How to become an Info Assurance Analyst

So, CNN/Money ran a story on the best 100 jobs in the United States, based on pay, projected job growth over the next 10 years, and quality of life ratings. And there was my job title, at #9. I think you should want to become one, so here’s how to become an Info Assurance Analyst.

The field desperately needs more of us, so I’m happy to share with you how to become someone like me. Read more

9 things your landlord won’t tell you: A rebuttal

My wife found an unflattering piece about landlords in the Huffington Post titled 9 things your landlord won’t tell you. This sorry excuse for an expose just makes accusations, without backing any of it up.

I’m a landlord. Here’s what I have to say about those nine things.

Read more

Feeling poor on $100,000 a year

Yahoo! Finance! has! a! first-person! story! about! struggling! on! six! figures!

Silliness aside, you might be surprised to hear I–an infamous stingy Scottish miser–am at least a little sympathetic. Read more

The new nontraditional homeless

This St. Louis Post-Dispatch article talks about a new type of homeless: A family, in most cases, where both parents work, but neither makes enough to be able to afford both a home and transportation.

This is where salary deflation and the end of inexpensive housing meet, and it’s not pretty.One of the many reasons I oppose eminent domain is because it wipes out private housing. While the targeted areas often aren’t the nicest neighborhoods, frequently the people who live in them aren’t able to afford other housing in the area–that’s why they opposed the buyout in the first place. If your home is worth $40,000 and you can’t find another $40,000 home, or the only comparable home you can find is next door to a crack house, you’re not going to want to leave either.

But since affordable housing can’t stand in the way of progress, inevitably the buildings fall, our country gets another strip mall, which causes a domino effect where another strip mall gets abandoned and blighted. And if that area isn’t redeveloped, property values there will fall, but not quickly enough to help the people who were displaced.

I don’t know about anywhere else in the country, but in St. Louis, it’s exceedingly difficult to live on $8.50 an hour. That’s $1300 a month, which is enough for a single person to afford a small apartment (say, $400) and some kind of transportation and a simple life. But it’s tight some months. I remember the utilities in my one-bedroom apartment topping $200 a month during the hottest and coldest months. The heating and cooling systems in apartments tend not to be very efficient. And mine wasn’t a cheap apartment by any stretch. Add kids into the equation and it gets difficult.

Ten years ago, when someone asked me to sign a petition to raise the minimum wage, I gave them a lecture about why that was a bad idea. Like a good Republican, I said the cost of everything would increase, and the people who were making minimum wage wouldn’t end up being any better off.

Besides, at that point in time I had seen minimum wage rise three times since I’d been a teenager. The argument may have been valid then.

Minimum wage increased that year, although not by as much as that group wanted. And I remember restaurant owners grumbling about it and saying that prices would have to increase in order to support it.

But a funny thing happened along the way. I worked fast food 15 years ago. And 15 years ago, when minimum wage was $4.15 an hour (up from $3.35) you could pretty much expect to pay about five bucks for a meal at a fast-food joint. When I was 14, before I was working, and minimum wage was $3.35 an hour, I usually paid $5 or less for a meal at a fast-food joint.

And today, with a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, I still pay about $5 for lunch at a fast-food joint. The $5 lunch might be a bit smaller than the $5 lunch of 1990, but for about 50 cents, I can get 1990 portions.

Minimum wage peaked in 1968. Adjusted for inflation, 1968’s minimum wage would be about $8 today.

Frankly, I think $8 is probably a fair minimum wage when I consider that the cost of living in St. Louis is lower than the national average and yet it’s difficult to get an apartment for less than $400 if you don’t like living around gunshots, and considering that monthly payments on a Kia Rio are $166 a month. At $5.15 an hour, that leaves $258 for utilities, food, clothes, health insurance, and gas to put in that Rio. Health insurance and utilities can easily wipe that out.

Even when you argue that someone making minimum wage ought to be driving an older car, eliminating that $166 payment still makes for a tight budget. If you get sick and miss more than a day of work, it’s a budget breaker.

Oh, and by the way, we’re talking pre-tax dollars here. That $800 a month is really less than $700 by the time the government gets its share.

Better get a $300 apartment. And a gun, just in case you need to shoot back when you hear those gunshots. Hopefully you’ve got enough money left over for bullets.

Come to think of it, living on the street probably is safer alternative.

Insourcing time

Here’s a recycled idea: outsource to small towns instead of overseas.

It made sense in the 1930s and it makes sense now.The reason salaries are high in large cities is partly because the monthly rent on an apartment is higher than the mortgage payment on a modest 3-bedroom home in a smaller metropolitan area. I remember being at a financial seminar where the speaker counseled somebody who hated living in Chicago. He didn’t want to move because he’d make less money. They talked about why he needed the salary he was making, and he realized the only reason was so he could continue living in Chicago.

Needless to say, he found a lower-paying job in a city with a lower cost of living, and ended up much happier.

Since high cost of living makes for high salaries, high cost of living is expensive for corporations too.

Manufacturing jobs–back when anything was actually made in the USA–tended to herd in cities. But some companies put their factories in rural areas, where the labor was cheaper, in order to undercut their competitors’ prices.

In the so-called Information Age, nothing keeps companies from locating call centers and other facilities in small towns. It may or may not be cheaper than India–but the cost of doing business in India is increasing–but, let’s face it, there are issues with going overseas.

When I was in college, even the most liberal students I knew complained about foreign teachers’ assistants, who were graduate-level students put in charge of teaching the weedout classes freshmen have to take. Besides the thick accents, cultural differences–ranging from figures of speech to simple expectations–could get in the way of understanding.

Add a VOIP line to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. Not that shareholders know anything about any of this. (Most of the shareholders who make the biggest racket probably didn’t go to a public university.)

The company I work for (no, I won’t give its name) does it right. Not only are the call centers in the United States, there are several of them. A customer from the South is going to talk to a representative from the South. Accent and all. Customers from the North are going to get the Minnesota call center more often than not. Westerners will speak to a Californian.

That’s important. I’ve been called a Southerner exactly one in my life–by someone from Detroit–but my in-laws definitely consider themselves Southern. When I told them that my Dad was saying 15 years ago that biscuits and gravy causes colon cancer, their response was, “That’s just a Yankee doctor talking. No Southerner would ever say that.”

Suffice it to say they don’t consider me a Southerner.

So I like this idea. Outsourcing closer to home will neatly solve the cost problems of the big city and the cultural problems of offshoring. Some people prefer living in a small (or at least smaller) town anyway.

The article I linked says this could be the renaissance of small town USA. It might be too early to say that, but I don’t see how that could be a bad thing.

Not enough IT workers?

His Billness claims he can’t find enough IT workers. I think this is more posturing so he can get more visas–it’s cheaper to import labor from the Far East than to outsource, I guess.

I don’t see this shortage he’s talking about. Billy needs to read what I’m reading: unemployment is up and salaries are down in the IT field.

If he can’t find the workers he needs among the 2005 graduates, it seems to me he needs to be looking at the people who have a bit more seasoning.

And when the unemployment rate among IT workers is higher than the national average and salaries are decreasing in the face of increasing cost of living, do you think that might have something to do with why the dean of engineering and applied science at Princeton sees fewer people going into that field?

I just came off the job market. Trust me, it’s not like your phone rings every hour with a job offer or even an interview.

Either the situation is extremely different on the programming side than it is on the sysadmin side, or Gates isn’t seeing (or refuses to see) the whole picture.

Shopping an estate sale for trains

My girlfriend loves shopping at yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and basically everywhere people look for bargains.

I’m not into that all that much. I’m a guy. So I just asked her to keep an eye out for tools for me if she happened to be garage sale-ing.

This week she found an estate sale with tools and trains. It started at 7:30 this morning. So I dragged myself out of bed to go.The description said "electric trains." Usually when people say electric trains, they mean old American Flyer, Lionel or Marx, because that was what those companies used to put on their boxes. "Model trains" usually means HO or N scale. Nothing against those, but they’re not my thing. And besides, you can buy those anywhere.

When I got there, it was right at 7:30. It looked like they’d started early because there were lots of people there. I noticed a lot of people glancing at the trains but not staying long. I took a look. The glossy brightly-colored enameled bodies instantly told me it was pre-war stuff. I looked at the prices. $85 for a refrigerated car. $28 for a gondola. $24 for a caboose. These guys had gone to the library and looked up the values of the cars. I know because the guy told me so.

"Are these prices about right? I went to the library and looked them up."

I explained to him that the Greenberg price guides tend to be skewed in favor of the east coast. Prices are higher there, partly because the cost of living is higher out there than in the midwest, and partly because there’s a bigger following over there. Lionel and Marx were both New York companies. Gilbert was a New Haven company. Flyer was a Chicago company before selling out to Gilbert, but that was prior to 1938. There’s more appeal to the stuff on the east coast because you find people whose grandfather or great uncle worked for one of those companies, or some other connection.

What I didn’t tell him (but should have) was that those prices are for mint condition. And while his items were in nice shape, they were anything but mint. Most of them would grade to excellent, or very good. Stepping down a grade knocks anywhere from 10%-50% off the price of the item.

The cars also weren’t 100% original. At some point the couplers on the cars had been replaced with Lionel post-war couplers. That’s an upgrade, which is probably why the original owner had done it, and whoever did the upgrade did a good job, but from a collector’s point of view, it lowers the value. It’s an advantage to people who run the trains, but someone like me isn’t going to pay extra for it.

The prewar freight set that was priced at $137 total at this sale probably would have been priced closer to $75 at Marty’s Model Railroads, frankly. Marty probably would have given him $40 total.

He also had two passenger sets. They would have graded out to Good, possibly only Fair. They, too, were priced at mint.

There was a nice prewar engine. I forget the number. It was priced at $250 for the engine and tender. That’s a fair price if it’s a whistling tender, if the engine is in perfect working order, and the paint is good. The paint was really good on the engine. But it probably at least needed a lube job. With no way to test the engine, there was no way I was going to pay $250 for it.

I spied a couple of postwar Marx diesels, priced at $50. It was an A-B pair, with the B unit being a dummy. A quick examination revealed the front had been cracked and re-glued. Diesels tend to go for more than steam engines the same age, but in that condition, and untested, a Marx should only go for $20.

I also spied a couple of pairs of Marx metal switches. They were the electric variety. I’m told metal Marx switches were prewar. I don’t know about that, since all of the metal ones I’ve ever seen were in a lot with postwar equipment. Maybe they were put together after the war with old parts. Marx was known for that. At any rate, the Marx metal switches are highly desirable. The later plastic switches sit higher than your track, so you have to shim your track for the locomotives to run right. These don’t. Also, the design allows Marx and American Flyer engines with thicker wheels than Lionels to pass through them. So a metal Marx switch lets you run any train you want. And unlike the Lionels of the same vintage, they run off a fixed 18 volts, not from the track, so they tend to work more reliably.

The only Lionel switch that compares is the Lionel 1121, which Lionel didn’t make for very long. It’s easier to make the 1121 self-tending, but in all other regards the Marx is better.

The switches were priced at $10 per pair, including the original boxes, control panels and wires (but the wires need to be replaced). That’s not a fabulous price, but it’s fair. I paid $10 per pair for some plastic Marx manual switches at Marty’s back in December. Marx switches tend to sell for $10 per pair on eBay, but then you have to deal with shipping.

So I bought the two pair of switches, and nothing else.

Later, my girlfriend told me they wouldn’t take her check. So I guess it’s a good thing I only got the switches. I wouldn’t have been able to get any more even if I’d wanted to, because I only had $24 in cash on me.

It was a mild disappointment. I took a quick look at the tools and saw the same thing. Prices were very close to what I would pay at Sears. Only at Sears, I’d get a warranty on it, and if I bought $100 worth of stuff, I’d get a $5 off coupon on my next purchase.

It was a mild disappointment. She was disappointed too. I’m going to assume it wasn’t typical. She told me it wasn’t a very good estate sale.

I think I’ll go back tomorrow afternoon, towards the end, and see if the trains are still there. Maybe then he’ll be looking to deal. Marty can charge the prices he does because he’s willing and able to sit on inventory for months or years. Individuals usually can’t or won’t do that. But he was charging more than Marty would.

If not, there’ll be more next week, or if not, the week after. ‘Tis the season, and very early in the season, at that.

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