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How to cut your water bill

I’ve talked a lot about how to cut your electric bill and how I successfully cut mine 19 percent, but I haven’t talked much about water bills. Part of it is because water is cheap in St. Louis–the two largest rivers in North America converge here–but in some parts of the country, water usage is at critical levels, so cutting your water bill could mean saving real money.

I’ll never forget a commercial I heard when I was in third grade. “Did you know that every time you flush your toilet, you use 5-7 gallons of water?” a guy said with a drawl, before urging people to flush less. Being very juvenile, I thought it was funny.

But if your house is older, your toilet may very well be trickling water all the time, literally nickel and diming your water bill continuously. You can fix that for less than $10.Read More »How to cut your water bill

The desperation economy

The sharing economy is more of a desperation economy, argues New York magazine.

Someone was ranting to me about this last month, blaming the president. The problem is, this problem’s roots have existed since the 1970s, if not the 1960s, which means nobody’s solved it. Two presidents from two different political parties applied quick fixes that worked for a while–I’m thinking of Reagan and Clinton–but nobody has ever successfully addressed the root cause of the income gap. While top earners–the 90th percentile and higher–generally do better year over year, as you move lower on the earnings scale, you see people doing well to hold steady. At the bottom of the scale, you see people earning less and less year over year.

I think the problem is with society. And one thing I learned almost minoring in history in college–I was one class short of a minor–is that when society looks to a leader to solve problems a leader can’t solve, history suggests you run a great danger of it leading to dictatorship.

I think the underlying and overlying problem is materialism–we want too much and aren’t willing to wait long enough to be able to afford it. We’ve spent my lifetime figuring out how to make things cheaper, but then society just tells us we need more things. When I was growing up in the 1980s, two televisions in a home was fairly normal, and one of them was probably a 13-inch model. A 13-inch TV cost $200, so three TVs was extravagance. When I was growing up, I lived across the street from a millionaire who had three TVs. He owned half the town, and literally owned the whole side of the street he lived on, and at one point he had four cars, but he had three TVs.

We figured out how to make TVs a lot cheaper, so now some middle-class people have them in every room. Elvis had a room with eight TVs in it for watching football, and somehow we’ve gotten it in our heads that someone who makes $40,000 a year needs a room with eight TVs too.

In the process of fixing up an old house, I found some old light switches with the price tags still on them: $2.19. Today light switches cost 70 cents. The old switches were made close to here. Now they’re made overseas. The people who used to make things like light switches compete for a smaller number of jobs of that type. There aren’t a lot of those, so some of those people get by doing whatever they can. It helps overseas economies get on their feet and that will be great in the long term, but what do we do about the short term here?

Probably we’ll do what we always do–we’ll put the other political party in power and tell them to solve it. They’ll try a quick fix. As long as the quick fix shows improvement in some part of the economy, they’ll keep getting another four years. If it doesn’t, the other party will get four years. Some of us will climb the ladder enough that it’s no longer a problem for us. I’m not sure what we’ll do about those who don’t.

And as long as everyone has food and entertainment, everything will be just fine for those at the top, and close enough to OK for all but the very worst off that I don’t expect we as a society will address the issue voluntarily.

Happy late 50th birthday, z/OS!

It was 50 years ago this month that IBM released the first modern mainframe, the System/360. The System/360 was notable for being the first series of systems built with interchangeable parts, rather than being custom-built. It’s also notable because its direct descendants are still in production: In the 1970s, it became the System/370, the System/390 in the 90s, and the z series today. The systems originally ranged from 1 MHz to 50 MHz in speed, and came with anywhere from 8 KB to 8 MB of RAM. To put that in perspective, the low-end model was comparable in power to an early Apple II desktop computer from 1977, and the high-end model was comparable in power to the 486 PCs we ran Windows 3.1 on in the 1993-94 timeframe. Or you could compare it to one of my souped-up Amigas, if you prefer (I do). But the same software that ran on the low-end model would run on the high-end model, and there’s a pretty good chance that software from the 1960s will run on a modern Z series mainframe today, with little to no modification.

Twenty years ago this architecture was supposed to be on its way out, but it never really went away. IBM keeps modernizing it, so I expect z/OS has a long life ahead of it. It’s entrenched, and when technology gets entrenched, there’s no getting rid of it.

There isn’t much new, young mainframe expertise in training these days, and it turns out there are certain jobs that mainframes do better than smaller PCs do. Most large companies have at least one mainframe, and it’s not going anywhere, but the people who can care for it and feed it are retiring fast. If you want some job security, you can do a lot worse than learning everything you can about IBM Z series mainframes in addition to the other things you know.

My greatest estate find

If you’ve been reading this blog for a few years, you know I kind of like trains. But my favorite way to buy them isn’t to buy them at a train store. I like to buy them from estates.

One week, I spotted a few late-production Marx 6-inch cars and a plastic locomotive in an estate ad. I tallied up $30 worth of trains in the picture, and figured I’d be lucky if they asked $60 for it. But I decided to take another look at the picture,  just in case.

This wasn’t an ordinary train.Read More »My greatest estate find

Another perspective on Y2K

Rob O’Hara stumbled across a stash of Y2K survivalist magazines and wrote about it. I wasn’t going to be surprised if there were some minor glitches, but I wasn’t expecting the apocalypse. I withdrew a couple hundred bucks from the bank a few days in advance and filled my bathtub with water the night before, so I would have a supply of money and water to tide me over if some glitch interrupted either of them for a day or two.

In late 1999, a lot of people said I was being reckless. Today, people think I was being excessively paranoid. It’s funny how perspectives change.Read More »Another perspective on Y2K

I don’t think this basement layout abandoned since 1967 is necessarily a tragedy

A query appeared on one of the train forums and has slowly spread through several discussion groups I’m aware of, regarding a 2-rail O scale train layout, built by a hobbyist in the 1950s and 1960s, who died in 1967. The layout sat for 45 years, and now someone has approached a couple of hobbyists about possibly liquidating it.

Of course, lots of armchair pundits have their own ideas about what should have happened to that layout in 1967, when the builder died.

Read More »I don’t think this basement layout abandoned since 1967 is necessarily a tragedy

A Christmas tree train on a budget

If you want a train for under your Christmas tree but don’t have a lot of money to spend, here’s how to find one and what to ask for.

Find a store that deals in used Lionel trains, or find a local hobbyist. Search Craigslist or your newspaper classifieds for an ad stating, “I buy electric trains.” I’ll let you in on a secret: most people who buy trains also resell them, because people who buy trains eventually end up with far more than they’ll ever use.

Once you locate a reseller, here’s what to ask for.

Read More »A Christmas tree train on a budget