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Mimic Systems Spartan: Apple II emulator for the C-64

The Mimic Systems Spartan was an elusive bit of C-64 hardware that made it Apple II+ compatible. It’s one of the more interesting Apple II clones of the 1980s. People thought of it as an Apple II+ emulator for the Commodore 64, though it wasn’t emulation in a modern sense.

Mimic Systems took out full-page ads in all of the Commodore magazines, starting in late 1984, promoting the product heavily.

The problem with it was that you couldn’t buy one, at least not in 1984 or 85. The Spartan finally appeared in 1986, and at that point, not many people wanted one anymore. So Spartans are exceedingly rare today.

But it actually seemed like a decent idea. In 1984, that is.

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How to use price guides

Pricing collectibles is more art than science, and most guides have some errors in them, so large (or at least very vocal) numbers of people mistrust them.

I still use them, however. Knowing how they’re produced–or would be produced, in a perfect world with perfect data–helps someone to use them to maximum effect. The principles are the same for any guide, whether you’re talking trains or video games or baseball cards or any other collectible.Read More »How to use price guides

How eBay is ruining itself

A thread on one of the train forums I frequent mentioned today that the number of listings for Marx trains on eBay is down about 50% over what it was a year or so ago. Not only that, the listings are by and large the common, less interesting stuff.

Meanwhile, a debate rages on another forum I read sometimes, frequented by eBay sellers. On one side are the eBay apologists, saying they’ll just change as eBay changes. On the other side, people struggling to make a profit in the ever-changing environment are finding other venues to sell their wares and finding themselves a lot happier.The problem is that eBay is trying to create a sterile, retail experience. The big shareholders and the executives seem to think that’s what the consumer wants.

Another seller’s theory is that the people who sell brand new merchandise in huge quantities are less troublesome, causing fewer headaches for eBay and for the customers.

The eBay business books I’ve read talk a lot about people who drop-ship pool tables and other merchandise in large quantities, never touching any of it, and supposedly becoming millionaires by doing it.

But the people who put eBay on the map are the people like the ones I see every Saturday morning. They study classified ads the way a devout monk would study Scripture, looking for clues and carefully plotting out their routes. They get up before dawn and drive to their carefully chosen site. Their prey: The estate sale. They line up in the driveway hours before the sale opens, like bargain hunters the day after Thanksgiving. When the sale finally opens, shoppers come in, 10, 20, or 50 at a time, depending on the size of the house, while those who arrived later wait their turn. Any time someone leaves, those in the driveway gawk, trying to see what he or she purchased.

It doesn’t matter what item you can name, I know someone who goes out every Saturday looking for it. Some of these people are collectors, but some of them hawk their finds on eBay. They buy on Saturday and Sunday, then they spend hours the following week figuring out what exactly they have, carefully photographing and describing each item, then listing it, hoping to attract bidders.

The typical eBay addict doesn’t go there to buy a pool table, or the kind of things they sell at a suburban mall. Certainly there are people who buy those sorts of things on eBay. But those tend to be occasional shoppers. The biggest eBay addicts are the fanatics–the serious collectors who spend hours every day scouring new eBay listings, looking for items they don’t have in their collections.

And guess what? These collectors don’t buy from drop-shippers who duplicate the retail experience. The drop-shippers can’t get those kinds of collectibles. It’s the people who get up at 5 a.m. each Saturday to be first in line to prowl around in someone’s attic or basement who get that stuff.

The problem is that the people who do get that stuff have a difficult time becoming (and remaining) Powersellers. A Powerseller has to sell 100 items or $1,000 worth of inventory per month. If I wanted to sell vintage trains on eBay, there’s no way I could locate 1,200 items each year. Not in St. Louis. The $1,000 mark wouldn’t be much easier to hit.

So eBay is driving away that kind of seller. And as a result, eBay is going to lose that type of buyer as well.

I know for a fact there are plenty of collectors in Europe and elsewhere who are eager to take advantage of the low value of the dollar and buy a bunch of collectible American trains at bargain prices due to the exchange rate. Unfortunately the timing is horrible. The new eBay policies have driven away a lot of the people who sell the best items. So the foreigners with money to spend end up spending a lot less than they would like. Sure, they’ll buy the $10 items that are listed, but they’d really rather buy the $100 and $1,000 items that were listed last year but are conspicuously absent today.

Ten years ago, eBay was flying high. They weren’t the first online auction, but they were the most successful, precisely because they allowed ordinary people to sell ordinary (and extraordinary) things. I bought a number of things from online auctions in the mid 1990s, including the Lexmark 4039 laser printer I still use every day. I don’t remember now the name of the auction house where I bought it. I do know it went out of business shortly after eBay became widely known.

Lots of other companies wanted in on the action. Amazon, Yahoo, and others launched auction sites that looked and acted a lot like eBay. But they never went anywhere. The best sellers put their best stuff on eBay. The wannabes tended to just have second-rate stuff sold by second-rate sellers. Case point: I once tried to buy a lot of vintage train magazines from an Amazon auction. I won, paid my money, and waited. And waited. A week later I e-mailed the seller. No response. Finally after another week he responded, saying he’d been having computer trouble and asking if I still wanted the magazines. Well, since he offered me the refund, I took it. I spent the money on eBay instead.

Yahoo auctions are gone, closed about a year ago. If Amazon’s auctions are still open, they’re sure doing a good job of hiding them.

If another company wants to get a piece of eBay’s business, the time is right. There are lots of refugee eBay sellers looking for someplace a little cheaper, with a little more stable set of rules where they can sell. And if a large enough group of them take up shop somewhere, there are plenty of buyers more than willing to follow them there.

It may not happen this year. But I do think it’s only a matter of time.

How to make more money, but more importantly, keep more of what you earn

Most GenXers don’t spend their money wisely.

That’s not an insult on my peers; there’s plenty of blame to go around. Yes, we want what our parents had at 50 and we want it at 25, but part of the problem is the images all around us tell us we have to have all that. And if my education is any indication, the only financial education I received in school was an aside in a U.S. History class.

Let’s talk about how to earn more to dig out of financial ruin, and how to stay out.First and foremost, usually when people get to the point where they start typing “earn more money now” or something similar into Google, usually they need immediate help. A year ago, I was in that situation. Talking it over with the higher-ups didn’t help–a few months later I lost my job. Ouch.

I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t bitter. I still am. But in a way it was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it forced me to look for opportunities. I already had been, but it forced me to find others that I probably wouldn’t have, otherwise.

There are a few ways to make a little money but it won’t necessarily happen immediately. If you have a web site, put Google ads on it. Click my link to find out how. Whether you get your first check in a month or in a year depends on how much traffic you get. A faster way to make a little money is to sign up for some online surveys. You won’t get rich, but a dollar here and five bucks there adds up. Sometimes you’ll hit the jackpot and qualify for a $25 survey. That won’t pay the mortgage but it will pay for a few meals.

Here’s another idea: Become a mystery shopper. Google for it. But don’t pay anyone to become a mystery shopper, not when there are legitimate outfits who are willing to pay you. Just keep in mind some of them want references. That’s actually a good thing. It protects your reputation and theirs. Again, it’s not big money, but it’s fairly easy money.

But I’ll be blunt: If you’re in some real trouble and there’s a bill that’s due in two weeks and you can’t pay it, then it’s time to make some sacrifices. Do you have any recent video games? Any collectible CDs or DVDs or VHS tapes? Collectible toys, such as Star Wars figures? There are lots of places that are willing to buy things like that, but to get top dollar you have to sell it yourself. Search eBay, find out what your items or something similar are selling for, and think seriously about liquidating some stuff. Don’t sell your family heirlooms, but if there are things that you can sell now to get you out of trouble and replace later when you’re out of trouble, consider it. While collectibles do increase in value, I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: Most of them are doing well to keep up with inflation. None will increase as quickly as your debt–not for a sustained period of time, at least. If you have something that is, sell now. The bubble will burst, and you’ll be able to buy it back cheaper later.

And something sobering will happen as you research what some of the things you own are worth. You’ll find a lot of them aren’t worth anywhere near what you paid for them. There’s a lesson there. It’s much better to spend your money on things that hold their value than on things that have bling factor but have no value once the 14-day return period is over.

So when you have money again, spend less on worthless things so you have more to spend on things that do hold their value. A big truck turns heads and lets you bully people on the road (and the ads to some degree encourage it) but can you really afford $40 a week to keep gas in it? Do you have to haul stuff often enough to justify that expense? For the majority of people, it’s much better to drive an economy car and put the money you save on the lower payment and less gas towards paying off debt. Borrow or rent a truck those occasional times when you need to haul something. So skip the Hummer and get a house. You need a house anyway, and while a Hummer will lose value when you go to sell it, a house usually will gain.

Let’s go back to the eBay thing for a minute. Ebay does a lot of good things. Once you’ve sold your stuff, you have the option to go buy more stuff to sell. Buy what you know and only what you know, and only if you can buy low and sell high. If you can’t either double your money or make $10, don’t bother. It’s best to find something that lets you do both. But if you have the ability to do that, you have an asset that stands a chance of turning your financial situation around within a few years.

But it also does something else. It teaches you how to sell. There is no better, more useful ability than how to sell. Not everyone sells merchandise for dollars, but everyone has to sell ideas. If you regularly find that people don’t listen to you, then that’s a good indication that you need more salesmanship ability. Yeah, but those people are idiots, you say. Even better. There are more idiots out there than smart people. Most rich people got rich by getting idiots to buy their junk.

I remember reading a line in a book once that asked me if I could make a better hamburger than McDonald’s. Of course I can. So why did Ray Kroc have more money than me?

By the way, I don’t mean any insult by any of this if people don’t listen to you. There are a lot of people who don’t listen to me either. I need to work on my sales skills as much as anyone.

I did something else before I started selling my stuff. I took a walk. I walked at least once a day. But I didn’t just walk. I was picking up aluminum cans. At 40 cents a pound, an aluminum can is worth about a penny. There’s no way I can pick up 100 cans in an hour, so it’s a lousy way to make money. But nobody else was paying me to do anything else during that time. I made sure I didn’t walk during working hours so I wouldn’t be out if the phone rang with a job opportunity. At least I felt like I was doing a little something. It was very little, but it kept my mind off things so I didn’t get as depressed. It also helped me watch for opportunity. Those cans aren’t worth anything, but the ability to quickly spot things of value from far off is worth something. It made a few house payments when I didn’t have a 40-hour-a-week job.

That’s enough talk about making money. I’ll admit that they’re just general ideas. I can’t give specific advice because something that works where I live might not work 100 miles away. Something else works there. The nice thing about the United States is that there always is an opportunity, no matter where you are. Although politicians seem to be trying their best to destroy that, they can’t destroy opportunities as quickly as you can find them.

I read a study this past week that said 70% of college graduates today can’t balance a checkbook, and when presented with a 20-ounce jar of spaghetti sauce for $1.99 and a 32-ounce jar for $2.49, they don’t know how to figure out which one is the better deal. That should scare some people.

But it occurred to me that I didn’t learn how to do that in school. I learned it from my mother. And I think she learned it from her mother, who must have known it because she managed to raise 11 kids and her husband didn’t have any money.

They don’t teach that kind of thing in school. To me, that’s the only thing math is good for. But I don’t know how old I was when I realized math was useful for that. Before that I thought math was just something teachers used to prove they knew something I didn’t.

There are lots of books out there that try to teach you how to make more money. But a more valuable skill is learning how to spot the good deal. Learn how to calculate the cost per ounce and use it. Carry a calculator with you if that’s what you have to do. There’s no shame in that. A calculator is also a useful tool for keeping a running total of the cost of the stuff in your cart. So it might be a good idea to carry two calculators. They’ll pay for themselves the first time you use them.

And if you have any influence with math teachers, please hand them this word problem. It’s the only good use of math I can think of for a non-engineer:

A television costs $199 at a store two miles from you. The sales tax rate in your town is 5.75%. The same television costs $179 at a store 100 miles away. The sales tax rate in that town is 6%. Your car gets 25 miles to the gallon. Gasoline costs $2.00 a gallon. Is it cheaper to buy the television at the store two miles away, or is it cheaper to buy it 100 miles away?

I’ll conclude with the secret of getting rich. The secret isn’t to make lots of money. It’s human nature to spend more money as soon as you make more money. The secret is to spend less.

I remember when the first of my college classmates bought a house. He told me that at the end of the paper, it told him how much money the loan was for, and how much money he would pay between then and the end of the term. “Am I really going to make that much money?” he asked. Then he laughed it off.

He will. So will I. So will everyone. Most people living in the United States will make a lot more than a million dollars between their first job and retirement. The question is whether Nike and General Motors and Phillip Morris and Coca-Cola get to keep most of it, or whether the wage-earner gets to keep most of it.

I really don’t like the tone of this rant–and it basically is a rant–because it sounds like someone who made it looking back. I’ve only started the journey myself. I started 14 months ago. But my wife and I already have something to show for it. We have no credit card debt, we own two 2002 Honda Civics outright, and if we can keep up our current pace, we will own our house outright in a little over three years. Five years is probably more realistic.

Remember, around 12 months ago there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills. So if I can do it, lots of people can.

The second-cheapest way to get household necessities

The topic at lunch at work turned to saving money around the house earlier this week, largely because one of my coworkers suddenly found himself with full responsibility for his two pre-teen nieces. The coworkers who are parents started talking about the best places to get good used clothes, the best places to get food cheap, and other stuff. Not being a parent, I just listened. I’m not at that stage in life.

I’m in a different stage of life, still a relatively new homeowner. Yesterday I paid a grand total of $5 for an ironing board and a stepladder, two things I’ve been surviving without. I’m about ready to quit going to the hardware store and to Kmart.The secret is estate sales.

Estate sales are usually crowded affairs, as people swoop in from all corners of the globe to cram themselves into tiny houses in search of things that are rare, things that are cheap, or best yet, rare and cheap.

I see two types at estate sales. The first is the well-to-do, who are there in hopes of securing antiques and collectibles for pennies on the dollar. The other is recent immigrants, who are generally there in search of inexpensive household necessities. They already know the secret.

The best time to go to estate sales is either really early or really late. If you get there early–it seems like people show up an hour early sometimes–you’ll get the best selection but you’ll pay top dollar. In some cases I’ve seen things priced at literally 10 times what they’re worth. In less extreme cases, I’ve seen tools priced the same as a new one at Sears.

Then again, yesterday I bought a pair of small pruning shears for 50 cents and a sharpening file for a quarter.

If you get there on the last day, reality has kicked in, the sucker prices have generally gone away, and dickering becomes the rule of the day. Prices drop by a factor of two or three, and the later it gets, the more willing they are to listen to prices.

If you’re shopping for household necessities, this is a good thing. The antique furniture dealers have no interest in ironing boards and laundry baskets and trash cans. Recent immigrants do, but chances are they already have those things. Stuff like this is often priced low to begin with, and it gets cheaper as time marches on because the chances of someone buying it are pretty low.

You can get household appliances cheap too. I saw a 20-inch Zenith TV marked at $50 yesterday. I know it works because they had it turned on. I’ll bet someone will get it for $20 today. I saw a washer and a dryer priced around $200 each yesterday. The washer was less than two years old. The dryer was a bit older but it was a Maytag. Those prices were decent, and could go way down if they sat long enough. If you’re willing to live without a warranty, you can save yourself a bundle. Two years ago I paid $900 for a washer and a fridge. A friend gave me a dryer. It looks like it could be 25 years old but it works and I was happy to save $250.

But yesterday I wasn’t looking for appliances. I wasn’t necessarily looking for household necessities either, but I’ve been needing a stepladder and a full-size ironing board. So when I spotted one marked at $4.50 and $6, respectively, I wasn’t going to pass them up. It was around noon, and it was a Friday-Saturday sale. They’d be closing up shop in an hour or two. Anything under $20 was automatically half price. I dragged the ironing board and the stepladder up to the checkout. “Five dollars is fine,” she said.

And it was fine with me too. I still remember the day when I went out to either Wal-Mart or Kmart (I try not to shop at Wal-Mart anymore but I did then), days before I moved out of my mom’s house for good, to buy household necessities. After spending more than $200 on things like trash cans and laundry baskets, there was still a lot of stuff I lacked.

If I’d known then what I know now, I probably could have gone to three sales, spent a grand total of 50 bucks, and ended up lacking a lot less.

The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

Toy trains are a funny thing. Vintage Lionel trains are almost a status symbol, and their value has almost taken a mythical quality. Marx, on the other hand, was the working class brand in the 1950s, the company that had something for you no matter how much you had available to spend.

For the most part, today’s prices reflect that. Lionels are expensive and Marxes are cheap.

Sort of.

Read More »The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

Recapturing the charm of Dad’s Lionel train

I unboxed Dad’s old Lionel train Monday night. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Dad’s train led a rough life. My investigative reporting skills tell me he got the train sometime between 1949 and 1952, and then sometime after 1953 he got a new locomotive and cars. And then sometime in the 1960s, the trains ended up in a box. I remember him telling me it came out a few times in the 1970s for Christmas, but most of my memories of Dad’s train are four big pieces of plywood with rusty track mounted on it, sitting in the garage next to a stack of repurposed liquor boxes containing train parts.

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Vintage PCs and bubblegum and Unix and Windows server crashes

Mail. Svenson wrote in, a little bit disturbed at the “vintage” label I hung on Pentium IIs this week. Here’s what he said:

What you call a Vintage PC is about what I got as a "new" box at work!

OK, it's a P2/400 but the 128Meg is not EEC and the drive is a standard 10GB 5400rpm thing. No SCSI anywhere. That is the kind of hardware being installed here.

Oh, and, BTW, it has to run Win2000.

To which I replied my “vintage” label was at least slightly tongue-in-cheek. I’ve got a Celeron-400 here that’s still in heavy use. My P2/266 laptop doesn’t get much use anymore because my employer provided me with a P3-800 laptop late last year. There are people who call even that P3-800 passe. They’re idiots, and I have zero respect for them, but they’re out there, and unfortunately people listen to them. Today I’m hearing P2s mentioned with the same disdain that 286s were in 1993 and 386s in 1996. They’re still fine computers. As my workplace is well aware–our workhorse machine is still a P2-350 or 400 with a 5400 RPM IDE drive, and that looks to remain true for another couple of years.

It’s a buyer’s market. If you know someone who needs a computer, buy one of these. They’re built much better than a $399 eMachine, and the models with SCSI drives in them will outperform the eMachine for household tasks.

Absolutely nuts. If you’re in the market for Luis Gonzalez’s bubblegum (Gonzalez is the Arizona Diamondbacks’ slugging left fielder), it’s for sale. I got a bit far out there on my baseball collectibles, but never that far.

Absolutely funny. I’m so glad that the people at Microsoft and Unisys are incompetent. They set their sights on Unix with their “We Have the Way Out” campaign. Then someone noticed the Web site was running on, uh, well, FreeBSD. I see. Unix is good enough for them, but not for the rest of us. Word got out in a hurry, and they hastily moved the site over to Windows 2000. Within hours, the site was down. And down it stayed, for two days.

See what happens when you abandon Unix in your datacenter for Windows 2000? I gotta get me some of that. I’ll charge into my boss’ boss’ office today and tell him we need to migrate our VMS and Digital Unix and Linux systems to Windows 2000. He’ll ask why, and I’ll tell him the truth:

The systems we have now work too well and I need job security.

Wehavethewayout.com is working now, but Gatermann visited it yesterday and noted its form didn’t work right in Mozilla. So I guess you can only get information on Microsoft’s way out if you’re running Internet Explorer.

Maybe these guys are smart, but they have about as much common sense as the chair I’m sitting in.

That’s just as well. If their experience is any indication (trust me, it is), they can keep their information. I’ve seen more useful information written in bathroom stalls.