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Advice on scraping by

Here’s a good, timely Google search query: scraping by advice.

I looked, and I’ve never written anything that matched that query well. I know a lot of people are hurting right now. I’ve been in some tight spots and I’ve gotten out of some, so let’s talk about what I would do, on a really practical level, if I ran into another tight spot next week.

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Confessions and rememberances of an Amigaholic

My name is Dave. I am an Amigaholic.

I thought I was recovered. But I don’t think you ever recover. Not really.

You see, this week I was trolling Craigslist for garage sales. I look for trains, toys for my boys, and other things that strike my fancy. I spotted a sale that advertised an Amiga computer. I shouldn’t have put it on my list, but I did. I didn’t want to buy it, but I had to see it. I had to. Like I said, you don’t recover.

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Thrift-store PCs

In the comments of a recent post I did, reader Glaurung Quena brought up a good topic: secondhand PCs, acquired cheaply, strictly as rebuild fodder.

I like the idea, of course, because I’ve been doing it for years. In the 1990s I built a lot of 486s and Pentiums into former IBM PC/ATs, basically until all the board makers relocated the memory slots into a position that wasn’t clear on the original PC/AT due to a beam that supported its drive bays. And of course the adoption of ATX and MicroATX killed that, at least for a while.

But now ATX has been around as long as the old AT architecture had been when ATX came along, and efforts to replace ATX haven’t been successful. So that trick makes more sense again. Buy a secondhand machine cheaply, intending to re-use the case, and regard anything else inside that happens to be reusable strictly as a bonus.Read More »Thrift-store PCs

Save money on cables by not buying at retail

I’m ashamed to say I own one Monster cable. Hopefully if I tell you I bought it at a garage sale for $2, I’ll regain your respect. But there’s an easier way to save money on cables than buying at garage sales.

Unless you need it immediately, there’s no reason whatsoever to buy Monster and other overpriced cables at big-box consumer electronics stores. Profit margins are really thin on most electronics, even the big-ticket items, and they use the cables to make up for that. That’s the reason nobody includes cables in the box.

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Improving DSL speed

I found some DSL speed tips. They work. If you have DSL, you should read them and do the same.I went from speeds all over the map to a fairly consistent 600 kbps just running a new CAT5 line for DSL. Replacing the cheap, flat, old-fashioned phone cord running from my modem to the phone jack and the other cheapie in my patch panel with UTP phone cords boosted me another 30-50 kbps. That extra boost varies, but it’s something, and I’m glad to be consistently above 600 kbps now.

Finding UTP phone cords is a challenge. Supposedly Lowe’s has them but I can’t verify that. I had one that I wasn’t using for some insane reason. I found another one at a garage sale, obviously from a DSL installation kit. I don’t remember what I paid for it, only that it was a lot less than it’s worth to me. Digging through boxes of random cables at garage sales can pay dividends.

The easiest way to get them is probably to make your own from scrap lengths of CAT5/5e/6 cable. Just crimp RJ11 modular plugs onto the ends instead of RJ45. Radio Shack sells a package of 10 plugs for $6. Overpriced, but convenient. There’s always a Radio Shack nearby.

Belkin sells a special shielded twisted pair modem cable as an “Internet cable,” for around $20. I’m sure it’s a very good cable, but it’s not worth 20 bucks.

When looking at a store, as a general rule, flat cables are always bad, but a round cable stands a chance of being good.

If you have a fairly new house, chances are your phone wiring is pretty good, in which case the most important thing is getting a good phone cord. If you have a house built in the ’60s like me, with phone wire run after the fact by a weekend handyman who either didn’t know or didn’t care how to avoid interference on the wires, that’s another story. If there’s 30 feet of bad wire between the telco and the modem, the quality of that last 6 feet of wire doesn’t make much difference.

While you’re at it, you might as well replace all your phone cords with these higher-quality models. Your voice calls will be clearer, and it eliminates the possibility of those cables introducing interference into the line. That interference shouldn’t reach the modem, but “shouldn’t” is no guarantee.

Tips for running a garage sale

On a forum I frequent, the discussion turned to garage sales, and some people shared some horror stories. As someone who visits a lot of garage sales, I’ve seen the ways people deal with some of the pitfalls. In the interest of encouraging garage sales, I’ll share my tips for running a garage sale.

tips for running a garage sale

Quick: can you spot the common (but very serious) error in this photo of a table at a garage sale? Keep reading and you’ll find the answer. This may be the most valuable of my tips for running a garage sale.

One problem is people showing up at 5 or 6 in the morning wanting to get in early. The best way to prevent this is to be vague about your address. Be specific enough that they can find it, but vague enough that they can’t find it early. What do I mean? Don’t say “2329 Jefferson” in your ad and streetcorner signs. Say “single-family sale, 23xx Jefferson.” Then, when you’re ready to open your sale, put a sign in your front yard and open your garage door. Last of all, have a helper go out and put some signs on nearby major intersections.

The early birds can still show up if they want, but they’ll have no choice but to sit in the car and wait for you, since they won’t even know for sure which house is having the sale. Only the people really, really serious about buying something will, and those are the people you want.

Lowballers are the other problem. I’ll admit, I’ve asked for discounts before when buying large quantities of stuff, but I don’t demand them. I see some people demanding discounts on everything, no matter how low the initial price is. Yes, I know that’s annoying. I’ve actually had people running sales ask me if I’m interested in the same thing they’re getting lowballed on, in hopes of selling it to me instead. Garage sale prices are already pennies on the dollar, but some people insist on squeezing out every last penny.

The best tactic is to lower your prices late in the sale, say, after 10 am. Advertise that prices will be 25% or 50% off at 10 am, and maybe knock something else off at 11 am. When a lowballer tries to play games with you, just say, “no discounts until 10 am.” They can come back then, assuming the item is still there. If they really want it, then they’ll pay your asking price.

Do be realistic about your prices, though. I once went to a sale, picked out 10 items (unmarked) and asked how much. I was expecting $10, maybe $20 at most, based on what I paid at other sales. She asked $60.

What did I do? I went through the pile again. It turned out half of it was stuff I could turn a small profit on at $6 each. Half of it was stuff I couldn’t sell for $6 myself. So I put those back. I reluctantly paid $30 for the other five. I honestly doubt anyone else expressed interest in what I put back. If it ever did sell, I’m sure she didn’t get $30 for it.

If you don’t know how to price something, visit a few sales yourself to get an idea what stuff goes for. Or at least visit your nearest thrift store and see what they charge for the kind of stuff you’ll be selling.

Leaving items unmarked and soliciting an offer encourages lowballers to offer 10 cents for things that ought to be priced a dollar. Or it leads to awkward exchanges like mine, where someone puts most of it back.

Do keep in mind a significant number of people who come to your sale are looking for things to re-sell. They may have a booth at a flea market or antique mall, they may sell on eBay, or something else. You’ll have some bargain hunters and curious neighbors, but most likely the majority will be resellers. Their profit margin isn’t your main concern. But the general rule of reselling is that 3x markup is the minimum that works. If an item sells on eBay for $10, the most you’re going to get from a reseller is about $3. The reason is because eBay is going to take $1.50 in commissions. The government is going to take another $1.50 or so in taxes. So the seller spends $3 to make $3-$4. But of course the seller would rather spend $1, sell for $10, and make $5-$6.

I’ve seen old Marx train cars priced at $50 at garage sales because the seller claimed he saw one just like it go for $100 on eBay. In the cases I’m thinking of, it’s always been a very common car worth no more than $20, so I know the seller was either lying or mistaken. If you think you have something really special, my advice is to attempt to sell it on eBay instead. You’re not going to get eBay prices at a garage sale. Essentially, as a garage sale operator, you’re a wholesaler.

If you don’t want to hassle with eBay, take a name and number from anyone who shows interest.

One tactic I see sometimes (and my family used) is to advertise a sale as a moving sale instead of a yard or garage sale, in order to get better prices. Advertising a moving sale can allow you to get better prices for your highest-end stuff, like furniture or nice electronics or perhaps name-brand clothes in nice condition. But things like used toys and VHS tapes sell for about the same price no matter what you call the sale.

Some people post phone numbers in the ad. Unless the ad runs the same day as the sale, this is a mistake. It’s just asking people to call you and want to see your stuff early. I admit I’ve done it myself. There have been a couple of times that I couldn’t find a sale, the ad had a number, and I called for directions and ended up buying a lot of stuff. But if you don’t want people calling you all hours of the day in advance, it’s probably not worth it. Putting a nearby landmark in your ad is just as effective and saves you the phone calls.

Finally, I’ve seen people take out ads a week or two in advance of the sale. I don’t see the point. Most circuit regulars don’t plan beyond the upcoming Saturday. So placing an ad early just forces you to do a lot of explaining to disappointed people that the sale is next week. The best day to advertise is the Friday before. The day of the sale is often too late, as many people have already made their plans. An ad in Saturday’s newspaper can draw in people who change their plans on Saturday morning, or people who plan spontaneously. But if you’re paying for the ad, Friday is best. If you advertise on Craigslist, run your ad early in the week and refresh it closer to Friday.

Did you catch the mistake in the photo at the top? Arguably there are two, but one of them is worse than the other. Organizing the stuff into logical groups would help it to sell better. The toy cars, the tools, and the electronics ought to all be together, rather than making it look like someone dumped a box of random stuff onto the table.

But the bigger problem is no price tags. The box of miniature light bulbs in the upper right would easily sell for $10 online. Mark it at $3, and it will sell. Unmarked, don’t be surprised if someone offers 10 cents.

And those are my tips for running a garage sale. I hope they help you have a less frustrating, more successful sale.

Lionel at Target

On Sunday, I went to Target largely because I had a coupon, but I also wanted to get a gift for my son.

I had heard Target was selling Lionel trains again like in 2006, and I’d seen a picture of the endcap, which included a Lionel teddy bear in addition to the trains. I wanted one.

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R.I.P.? The American Dream

Nearly 20 years ago, as I sat in a high school English class, the teacher told us all about the American Dream. And then she said there was one generation that wasn’t going to experience that dream, and she pointed at us.

As grim as things look right now, I can look around myself and see people proving Mrs. Susan Collins wrong, and that makes me happy.I guess she read somewhere that the U.S. economy had basically peaked. I vaguely remember reading something like that sometime in the late 1980s. It would have been just like my Dad to find an article like that in a magazine, rip it out, tell me to read it, and tell me not to let it happen to me.

The current prevailing theory is that as the rest of the world develops, our economy will grow as well because they’ll be better able to afford to buy our stuff. Hopefully by the time that happens, we’ll still know how to make something here.

The real threat to the American Dream right now is the sense of entitlement. When I look at the American Dream, I look at how my Dad lived when he was my age, and I have him beat hands-down. I have a house in the suburbs, and I own it outright. When Dad was 33, he lived in a slum. Well, not quite a slum. It was the former Toledo Motor Lodge, converted (badly) into apartments. The way Mom tells it, it was even worse than it sounds.

The problem is that we’ve been brainwashed not to compare our lives with where our parents were at our age. We’re supposed to have a better life than them right now. And if you’re under the age of 40 and your parents are white collar workers, that’s not a realistic expectation at all.

If my Dad were alive today, he would probably make 2-3 times what I make. Osteopathic radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than systems administrators with 10 years of experience. What if I’d followed his footsteps and become an osteopathic radiologist like he was? He’d still make more than me, because radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than radiologists with five years of experience. Who wouldn’t rather have the guy with 30 years’ experience reading their x-rays?

But that’s something my family has been dealing with for generations. Dr. Edward Andrew Farquhar started practicing medicine before the Civil War, and when you trace him to me, I’m one of only two generations who didn’t follow his footsteps. When it comes to the American Dream, it’s hard to compete with your father when your father was the town doctor. It isn’t all just handed to you.

But that’s a blessing in two regards. That means anyone who’s deserving of the title can be the next town doctor. That’s good for everyone, because unspeakable things happen when I have to look at something that’s bleeding a lot. If I were the town doctor, lots of people would probably bleed to death.

And any time someone says the American Dream is dead, I look at my neighborhood. It’s overrun with Bosnians. More than 50,000 Bosnian refugees ended up in St. Louis in the early 1990s.

I wish every city in the United States had 50,000 Bosnians move in, because they’re the best thing that’s happened to St. Louis in a very long time. They found jobs, worked hard, saved money, and bought run-down houses in declining neighborhoods. I can remember (barely) some of those neighborhoods, and they’re a better place now because of it. The neighborhoods not only look better now, but they’re safer.

Some of the children of those refugees are grown now, with jobs and families of their own, and increasingly they’re moving into the suburbs. In other cases, first-generation Bosnian immigrants are upgrading to houses in the suburbs.

It’s clear how they do it. Besides having a regular job, they always have something going on the side. Maybe more than one. They shop at thrift stores and garage sales, and they negotiate hard. They treat every dollar like it’s their last. And they’re always looking for an opportunity, or trying to make one.

They’ve tried to maintain their distinct culture, but what they may or may not realize is that they’re more American than their neighbors down the street who’ve been here for four generations.

I hope they’re still going at it when my son is old enough to pay attention. Because I intend take him out and find some Bosnians in action. And when I do, I’m going to point at them and tell my son to watch everything they do. Because for anyone who’s willing to do what the Bosnians do, the American Dream will always be alive.

How to clean up your computer before you sell it

I went to a huge garage sale this morning. I walked home with a 7-year-old Dell 15" LCD monitor. What I paid for it wouldn’t buy lunch for my wife and me. When I got it home and saw how well it worked, I felt guilty.

So if you’re thinking of selling some computer equipment, take my tips (as someone who attends literally thousands of garage sales every year) for getting decent money for it.The main reason I got this monitor for so little is because it looked like it sat in a dusty garage or attic for several years. It was filthy. I’ve seen identical monitors sell for 50 bucks as recently as June. Identical except for the dirt, that is.

I cleaned the monitor up using nothing more than an old dish towel and some all-surface biodegradable cleaner I buy at Costco. But dish detergent would work in a pinch. Dampen the towel, wring it out, add a bit of cleaner, and clean all the surfaces except for the screen. You’ll get more money if it looks like the unit was taken care of. You want it to look like you just bought its replacement yesterday.

You’ll also get more if you can demonstrate it works. Run an extension cable or two if necessary, and hook the stuff up so shoppers can see it in action. Many shoppers assume bargain-priced computer equipment at garage sales doesn’t work. In my experience, about half of it does. So I pay accordingly.

Finally, price realistically. These are the same people who get up at 4am the day after Thanksgiving to wait in line until Office Depot opens. I know because I do that too, and I see the same people I see every Saturday. So you’re competing with Black Friday’s prices, with used equipment.

That said, a working computer that runs Windows XP decently (and has a legal copy of XP on it) should fetch $75-$100, depending on its speed. A 1 GHz PC will run closer to $75, while a 2 GHz PC will fetch $100. And at that price, it should sell fairly quickly.

If a computer is decent but doesn’t work, it won’t sell for much. I’ve paid $10 for computers that need hard drives before, and I’ve passed on $10 computers that need hard drives. Sometimes I regret not buying that Pentium 4 that worked except for the hard drive, but my back hurt that day and I didn’t feel like lugging it home.

CRT monitors are hard to give away these days, but if you can demonstrate it works and it looks presentable, a 17-inch monitor is worth $10-$20. Your best bet for getting rid of one of those, though, is to bundle it with a working computer that runs Windows XP.

A working 15-inch LCD monitor should sell for $50 without any trouble.

Keyboards and mice are giveaways. I literally wish I had a dollar for every time someone’s tried to give me a keyboard. Anyone who wants one already has too many. The lone exception to this rule is an optical mouse. But a new, mid-range Microsoft optical mouse sells for $20-$25 on sale, so don’t expect to get more than $5-$10 for one. I paid $2 for one this year, and it didn’t work. I was willing to take a chance at that price, but no higher.

A story of a truck, some trains, a vet, and a possible scam

I think I’ve been taken for another Internet scam.

Of course the Internet is ripe for this kind of thing. The story of Kaycee Nicole Swenson is one infamous example. Unfortunately I fell for that one too, although not as hard as some people did. All I really wasted in that case was some bandwidth and a little disk space. That’s more than I can say for the people who sent her gifts and other things.Some people are skeptical of everything they see online. When I was younger, it made me mad. Not anymore.

People can come and go as they please with their blogs, but forums are an even easier target. Back in April, a disabled veteran showed up on a forum that I frequent. He had an interest in trains. My father in law, Jerry, was a disabled Vietnam vet. Jerry was hit by machine gun fire the first time he saw combat and received a Purple Heart. He never walked without a brace again. I don’t want to say the time in Vietnam ruined Jerry’s life, but it certainly sent everything off in a different direction.

By the time I met Jerry, he wasn’t bitter. He shared my love of baseball. He was a rabid Cardinals fan, so we’d talk baseball. We’d also talk about playing baseball and softball, because we both used to be outfielders. It’s always fun to hear another person’s take on playing the position you played. The difference was that at 29, I could still play center field. By 29 I had almost certainly lost a step out there, but my loss was due to age. At 29, all Jerry could do was coach. Jerry’s loss was from serving his country in an ill-advised war.

Jerry died in 2005. He had cancer, but his treatment was working, or so we thought. Then one day he started having a lot more abdominal pain than he was used to having. One Saturday afternoon they took him to the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine visit to find out what was going on with the pain, and he never went home.

I didn’t know Jerry very long, but he certainly influenced my life. Jerry was the first person who told me I could be completely debt-free in seven years or less. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. Now I probably had those tendencies before I met Jerry, and maybe I would have gone down that road regardless. But the first time I ever heard the idea was sitting on a porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, drinking coffee with Jerry.

I miss Jerry.

When I heard this guy’s story, something reminded me of Jerry.

He came from out of nowhere. He’d bought this old Lionel train at a garage sale. He was a disabled veteran (I can’t remember if it was Gulf War I and Gulf War II, or just Gulf War II), he shopped at garage sales, and he liked Lionel trains. What was there not to like about him?

But there was more to it. He was young, was married and had a kid or two while he was in the war, was wounded in combat, and when he came home, his wife and kids had left him. He’d served his country and nearly died and lost everything that meant anything to him in the process.

Regardless of what you think of Gulf War II, that story tugs at your heartstrings.

I wanted to help this guy. It started with me offering him some advice on getting that old train running. It was similar to a train that had belonged to my Dad. I’d worked on that kind of thing before, and I had some books with some advice in them. He never did get it running. I couldn’t tell if the problem was his locomotive or the track, so I offered to send him a cheap Marx locomotive and a loop of track. He told me he would have a hard time paying me. I told him not to worry about it because the stuff I was sending was probably worth about $10. It wasn’t; a fair price for it probably would have been closer to $20. It all shipped for about $7. Regardless, we aren’t talking huge sums of money. I can make that in an hour, and it would probably take more than an hour’s work to extract that value out of the stuff.

He thanked me profusely, but then I never heard from him again. Not directly, at least. I assume the box got to him, both because it’s unusual for a package that size to get lost in the mail, and because he made reference on the forum to having a Marx locomotive. But he came back with weekly tales about his garage sale finds. Part of me was a bit suspicious. He was finding stuff every week. I go to a lot of garage sales. I get up about 6 or 6:30 every Saturday morning, drive all over the St. Louis metro area, and the only time I’m home before noon is during December or January when there are only a couple of sales to hit. There have been days that I’ve gone out at 6 am and come home at 2 pm. I find trains about once or twice a month, and it’s probably about half as often that what I find is priced realistically.

He’s not exactly from a small town, but the metro area is 1/10 the size of St. Louis. There’s every reason to believe he should find about 1/10 the number of trains I find. Maybe less, since much of that area was probably still farmland when Lionel was in its glory days.

Looking back, I probably should have sensed some Tom Foolery going on.

I guess a lot of people started giving this guy some stuff. Train hobbyists can be pretty generous. Stuff we’ll never use tends to accumulate in boxes underneath our layouts, and the stuff we don’t give away probably won’t ever see the outside of that box for a very long time. It’s always been an unwritten rule to let useless stuff go to someone who can make better use of it. I’ve made a few trades in the past with people I’ve met online and never had any trouble. In most cases, I think we both walked away thinking we got the better end of the deal. And that’s how a deal should end–with both parties happy.

Then one day the guy disappeared. That happens. We get busy with other things sometimes. Word came that he was in the hospital. Then he reappeared. He had fantastic stories about his various medical conditions. Only there was one problem–other people on the forum had been in the hospital for the same thing, and the things he was saying weren’t consistent.

Then some people from other forums, one related to remote control cars, boats and planes and another related to the military, came looking for him and posted on the train forum. He’d told similar stories there–but the differences in the stories he told in each forum contradicted each other.

I’ve bounced back and forth between thinking whether it was a scam or just a misunderstanding. At first I wasn’t sure that I cared. Like I said, I’m out about $27. I can recover from that. But there are other people who are out a lot more than $27. At least one person sent him a brand new train set. After shipping, they were probably out closer to $300. Does that guy make 10 times what I make? Not likely.

Actually, I was wrong about not ever hearing from him again. He e-mailed a whole bunch of people, including me, yesterday while all of this was going on. It started out saying, “The evidence against me is overwhelming but this much is true.” And then he went on to rehash his story. It was pretty much all stuff I’d heard before.

The problem is, people don’t like being lied to. When part of the story is exposed as being a lie, it’s impossible to know if any of the rest is true. And then when someone turns up saying he sent him a $300 R/C truck two months ago in trade for something that never showed up, people are inclined to believe the guy. He may be a total stranger, but at least he’s never lied to them. And if the person in question has been scamming this stranger, it’s only natural to wonder if he’s been scamming other people too. Including you and your friends.

I suspect the next time someone comes along on that forum who needs something, a few people might not be feeling as generous. And that’s unfortunate.

And as for this one? I responded to his e-mail. I had several suggestions for him, including that he make things right with the guy who sent him the $300 R/C truck. He told me he would.

We’ll see. I know where to find the guy who sent the truck.