Bethlehem Lutheran Church sacrificed its sanctuary for a greater good

If all (or even a slim majority of) Lutheran churches were like Bethlehem Lutheran Church, I would still be Lutheran. Since they aren’t, I’m not.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself, and made this way too much about me.

Late last week, there was a big boom at the corner of Salisbury and North Florissant in the north St. Louis neighborhood of Hyde Park. It sounded like a truck wreck, but it turned out to be the wall and roof of a 120-year-old sanctuary crashing to the ground. Read more

The NSA’s disaster aversion by keeping BIOSes safe for the free world

This weekend, CBS ran a story about how the NSA foiled a sinister plot to brick millions of PCs and cause a financial meltdown. At least they didn’t say MELTDOWN.

My opinion is that this is a puff piece. A source managed to scare a journalist with a threat that sounded credible enough, and make something routine sound big and threatening.

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I got a Chromecast. I think you should too.

So, I read about the Chromecast, wondered how it could possibly work, and thought it might be too good to be true.

But, since it costs $35, I thought I’d take a chance on it. I’m glad I did. Think of it like this: You can use a smartphone or a tablet like a remote. Pull up what you want to watch on Youtube or Hulu Plus or Netflix, tap an icon, and boom, it moves over to your TV screen. You can rewind or fast-forward with the mobile device. Or look for more videos and queue them up.

And it’s not at all hard to set up, which was what I wondered about. Read more

Are video games a good investment?

An article on Slashdot asked this weekend whether video games were a good investment. So are video games a good investment? Will they appreciate over time?

The answer is generally no. Collectibles in general are not–they follow a boom and bust cycle. I’ve seen it happen in my own lifetime.

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The trouble with bringing your own software

PC Magazine is advocating a bring your own laptop, with your own software approach to business. It likens it to mechanics who bring their own tools.

The trouble is that while mechanical tools in a toolbox operate autonomously and don’t interfere with one another, software residing on a computer does. Read more

An excellent story about collectors of old signs

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch profiled three local sign collectors this weekend. Bill Christman, Greg Rhomberg, and Jim May go around buying old storefront signage, particularly enamel-painted metal signs with neon lights.

“Most businesses are branded franchises, so you see the same signs over and over, repeating every few miles,” said Tod Swormstedt, who operates a sign museum in Cincinnati. “But the old signs — the hand-carved shoe or the gold-leaf lettering on a window — were iconic and what made each neighborhood unique. People miss that.”

So I guess I’m not the only one who misses that, but it sure seems like we’re a minority.

Boom! Poof! Silence.

We had a power outage tonight. There was a boom, then a poof, then silence as everything in the house shut down. Maybe a nearby transformer couldn’t handle everyone running their air conditioners to escape the 95-plus degree heat. Maybe a squirrel got somewhere it shouldn’t have. I didn’t bug the service guys to find out.

I’ll be back tomorrow with some stuff. I’m too tired now to post anything else for the day. On the plus side, I got the excuse I needed to move my web server to the place where it belongs, rather than the “temporary” area where I staged it and it’s been sitting since, oh, September. It was already down, so taking an extra 10 minutes to move it didn’t hurt anything.

Random thoughts from the day after bin Laden died

It was 9:15. I was tired. I’d been reading, then I went to my computer to check baseball scores. I saw that the president had called a press conference for 9:30 CST, with no indication what it was about. 9:30 PM on a Sunday night isn’t when you usually call press conferences, and there’s usually some indication what the subject will be. I was curious enough to click around to see what was going on, but when I didn’t find anything right away, I went to bed.

This morning I woke up, went straight to the Kansas City Star’s baseball page to get an account of last night’s Royals-Twins game, and out of the corner of my eye, spotted the last headline I ever expected to read: “The Raid that Killed bin Laden.” What? Beneath it was a similar headline. I clicked, read the first two sentences to make sure I was reading the right thing, then raced into the bedroom, where my wife was getting our two sons dressed.

“They got bin Laden,” I said. And she did the same double-take that I did, and made me say it again.

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How to go bankrupt and/or lose your house

I have a Saturday ritual. On Saturday mornings, about 49 times a year, I go to estate sales. On numerous occasions, I’ve been to estate sales of millionaires who, for one reason or another, were downsizing.

And on Saturday afternoons, I’ve been known to go look at foreclosure houses. Or, now that my wife and I have bought one, working on the foreclosure house.

I see a pattern.It’s unusual for the last owner of a foreclosure house to be in the house for very long. And almost invariably, I see a lot of home improvement projects. Often there’s at least one unfinished project still sitting there.

Often the projects are pointless–tearing out plaster walls to put in drywall, only because that’s what the stupid shows on HGTV say you should do.

But it’s always pretty clear from looking at the house and the information available in public records what happened. They bought the house, they made some payments, the house increased in value during the real estate boom, they took out a home equity loan and started changing things, then eventually they got in over their head.

Often the changes weren’t worth it. They’d start out with a $60,000 house in a questionable neighborhood, sink tens of thousands into modernizing the kitchen and bathroom and finishing the basement, and if everything had gone well, they would have a modernized house, still in a questionable neighborhood, and contrary to the promises they saw on TV, the house didn’t increase in value at all. Someone ends up buying what’s left of it for $35,000 or $40,000, fixing whatever is wrong or unfinished, and renting it out to someone for $700 a month. A rather inglorious end to those TV-inspired dreams.

I see another pattern on Saturday mornings at estate sales.

More often than not, the family stayed in the same house for decades. The kitchen appliances are usually dated. Sometimes they’re from the 1990s, sometimes the 1970s, and on rare occasions, you even see a range from the 1940s or 1950s. And generally most everything about the house gives the impression of age. Sometimes you see kitschy trends that have come and gone, like shag carpets and dark wood paneling. Sometimes you see timeless craftsmanship. The latter is particularly common in the homes of the wealthy–when they did buy things, they bought things that wouldn’t go out of style, so they’d only have to buy once in a lifetime.

None of these houses will show up on HGTV or any other TV, and for good reason: Houses like that don’t make you run out to Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy their crap.

But at the end of the career or life, there’s something to show for it. A paid-off house with things in it that have to be liquidated, which then goes into the estate. The money from all of it then helps pay for retirement, end-of-life expenses, or goes to the heirs.

The foreclosed houses look a lot more like what you see on TV, even if you have to wipe some grime away to see it. The appliances are certainly newer, the kitchen cabinets are usually newer, and somewhere there’s at least one TV-inspired project, maybe still brewing.

But what’s left to show for it? Years of payments, lost. A wrecked credit score. Possibly some other maladies. Nothing anyone would want.

Clearly it’s much better to just live within one’s means, even if it means sacrificing coolness points in the short term.

In the long term, I’m pretty sure the people who chased the newest trends, overextended themselves and ultimately lost their houses ended up with about the same number of coolness points. Maybe a little less.

I didn’t cause the depression

Various analysts are blaming the current depression on people like me. The reasoning goes like this: I have money in the bank, therefore, I should be out spending it, for the greater good, to stir the economy.

Let’s correct that right now.People like me “hoarding” cash didn’t cause this depression. I played by the rules. I didn’t lie on my mortgage application. I bought less house than the bank said I could afford, because I didn’t see how I could make that payment and still buy groceries. I bought a Honda Civic because I didn’t see how I could afford a car that cost $25,000 or $30,000 and I really didn’t see how I could afford to put gas in it. I made this decision when gas cost $1.59 a gallon in Missouri.

Basically, I made a budget and then I made the decision to stick with it. It wasn’t rocket science. Any time I thought about buying something, I sat down with a spreadsheet, entered in all the money I paid out each month, entered what I made, and figured out if the money left over was enough to buy whatever it was I wanted.

We were due for a depression, or at least a recession, at the beginning of the century. The dot-com boom and Y2K was a bonanza, but then two things happened. Y2K came and went, the world didn’t end, and people quit buying survival supplies in large quantities. Meanwhile, these startups failed to come up with viable business plans, continued to spend money faster than the government, and ended up going out of business. This hurt those companies, but it also hurt companies like Cisco and IBM and Intel, because as these companies went bust, their inventory of technology equipment, some of it unused, went on the market at bargain prices. There was no reason to buy a new Cisco router from CDW when you could buy the same thing, still sealed in the package, from a liquidator for half the price.

Then 9/11 happened and it really looked like we’d get our recession. But the government slashed interest rates, changed bank regulations, and encouraged people to buy like there was no tomorrow. GM started offering 0% financing on its cars in order to move them. Soon you could get free financing on anything but a house, and interest rates on houses were ridiculously low. And anyone could get a loan. Republicans loved it because it made the economy go boom-boom again. Democrats loved it because people at any income level could get mortgages.

But the problem was that many of these loans had onerous terms and conditions, and just because you could afford the payments one day didn’t mean you’d be able to afford them in two, three, or five years after some of the back-loaded terms kicked in. Of course, nobody worried about that because they were living the high life.

And then it all fell apart. It wasn’t quite as rapid as it seems. I think people started having problems paying their bills in 2005 or so, but it didn’t quite hit critical mass yet. It hit the smaller banks first. I know because the banks who had my mortgage kept going under, and every year or so, a slightly bigger bank would end up with my mortgage. But those weren’t any match for this monster either. Countrywide got my loan in 2007, but Countrywide wasn’t a dinky little bank. It went under, and when I made my final house payment, that payment went to Bank of America. Now it looks like even the mighty Bank of America might make me look like the kiss of death.

But that wasn’t the only problem. These bad loans got packaged up and re-sold. And somehow, these bad loans got higher grades than they deserved. A guy working as a slicer at Arby’s making $9/hour living in a $150,000 house isn’t a good investment. When everything’s going right, he can afford to make his payments, but the minute something goes wrong, he’s going to start missing payments and might not ever recover. So unless the guy gets a decent job, he’s not going to be able to afford to stay in that house. Yet somehow, a bank could package a bunch of loans like this and spin it as a grade-A investment.

Imagine me going around to my neighbors’ houses on trash day, filling boxes with trash, and selling the boxes, legally able to tell the buyer that the box contains something valuable. That’s great, until someone opens the box and realizes it’s just a box of trash.

No, this depression wasn’t caused by people like me. It was caused by people living beyond their means for too long, and not being able to pay the piper when the time came.

There’s another word for what’s happening right now, besides recession or depression. That word is “correction.” When the economy has been going in one direction for too long, it corrects itself. Sometime in the future, there will be another correction, and the economy will start improving again.

But I read my ultimate proof yesterday. Supposedly, if people like me would just spend their money, things would get better. So why does someone walk into a Jeep dealership with $24,000 in cash, intent on driving home in a new Jeep, and end up driving himself and his still-heavy wallet home in his old car?

And let’s look at people like me one other way. When I nearly lost my job in January, I had almost six months’ worth of income in the bank and a plan in place to be able to live off it for a couple of years, potentially. It wouldn’t have been a comfortable living, but it would have been doable. There would have been no need for me to go collect unemployment. I would not have been a burden on society. And when I retire, I’ll retire with enough money to get me through the rest of my life, with or without Social Security. I won’t be a burden on society either.

People who save their money might not spend it at the most opportune time for everyone else, so they might fail to even the economy out like a capacitor evens out electrical power. But they are never, ever a drag on society.

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