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1960s

Review: The Lutron MS-OPS2 occupancy sensor switch

I installed a Lutron occupancy sensor switch this weekend. It detects you entering the room, turns the lights on, then turns them off five minutes after it detects nobody is in the room. The timeout period is adjustable. It comes in four models: MS-OPS2-WH (white), -AL (almond), -LA (light almond), and -IV (ivory) and retails for $29.

Installation was surprisingly easy–it took about 15 minutes, which is about how long it takes me to change a regular switch, and unlike most models in its price range it works with modern CFL and LED lighting, but I recommend some prep work ahead of time.Read More »Review: The Lutron MS-OPS2 occupancy sensor switch

What happened to the Crunden-Martin Manufacturing Co.

Crunden-Martin was a manufacturer of wooden and metal household goods in downtown St. Louis for nearly 100 years, but sadly, the old complex has been sitting mostly or entirely empty since late 1990. Since there’s very little information online about the company, I thought I’d research it.

The imposing complex stands about a block south of the Poplar Street Bridge in downtown St. Louis, between I-55/I-44 and the Mississippi River. The painted signs on the building are still easy to see from the interstate.

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RIP, Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie died this weekend, aged 70. You may not know who he is, but if you’re reading this, you’re using something he invented.

Dennis Ritchie was, among other things, co-creator of Unix and the C programming language. Even if you run Windows, Windows was heavily influenced by Unix, and a lot of programs you run were written, if not in C, in its successor, C++.
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CFL bulbs and longevity

Today the Consumerist linked to a report that CFLs burn out faster than expected.

That’s probably right. But not all CFLs are created equal, so if you have a bad string of luck with one brand, try changing brands.

I also think that CFLs are more sensitive to bad power than conventional bulbs are. Or maybe we just care more when a CFL burns out.
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Diving into real estate

You’re not going to believe this. This week my wife and I applied for a mortgage.

Not on our primary house. We’re buying an investment property. I’m still struggling with the mortgage bit.The greatest real estate investment books of all time (for mere mortal working class people, at least) were written by a man named William Nickerson, starting in the 1950s. Nickerson took one and only one shortcut in his investing. He saved up 25% for a solid downpayment, and bought property. Usually property with something wrong with it. He liked small apartment buildings and humble single-family houses.

Then he fixed the property up. Depending on the situation, he’d sell it if it made sense, or more likely, he’d rent it out, then sell when the right opportunity arose.

And when he had enough money to buy another property, he’d buy another one. An outright sale usually would yield enough to buy multiple properties. Or if he could make a trade that made sense, he’d trade properties.

His initial $1,000 investment (which would be more like $10,000 in today’s dollars) grew to $1 million in property by the time he wrote his first book, to $3 million by his second edition in the late 1960s, and $5 million by his final edition in the mid 1980s.

Nickerson argued that his method was the safest investment in existence. He had a point. Land is the one thing God isn’t making any more of, but God is still making new people. People who need land to live on.

But how do you find tenants? What if the house sits empty for a long time? After all, my Dad rented out a property for several years and it was a nightmare. It sat empty a lot, and his tenants trashed the place.

A couple of months ago, I saw a house for rent two miles from me. The asking price was $900. Two days later the sign was gone. Now there are cars in the driveway. So someone rented it. I looked up the house on Zillow. You could buy the house for less than that, if it were available at current market value.

I kept watching. Rentals in my zip code don’t stay vacant long. So when a HUD-owned home a couple of miles away came up at a price we could afford (my wife found it), we went and looked at it. We liked it. It needs work, but that’s why it was cheap. We made an offer, and now we’re a few steps away from buying.

We have some luxuries Dad didn’t have. We’re in a hot market, so we don’t have to rent to the first guy who asks. We can get a family with references. We live close, so we can keep an eye on the place. We can use a management company to help keep everything smooth. We’ll pay more for that privilege but it’s probably worth it. And the mortgage payment is low enough that if it sits for a few months here and there, it won’t break us.

Where house flippers–at least the ones you see on TV–seem to get into trouble is dealing in big, expensive homes and being too leveraged. If the market for $200,000-$500,000 houses goes south, they’re stuck.

This house will never be on TV. Well, the Extreme Makeover guys would love to tear it down and build a sprawling, awkward castle on its L-shaped lot. It’s a low-end house, the kind of place a young family would buy or rent, live in for a few years, and then probably vacate once the kids are done with grade school–if not a bit sooner.

People want large houses in outer-ring suburbs, but they don’t need them. But a young couple that’s outgrowing an apartment does need an affordable house for a few years, and when they outgrow that, there’ll always be another family in the same situation, ready to move in.

So why don’t they just buy the house we had our eye on instead of us? I’m sure some do. But not all of them can afford the downpayment and the money it will take to fix it up.

A friend and I discussed the ethics of buying a down-and-out person’s house, back when Robert Kiyosaki was at his peak in popularity. Kiyosaki appears to have no qualms about it. We were less comfortable about that.

As far as I can tell from the records easily available, this house finished up the foreclosure process in May. A bank somewhere in New York had it for a couple of months. Then HUD ended up with it. I don’t completely understand the process yet.

As it stands now, the house is no good to anybody. HUD’s doing the bare minimum to keep it from getting much worse. It’s eating up taxpayer dollars and making the neighborhood look worse.

The best thing for the house and the neighborhood is for someone with money and who knows what he or she is doing to come in, make it inhabitable again, hopefully make it look a little better, and get someone living there just as quickly as possible.

In my wife and me, they got someone with a little money. We’ll have to learn what we’re doing on the fly.

We’re taking advantage of the former owners who got in over their heads, but when I go to work every day, I’m taking advantage of whoever made the decision to replace a working, reliable computer system based on VMS and Unix with a sprawling monstrosity based on Windows. And my wife would argue that they take advantage of me.

By buying a fixer-upper below market value, fixing it, and renting it at market value, we’re taking advantage of the house’s situation and the future tenants. But the future tenants are taking advantage of us, because they get to live in a house they couldn’t otherwise afford.

I’m not crazy about all aspects of the situation but I’m comfortable that I’m doing more good than harm.

Now, back to that mortgage question. I’m still arguing how quickly and how to pay that off. The math suggests I could ultimately pyramid at least seven properties, using rents from the first two to pay the mortgages on all of the others. And a few short years ago, a bank would have been more than happy to lend me the money it would take to do that.

One latter-day follower of Nickerson makes it his goal to pay off one of his properties per year.

I like the idea of fixing a property, holding it for as long as the tax code encourages you to hold it, then selling and using the proceeds to pay cash for more than one property to replace it. The growth is theoretically smaller, but I really don’t like debt.

But that’s really a question for another year.

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.

Cars for trains

Vehicles are a frequent topic of discussion on the various O and S gauge train forms. At times these discussions can get rather heated.

Since use on train layouts is rarely the objective of the companies making various diecast vehicles, there’s no true right answer to what one should or shouldn’t use. This is my personal philosophy. Take it for what it’s worth.

I run prewar and postwar Lionel and Marx trains on my layout, primarily. Most of them are undersize O27; I only have a handful of American Flyer cars that might perhaps approach proper 1:48 O scale.

Prior to the early 1970s, Lionel paid no particular attention to scale. Therefore I see little need to break out the scale ruler and be anal retentive about what vehicles will and won’t go on my layout. A Lionel 6014 Baby Ruth boxcar is very close to 1:64 scale, although it’s riding on trucks that are very close to 1:48. The famous Lionel 6464 boxcars are about 1:55 scale. Marx had a whole line of 1:64 scale O gauge trains; its cheaper plastic cars are also very close to 1:64. Some of its “deluxe” cars were closer to 1:60–somewhere in between the Lionel 6014 and 6464 in size. Maybe making them bigger than the 6014 for about the same price made them seem to be a better value for the money.

And for that matter, while A.C. Gilbert’s American Flyer division paid more attention to scale, Gilbert wasn’t shy about shipping off-scale stuff with the American Flyer name on it either. The trains themselves were pretty close to scale, but many of the accessories and buildings were too large or too small.

Needless to say, it doesn’t bother me then that a Matchbox VW Beetle is 1:55 scale but a Matchbox model of a larger vehicle, say a ’57 Chevy, will be 1:64 or perhaps even a bit smaller. If it’s the right era, I’ll use it.

Besides, park any of them outside a Plasticville house, and it’s clear to anyone that it’ll fit inside that garage. Therefore, it will look believable.

I do pay attention to era. Even a casual passer-by can tell the difference between cars from various decades. And I do think era sets the tone of a layout, so I draw my line at 1949. Postwar fans have it easier, as there are tons and tons of great vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s available. Since I stick to pre-1950, generally speaking I can only count on each manufacturer of Hot Wheels and Matchbox type cars offering one or two vehicles per year that I can use. If I drew the line later, I could probably find a couple dozen cars per year to buy.

Many cars have to be modified to suit my purposes, since I want everyday city street scenes, not a hot rod convention. In the case of the Hot Wheels ’32 Ford Delivery sedan I picked up at Kmart tonight (along with baby formula and a cordless phone–you gotta love it), the car is pretty tame. No jacked up wheels, no overly funky colors. It does have flames. Remove the flames with some nail polish remover or purple cleaner on a cotton swab, and I can probably pass it off as stock to a casual observer. Other times, it’s necessary to drill out the rivets on the bottom, swap out the wheels for more conservative ones, and maybe even strip and repaint the vehicle.

According to a car buff on an S gauge board I read frequently, prior to WWII cars tended to be painted dark shades of green, brown, blue, red, and black. Fenders might be a different shade of the body color. After WWII, the colors lightened up and two-tone paint jobs became popular.

The need to swap wheels means sometimes you have to buy cars just to get their wheels. So I’ll look for cheap vehicles with conservative-looking wheels to use as donors. This adds cost, but consider some people pay $20 and up for each vehicle on their layout. Compared to that, it’s still cheap.

Some people get irritated at having to modify vehicles before using them on the layout. It doesn’t bother me all that much. I think it’s part of the fun, and the result is that I have vehicles that don’t look like anyone else’s.

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.

Does window insulation film work?

I spent the afternoon putting plastic window insulation film on my windows. It was supposed to be a short project, and I do get better at it every year, but it still ended up taking about an hour per window. Was it worth it? Does window insulation film work?

Window insulation film is a cheap, effective way to save money and make your house more comfortable in the winter. It can cut your heating bills by 30 percent.

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