very little, giving lots of time for people to study and learn to tweak them.

So while the PC owners were swapping their motherboards, we Amigans were tweaking ours to give ourselves new capabilities on the cheap. And in the process I think we were learning more.

So I agree with Clive Thompson that I’m a lot less likely to take a salesperson’s claims at face value. And I think that gave me a lot less patience with people who are. With only one exception I can think of, I always worked well with (and for) people who’d taken a soldering gun directly to a motherboard or programmed in assembly language. Thanks to these rites of passage, we had a much better idea of how things worked. And it gave a certain sense of skepticism. Commodore’s own engineers didn’t know the full capability of the machines they built. So if the engineers who design a system can’t know everything about it, then what on earth can a mere sales drone know?

And that’s why I’m reluctant to buy anything that’s just a black box if I can avoid it. What if it breaks and needs to be fixed? What if I need to change something about how it looks or works? And besides that, if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, I don’t want to just throw it out and buy a new one–I paid good money for it!

But I have my limits. A few years ago I checked out some books on repairing Lionel trains from the library. The books suggested using mineral spirits to clean out the old grease and oil from a motor and bring it back to life. That would be good advice, except for one thing: I had no idea what mineral spirits were (a kind of paint thinner), or where to buy them (a paint store or the paint aisle of a hardware or discount store). And have you ever tried to punch it into Google? Trust me, in 2003, there weren’t many answers. The Wikipedia article didn’t exist until 2005.

I’m sure there are lots of people who are laughing at me because I didn’t know what mineral spirits are. But I’ll bet you that if you were to go find my 120 or so high school classmates and separate out the males who lived in the suburbs whose fathers were white-collar workers, the overwhelming majority of them would have no idea what mineral spirits are either. Why not?

Because when we were growing up, we were college-bound. People like us didn’t need to know what mineral spirits are. We needed to know things like the fact that there’s no such thing as the square root of a negative number. (Yes, I know that’s not a correct statement–but those were the exact words of my Algebra II teacher, and those words cost me a lot a couple of years later.)

I even remember one time, a group of us were talking about something, and one classmate’s name came up. “He’s going to end up being a plumber,” someone snickered.

Never mind that the last time I had to call a plumber, my plumber most certainly made more money than I made that year, and he probably got a head start on me because he didn’t have to go to college for four years either.

One of the reasons plumbers make a good living is because so many people don’t even know how to shut off the water valve when their toilet leaks, let alone how to go about fixing that leaky toilet. For the record, I can shut off the water valve, but I don’t know how to fix the toilet. I’m hoping they’ll show me on This Old House sometime.

My gripe with DIY books today is that the authors don’t necessarily realize that there are one or possibly even two or three generations of readers who may very well not know the difference between a wood screw and a machine screw. They don’t learn it in school, and Dad might or might not know, but in an age when fewer couples marry and divorce rates are sky high, is Dad even around to tell them any of this stuff?

Today, I couldn’t care less about imaginary numbers. But I’m reading old DIY books, desperately trying to learn the lost arts of making and fixing things. Thanks to Disney and other useless companies, I can’t use a computer to locate digital copies of anything newer than 1922. That’s a shame, because it condemns all of the DIY books of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to obscurity. They won’t be reprinted because there isn’t enough market for them, they aren’t worth the expense of hiring a lawyer to find out if they somehow slipped into the public domain before the laws started really changing in the 1970s, and they’re scarce enough that you won’t always find them where old books lurk, making them a bit more difficult to borrow or purchase.

That all but eliminates a golden age, limiting me to 1922 and earlier. But admittedly it’s very interesting to read how people made and fixed things in the decades immediately before and after the turn of the previous century. So many books today start out with a list of exotic and expensive tools before they tell you how to do anything. One hundred years ago, people didn’t have as much money to spend on tools, and since things like electricity weren’t necessarily always available, there weren’t nearly as many exotic and expensive tools to buy either.

I found an incredible quote in an 1894 book by Charles Godfrey Leland, a teacher and author from Philadelphia. “It is much better not to have too many implements at first, and to learn to thoroughly master what one has, and to know how to make the utmost of them. This leads to ingenuity and inventiveness, and to developing something which is even better than artistic skill.”

That’s not just good advice for metalworking, which was the subject of this particular book. That’s an excellent philosophy of life.

Unfortunately right now I have more time to read than I have to tinker. But I think once I have a little time to tinker again, I’ll be able to make some nice stuff. And maybe someday when someone says they don’t make ’em like they used to, I’ll be able to smile and say that I do.

Everybody is creative

When a 15-year-old came around asking how to continue his hobbies during a time in his life when finances and time are a bit short, I had a simple suggestion for him: Work on developing his creativity.

Creativity has another bonus: It’s also one of 10 traits that can make you rich, if that’s important to you.I remember in an annual review I received several years ago, a manager said I come up with creative solutions to problems. I’m still not sure if that was meant as a compliment or not, but I took it as one. That ability to find odd, not-so-obvious solutions to problems saved my first employer a lot of money in a time that it really needed it. We needed to replace a project that had cost about $100,000 to create, and we had $25,000 to do it.

I did it. It required us to do things as a department that we’d never done before. We had some hiccups along the way, and we finished with just one day to spare. It was stressful. But we did it.

Up until I was about 20, I never really thought of myself as creative. I could always write, but I never was all that good at drawing and painting or playing musical instruments, which are the things we normally associate with creativity. As a junior at the University of Missouri, I took a class titled The Graphics of Journalism, taught by Dr. Birgit Wassmuth, who is now chairwoman of the Department of communications at Kennesaw State University. Dr. Wassmuth argued that everyone has creative ability, but not everyone has tapped it to its potential.

I think I got a B+ in the class (yes, MU has a plus/minus system) and I really had to work for it. It was one of the three hardest classes I took, and I don’t think many of the people who took that class would disagree.

It was a basic class that almost everyone had to take. If you were going to be a graphic designer it was a necessity, but for everyone else, it was basically intended to teach you enough skills that in an emergency, if you had to grab a camera or fire up a desktop publishing or a graphics program, you’d be able to do a decent enough job to not make your employer look like a fool.

There’ve been times when I’ve had to do all of those things during writing projects. But the biggest value in that class came in life itself.

Often there are times you have to do something and you don’t have the ideal materials on hand. It always helps to look at something and consider alternative possibilities. In my professional field, there are always 20 ways to do something. I’ve worked in the past with people who always do things “by the book,” but that can be a problem, depending on who wrote the book. Was it written by someone who’s been working with that particular subject matter for 20 years, or was it written by someone who’s only seen the product in a lab environment, not in the real world? A lot of Windows books are written by the latter type, and I’ve seen by-the-book types make decisions that box them in based on that.

But even better is the ability to look at a pile of stuff and think of answers to a simple question: What can I do with this?

The younger you are when you start doing this, the better. I guess I started early; It was nothing to me to look at a box of my friends’ toys, pull out a couple of broken toys, and make something else out of the broken pieces.

When I was in between jobs a few years ago, I looked around the house for ideas for ways to make some money until I found a permanent job. At first my phone kept ringing, so it didn’t look like I’d have much trouble finding something. But then the phone stopped, so I had to think of alternatives. My first couple of ideas didn’t pan out. The third one was a home run, and besides keeping the light on, it gave my wife an alternative to teaching, which was important because she was unhappy. Now she has a lot more flexibility and she doesn’t have to deal with parents and administration wanting her to be a pass-everyone babysitter when she wanted to be a serious teacher.

What she’s doing today isn’t for everyone, but she’s much happier now, and even in the early stages it provided enough income for us to keep the lights on until I could find a permanent job with benefits.

I guess I had the tendencies even when I was in grade school, but it wasn’t until college that someone really taught me how to cultivate it. So even though I’m not working at a magazine now, which definitely was where I would have wanted to be in 2008 if you’d asked me while I was in college, that class probably changed my life more than any other class I took in college. Knowing how to harness creativity got me out of some bad spots in life.

So I think it’s a good idea for everyone to take a class or otherwise learn how to make something, whether it’s art classes, woodworking classes, cooking, or something else.

Knowing what to use when you’re in the middle of making something and you realized you’re out of butter is a useful skill. And I don’t think it’s always a good idea to take the easy way out and borrow some from your next door neighbor.

Sometimes workarounds aren’t quite that easy, and sometimes there’s more at stake than a batch of bread.

No reason for brand wars

On one of the train forums I frequent, a legitimate question quickly degenerated into brand wars. And brand wars are one thing, but when people hold their preferred company to a different standard than the other company–in other words, one company is evil because it does something, but their preferred company does the same thing, it isn’t productive.

Actually, I see very little reason for brand loyalty as it is. I drive a Honda and I use a Compaq computer. Do either of those companies have any loyalty to me? No. To them, I’m just a source of income from yesterday.I don’t like the categorization of companies as "good" and "evil." Companies don’t exist to be good or evil. Companies exist for one reason: Make money. And one thing to remember is that companies will always do exactly what they think they can get away with.

In the case of the toy train wars, the two antagonists are Lionel and MTH. MTH is a scrappy underdog that got its start building trains as a subcontractor for Lionel. A business deal went bad–in short, Lionel left MTH high and dry on a multimillion dollar project, so MTH decided to go on its own and sell the product Lionel decided it didn’t want, but Lionel didn’t like the idea of one of its subcontractors competing with it while also making product for them, and understandably so.

MTH and Lionel have been mortal enemies ever since.

A few years ago, MTH accused Lionel of stealing trade secrets. The specifics are difficult to sort out, but someone with intimate knowledge of some of MTH’s products started designing equivalent products for Lionel. MTH sued and won, to the tune of $40 million. The case is now in appeal.

There’s no question that Lionel benefited from this contractor’s knowledge of the competing product. The question is who knew this was going on, who authorized it, and what an appropriate punishment would be. The only people who are questioning guilt have blinders on. There is no innocence here–just possible degrees of guilt. The other question is appropriateness. Lionel doesn’t have $40 million in the bank. Arguably the company isn’t worth a lot more than $40 million. So that $40 million judgment is essentially the corporate death penalty.

MTH is anything but perfect and holy, however. The thing that bothers me most about MTH is its attempt to patent elements of DCC (Digital Command Control), a method for automating train layouts. It’s an open industry standard, widely used by HO and N scale hobbyists. So MTH was seeking to collect royalties on something that’s supposed to be free for everyone to use. That’s a particular pet peeve of mine, and it’s the reason I haven’t bought any MTH products since 2003.

I came close to relenting this weekend though, when I saw some people bashing MTH while holding Lionel up as some kind of perfect, holy standard. It made me want to go buy a bunch of MTH gear, photograph myself with it, and post it on some forums so I could watch these guys have a stroke about it. Fortunately for them, I have better things to do with $200 right now. I also looked on my layout, and I don’t know where I could put the things I would have considered buying.

I’m more familiar with the computer industry than I am with anything else, and if you mention any computer company, I can probably think of something they did that would fit most people’s definition of evil. HP? Print cartridges that lie about being empty. Lexmark? Same thing, plus using the DMCA to keep you from refilling them. Dell? Nonstandard pinouts on power supplies that look standard, but blow up your motherboard if you try to use non-Dell equipment. IBM? Microchannel. Microsoft? Don’t get me started. Apple? Lying in ads.

As far as I’m concerned though, the most evil company of all is Disney. Disney, of all people? Yes. Disney is the main reason for the many complicated rewrites of copyright law that we’ve had in recent decades. Whenever something Disney values might fall into the public domain, Disney buys enough congressmen to get the laws changed. Never mind that early in its history, Disney exploited the public domain for its gain as much as anyone (which was its legal right), even to the point of waiting for The Jungle Book to fall into the public domain before making the movie, in order to avoid paying royalties to Rudyard Kipling. The problem is that now that Disney is the biggest kid on the block, it’s changing the rules it used to get there, so that nobody else can do it.

Unfortunately I’ve even seen not-for-profit corporations, companies that exist mostly to give away money, do dishonest things and essentially steal. If a charity can and will do these things, you can be certain that a for-profit corporation will.

So I don’t see any reason for brand loyalty, aside from liking a product. If you buy a company’s products and you like them, fine. Keep buying them. But that doesn’t make the people who prefer a competitor’s product evil. They didn’t sign off on the decisions, and your favorite company has done its own share of underhanded things too, whether you know it or not.

And there’s certainly no reason to go to war for your company of choice. It wouldn’t do the same for you.

What to do when you\’ve been ripped off in a buy/sell forum

I’ve spent the last week chasing a scammer, because I’m a sucker for a good story. I have that story, but I’m not happy with it.

In the meantime, there’s definitely a need for a procedure to follow if you make a deal on a forum or bulletin board and never receive the promised merchandise.There are several things that you can and should do. The laws are slippery, and in the case of the scammer I’ve been watching, he seems to be pretty careful to keep his fraud under certain thresholds to stay in operation. So you need all the help you can get.

First, gather information. Find the address where you sent your item or payment. Have descriptions of the item(s) you sent and the item(s) you expected to receive, along with fair market value. If you have Paypal receipts or anything like that, print those out. If you have addresses, phone numbers, or any other information, get that too. Finally, if you have an address or phone number, do a Google search to find your trading partner’s local police department.

If your trading partner has ripped off other people and other people are complaining about it, take evidence of this along.

Take all of that information to your local police department and ask to file a complaint. The procedure varies from department to department. An officer might interview you, or there might be a form you can fill out. Whatever it is, be nice and cooperate with them. These guys are on your side, but the more pleasant you are to work with, the more likely they’re going to be to be willing to go the extra mile for you.

Ask if they’ll contact your trading partner’s local police department, or if you need to do that. If you need to do it, call the other police department and give them all the information they ask for. Most likely, your local police department will make contact because they’ll need to work together.

Next, get the feds involved. Some of these guys get away with what they do because their scams involve small amounts of money. But if you mailed your package or payment through the U.S. Postal Service and the person scammed you, now the person is also guilty of mail fraud, which can make a minor crime more serious.

You can report mail fraud by filling out a USPS form online. The process is simple and only takes a few minutes.

Take the time to do this, because there is one scammer out there who’s been getting away with fraud for at least four years, primarily because he seems to be careful to keep the value each transaction low enough. So you need all the extra help you can get.

I don’t know why five $200 ripoffs don’t equal one $1,000 ripoff. That’s a question for the police.

Finally, contact the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. This may or may not help you, but it will help other victims.

Of course you should also contact the administrators of the forum where the deal took place, but all they can do is ban the account. The scammer probably doesn’t care; he’ll be on another forum next week under a different name anyway.

It seems like part of the reason people are able to get away with these schemes is because discussions about them quickly degenerate into flamewars, sometimes with the scammer himself doing everything he can to fan the flames. Then the moderators close the thread or delete it, and then no constructive dialog can take place. Then the scammer just moves on to another forum, where he has no history and is free to do it again.

Talking about it is fine. The problem is, the topic of contacting the authorities usually comes up too late in the discussion, so a lot of people don’t think about it. If they think about it, they might not know where to start.

If you’ve been scammed, please contact law enforcement. The authorities may or may not be able to help you get your stuff back, but if enough people act, they can put a scammer out of business, so other people don’t fall victim to the same scheme you did.

Permission is granted to copy the contents of this post, either in part or in full, to bulletin boards, forums, and personal web sites as long as you provide a link either to or, if you prefer, to

Is it OK to sell gifts on eBay?

This is a followup to Friday’s post. I really should let this go, but the journalist in me loves a great story, and this story has lots of twists and turns and weirdness.

I wrote on Friday about several people giving gifts to someone they thought was a disabled Gulf War II veteran who was getting into the hobby. As parts of his story began to fall apart, there was a falling out. For some people, the biggest slap in the face came when the gifts they had sent him showed up on eBay.I don’t want to delve into whether the recipient of the gifts was a war veteran, except to say there are enough inconsistencies in his story that some people began to question everything, even up to and including whether he even was a real person. He had either told me or posted in a message on the forum that he was disabled and walked with a cane, but in my digging I found a craigslist posting looking for odd manual-labor jobs, such as cutting down trees. It was in the right town, he was willing to accept Lionel trains as payment, and the writing had the same mistakes in capitalization, punctuation, apostrophe usage, and grammar that I was used to seeing in his messages on the forum. I’m pretty sure it was the same person.

War veteran or not, this illustrates a willingness to change his story if it might gain him an advantage in his situation.

After the trains showed up on eBay, one person contacted the owner of the account. She said she was letting him use her eBay account to sell them, and said she had some awareness of the situation but didn’t want to say anything else other than they were gifts, so wasn’t he free to do anything with them that he chose?

And that really got me thinking.

I guess selling gifts on eBay is becoming more common. I tried to see if Emily Post had written anything about reselling gifts but I couldn’t. I know my friends and I used to snicker at the Ben Folds lyric in "Brick" that went, "Then I walk down to buy her flowers / And sell some gifts that I got."

The way I was raised, for the most part you kept gifts out of respect for the gift-giver. Exceptions were clothes that didn’t fit, or duplicate gifts. And hopefully, as you enjoyed those gifts, it reminded you of the giver and your relationship with that person.

I’ll admit, a lot of the toys I received as gifts as a child ended up in a garage sale. I was 13, I had a room full of toys I’d outgrown, we were moving, and it was time to move on. They’d had a good, long run.

The other exception for me was post-breakup. After a relationship ended, generally I would get rid of the things the ex-girlfriend had given me as part of my moving on process. The stuff would end up at Goodwill, where hopefully someone would get some benefit from it.

One could make an argument that in the case of these trains, the conditions were similar to the post-breakup. But I don’t think so. The first item that showed up on eBay was a Lionel 1501 Lackawanna 4-8-4. That locomotive had a story. It started with him being invited into an elderly man’s basement, where he saw a giant O gauge layout, and this gentleman saw how much he appreciated the layout and the collection and gave him several gifts, including the Lackawanna 4-8-4 and a Lionel ZW transformer. "I will always cherish the Lackawanna 4-8-4 I received from my friend," he wrote on the forum.

"Always" ended sometime before 12 July 2007 at 05:18:30 PDT, when the cherished locomotive sold on eBay for $150 using buy-it-now. The eBay listing said there was nothing wrong with the locomotive, it was just too big for his layout so he decided to sell it.

The gentleman who gave him the locomotive had nothing to do with the falling out he had with his other train buddies. According to the story he posted on the forums, this gentleman died less than three weeks after he gave him the locomotive.

When he died, there was no fanfare, no tribute. Just a brief, matter-of-fact statement, something like, "With his passing, I’ve been wondering what will happen to the trains." Then someone asked if he had died. The response was simple. "I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. Yes, he died."

That’s pretty insensitive.

Of course, one possibility is that the gentleman who gave him this locomotive was a fabrication and he received the locomotive a different way. If that’s the case, then he isn’t insensitive. He’s just dishonest.

A lot of other people sent him trains because they wanted someone less fortunate than them to be able to enjoy their hobby. Spending time together in person wasn’t realistic, but maybe as he ran those trains in the basement, he’d remember the people who gave them to him, enjoy them, and the bond could grow that way.

When those trains ended up on eBay almost immediately after someone pointed out how he had told two people different stories about himself that contradicted each other, they came to a conclusion: This man had been telling stories to take advantage of them for financial gain.

Trains aren’t especially easy to pack and mail, and they aren’t cheap to send. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to send cash. Of course, giving him money wasn’t the idea. The idea was to introduce someone else to the hobby you love, in hopes he would enjoy it as much as you did. Send someone cash, and for all you know, the money is just buying beer.

Seeing a price on those trains was like seeing a price on your friendship. And in the case of the "treasured" Lackawanna 4-8-4, the price seemed arbitrary, and perhaps even insultingly low. I found one and only one locomotive like it in eBay’s recent sales. It sold for $281.