Scale vs gauge: Not quite interchangeable

Scale vs gauge: Not quite interchangeable

Wondering about scale vs gauge? You’re not alone. It’s a common question, and I’ll try to provide a simple answer. The two terms may appear interchangeable, but they aren’t quite.

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Marx train sizes

Over the years, Marx made electric and clockwork trains in no fewer than seven sizes and two gauges. Depending on how you count Marx train sizes, you can say it was more than that. Here’s an overview of what they made.

If you go to sell Marx trains, correctly identifying the size definitely makes them attract more bids.

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My third 1935 Goudey: Luke Appling

The third 1935 Goudey card I bought featured four members of the Chicago White Sox, including Hall of Famer Luke Appling. But Luke Appling wasn’t the reason I bought the card.

I bought the card for George Earnshaw and Jimmy Dykes, in that order. Neither of them are Hall of Famers but they mean something to me. That’s the reason we buy a lot of the cards we buy.

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Set up your retirement account. Just do it. Then forget it.

My new mortgage company wants to see the balance of my 401(K) account. That turned out to be a bit of a problem, but for the right reasons.

You see, I might or might not get 401(K) statements. I don’t look at them. Sometimes I save them. Usually I don’t. So I hadn’t looked at my 401(K) balance in years, and I really only had a vague idea what was in it. I knew there ought to be enough to make the lender happy.

What I found when I finally got my hands on a statement shows why part of my strategy is to never look at the account. Read more

Some stock advice from the Post-Dispatch

I found this warning about trying to time the markets in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over the weekend. The warning was that 2009 was when the stock market bottomed out. Nobody predicted that was when it was going to happen. People who were buying stocks in 2009, when things looked bleak, are sitting much prettier than people who weren’t.

Although the economy as a whole is still a bit shaky, the stock market has had a historic run from 2009 to now. It just goes to show that the markets are fickle. Very fickle.

When the market was sinking fast and hard in 2009, I saw an opportunity. The fortune my grandfather made in the Great Depression is something of a family legend. (Where that money went is another legend that I’m not interested in speaking about.) That year looked like it might be the best opportunity I would see in my lifetime, so I sunk every dime I could into my 401(K) that year and encouraged my coworkers to do the same, though the most vocal of them were certainly talking about how much of a waste of time the 401(K) was, as far as they could tell.

I don’t know how many listened, but those who did probably are glad they did.

You can’t time the market. The best you can do is buy whatever is cheap. Take the emotion out of it. Set it up and make it automatic. Buy stock every payday by having automatic withdrawals, set a mix of blue-chip stocks, growth stocks, small company stocks, and bonds, and set the portfolio to rebalance. Some years it’s been the big companies that made the best return and some years it’s the small ones. Rebalancing forces you to buy low and sell high, to take last year’s profits and turn them into next year’s.

Remember. The market is fickle. It’s not God, and it’s not infallible. It’s actually very fickle and stupid. The way you beat a fickle and stupid market is by not being fickle. Don’t trust the market. It’s not trustworthy. Exploit the market.

I’ve had financial advisors try to sell me other gimmicky investments over the years. None has come close to matching the simple formula of evenly dividing holdings between those four categories in plain, simple no-load index funds. (You may have to settle for a managed fund for your growth holdings, but that’s OK.) Then rebalance. Whether it’s better to rebalance once a year or once a month or once a quarter is unclear. Your 401(K) may only give you one option anyway, so don’t obsess over it. The important thing is having a schedule.

When I was still in my 20s, I lost most of my retirement savings to poor management. I don’t intend to repeat that.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t look at your financial statements. Toss them in a drawer in case you need them. The only time I look at them is when I’m trying to get a mortgage. Real estate is cheap, but stocks are expensive, so I’m buying real estate. I have to prove I have six months’ worth of mortgage payments stashed somewhere to get a loan, so that’s when I look at those statements–and then, just to make sure the big number is big enough, and that I’m putting it right-side up in the scanner.

Nickel and dime your way to prosperity

An old friend and I have been talking a lot about debt elimination these past few weeks. With any luck, both of us will be completely debt-free by age 45 at the very most, and probably sooner.

The trick is to dump as much money as possible into debt retirement. As recently as November, the interest on my Honda Civic was costing me $1.40 a day. Think what you could do with that $540 a year you’re paying in needless interest.

The challenge is finding the money to use to retire debt.Some of these tricks will only save you a few cents. You must get yourself over the it’s-only-25-cents mentality. That quarter can either work for you or against you. A quarter paid at the beginning of a 30-year mortgage saves you more than a dollar by the end of the loan. Can you find a safer way to quadruple your money? I doubt it.

If and when you have no debt, dump those pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters into an index fund. An index fund just buys you the same stocks that are in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or some other index. Historically, these funds double in value every seven years. Great Depression, Schmeat Schmepression. Dump a quarter into an index fund and don’t touch the investment, and in 28 years, it’s $4.

So let’s find some creative ways to get some quarters.

1. Pay your bills online. This potentially does more than save you the 37 cents in postage. My gas and electric companies both have arrangements with checkfree.com to allow online payments free of charge. I was invariably late in paying them, which subjected me to interest payments. The other nice thing about Checkfree is that it schedules the payment for the due date. So if by chance you have an interest-bearing checking account, that money can work for you until the last possible day. You probably won’t save more than a couple of bucks a month this way, but that’s $25 over the course of a year. If someone offered you $25 without any strings attached, I doubt you’d turn it down.

2. Make car and mortgage payments as soon as possible. I may be showing my ignorance here, but interest paid to me on most accounts I’ve had is calculated monthly. Interest on my car is calculated daily. So, making that payment as soon as my paycheck shows up in my checking account reduces the principle, thus reducing my interest payments by a few pennies a few days early. It’s only pennies? I’d rather they be my pennies than Honda’s.

3. Use credit wisely. I remember one day a few years ago, I was at the grocery store and instead of pulling out my debit card, I pulled out a credit card accidentally. I thought how awful it would be to have to pay for life’s necessities on credit.

But if you’re disciplined, and you have a credit card with rewards–and we should be talking cash here, not merchandise–then it makes sense to pay for life’s necessities on credit. Take a look at my Discover Card bill, and you’ll see the bulk of it is things like gasoline, groceries, my telephone bill, and $20 trips to Kmart, which means I was probably buying stuff like toothpaste and deodorant and other household necessities. I pay the balance in full every month, so the result is essentially some bank paying me to buy the things I’d need to buy anyway. This nets me about $80 a year. I never see a dime of it–I apply it directly to the card’s balance.

4. Buy a programmable thermostat. The cheapest programmable thermostats cost about $30. They can easily save you that much in a month. During my 8-hour workday, my thermostat only heats the house to 56 degrees in the winter time. It cools it to 82 in the summer. During waking hours and on weekends, it keeps the house at 70 degrees in the winter and 75 in the summer. During sleeping hours the temperature raises or lowers by 5 degrees depending on whether it’s summer or winter. I used to have $300 heating bills in the winter months. Now I have $175 bills. That’s still ridiculous, but it leaves me money to actually do something about it.

5. Cut out the sodas and snacks. I used to routinely spend $1.50-$2.00 a day at the vending machine and the cafeteria at work, buying coffee, soda, and snacks. Over a 240-workday year, well, do the math. The 34.5-ounce can of coffee in my fridge (it lasts longer when stored there) is marked 9-26, the date I bought it. I expect it will last me until the end of the month. So that can of coffee will last me five months. I buy the off brand, so I can sometimes get one of those cans for between $3 and $3.50. So my morning coffee costs me 2.3 cents. I quit drinking soda entirely and I pack a granola bar in my lunch. Over the course of the past year I am sure I’ve saved $300.

6. Pack your lunch. Lunch at a sit-down restaurant almost always costs you $7. Fast food usually costs at least $5. The cafeteria at work is usually $3-$4. Sometimes I pack leftovers that would otherwise get thrown away, so they’re essentially free. It’s fairly easy to pack a lunch for $2. Again, do the math over 240 days. Do you want to spend a house payment on lunch every year, or do you want to spend a car payment instead?

7. Eat out less. A couple of years ago I was dating a girl who had to eat out 3-4 times a week, at least. Usually it was places where I was lucky to get out for under $20. I always paid, of course. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t have any money. But with a little creativity, it’s entirely possible to make dinner for two for $4. You can make a fairly impressive dinner for two for $10.

8. Shop the cheap stores. St. Louis has five different chains of grocery stores. At the top of the ladder is Dierbergs, followed by Schnucks. A third local chain, Shop ‘n’ Save, generally beats the Schnucks and Dierbergs prices by a few percent. But now I do most of my shopping at two stores that white-collar professionals rarely visit: Aldi and Save-a-Lot. In most cases the quality of the product is the same. But when I can get a loaf of bread for $.99 versus $1.59, the difference adds up quickly. For the things Aldi and Save-a-Lot don’t carry, I still go to Dierbergs, but I rarely spend more than $10 at Dierbergs now, unless they’re running a big sale on something.

8. Buy generics. A lot of people are afraid of generic products because they feel they might be getting ripped off. You’re actually a lot more likely to get taken with a costlier brand name. I’ve found the quality of most generics to be as good as the name brands. When it isn’t, I try a different generic the next time. Eventually I’ll find a generic that’s as good as the big name brand, and save a bundle. I’ll buy the name brands when they’re on sale, but aside from that, my pantry is full of generics and I don’t care who knows about it.

9. Don’t spend a dollar to get 14 cents. A common excuse for not paying down your house is that the interest is tax deductible. That may be, but you’re getting pennies on the dollar. My car payment was costing me $1.40 a day until I paid it way down.

It’s tax time. That means you have a piece of paper that tells you exactly how much interest you paid on your house last year. Are you paying $14 a day to inhabit a house you supposedly own? That tax deduction only reduces the net cost to $12. I can think of better things to do with $12, and I’ll bet you can too.

10. Don’t spend your windfall all at once. Are you getting a tax refund? Did you get a bonus? Have you been working a lot of overtime lately? It’s OK to reward yourself and/or your family. But don’t blow all of it indulging yourself. Spend 10 percent of it, tithe 10 percent of it, and use the rest to retire debt, and dream of the day when you have no mortgage payment and no car payment and every paycheck is a windfall.

11. Save your pennies. Coinstar, the makers of those change-converting machines in grocery stores, says the average household has $90 in loose change scattered about the house. A fairly painless way to save money is to dump your change into a jar at the end of the day, rather than spending it on frivolous things. At some point, convert the money into a more usable form, then apply the windfall rule to it.

12. Cascade your debt. I pay extra on my car every month. When the car is paid off, I’m going to start adding that amount to my mortgage payment every month, except in case of emergency. I estimate I can have my house paid off in about five years by doing this.

13. What will I have to show for this purchase? This is key. Before you spend even a quarter, consider what you will have to show for it by buying it. Just because you walk past a candy store in the mall doesn’t mean you have to go in and buy something. If you’re lucky, all it’ll do is rot your teeth and make you fat. You could have paid that quarter into your mortgage and turned it into a dollar.

Some purchases are unavoidable. In a couple of months, I’m going to need new tires. I can think of a million things I’d rather do with that money, but I need it. That’s OK. I’ll have it.

The trick isn’t to live in total self-denial, but to exercise restraint. Most of us live like millionaires, but the problem is that we’re spending our million dollars instead of letting it work hard so we don’t have to work as much. And it’s killing us.

Lionel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy yesterday

It was all over the various news sites, but Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 yesterday.

A lot of the news stories got a lot of details wrong.This is the first time Lionel, LLC has filed for bankruptcy. The original Lionel Corporation, which is the company that made the trains your dad’s and grandfather’s friends had, if not the trains they had, in all likelihood, filed bankruptcy three times. The first time was in 1935, when the Great Depression had wiped out most of Lionel’s competitors and the aristocratic J. Lionel Cowen kept on making trains for millionaires’ kids when there weren’t any millionaires left.

Lionel emerged from bankruptcy with a two-pronged approach. On the low end, they started selling $1 windup handcars featuring cartoon characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Today’s hirailers do everything they can to argue that Disney didn’t save their beloved Lionel, but at the very least it made a significant contribution.

Lionel also started paying more attention to hobbyists, making diecast trains that were modeled after real trains, rather than hiring Italian designers to design elaborate, ornate, and some would say gaudy toys that looked like trains. Hirailers say this was what saved Lionel. Whatever.

At any rate, Lionel emerged from bankruptcy and survived the Depression, something only one of its other competitors from the 1920s managed to do. That competitor was Hafner. Heard of it? Probably not. Hafner made cheap windups. Attractive windups, but basically forgotten today. The American Flyer brand name endured, but only because the Coleman family gave it to A.C. Gilbert, of Erector construction toy fame, in exchange for a royalty against future sales. There was also that upstart Louis Marx, who actually made money during the Depression and used some of that money to buy a toy train line, but that’s another story.

Toy production of almost all kinds stopped during World War II because the metal and the production capacity was needed for the war effort. Those who couldn’t make war munitions and other such things made things like bottlecaps. Lionel made nautical equipment. They sold a paper foldup train one Christmas because they were still allowed to do that, but it required the patience of a saint and the coordination of a surgeon to assemble, and once assembled, it served only as a reminder of what kids wanted in the ’30s but the parents couldn’t afford and now that the parents could afford it, it was next to impossible to get (unless you happened to live in New York City and knew about Madison Hardware, which, again, is another story).

So the pent-up demand for toys exploded after the war, and toy trains became a huge fad, giving Lionel, Gilbert, and Marx a license to print money until about 1956, after which the general public decided slot cars would be the next big fad and the people who really liked trains decided they wanted to go to HO scale because they were a lot cheaper, a lot more realistic, and in some cases took up less space.

J. Lionel Cowen decided to retire in 1959 and sold out his share of the company to his grand-nephew. He didn’t mention this to his son, who was only on board because Dad wanted him to be anyway, so he sold his shares too, while they were still worth something. Ray Cohn sought to diversify and make the trains less expensive by using more plastic and less metal, but at best he only slowed the bleeding. By 1967 A. C. Gilbert was being liquidated. Cohn bought the American Flyer brand name and tooling but didn’t have the money to do anything else with it. Later that year, Lionel Corporation filed bankruptcy itself.

Two years later, Lionel decided its chances were better selling toys rather than making them. It sold its train line to General Mills, the cereal people, who also had some toy companies. Lionel opened a chain of toy stores on the east coast, and for a time was the second largest toy store chain in the United States, behind the behemoth Toys R Us.

General Mills kept the Lionel train flame alive, selling O and HO trains branded with the Lionel name throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1979, it even located the old American Flyer tooling and brought those trains back as well. But in the early 1980s it tried to move manufacturing the Mexico, which angered a lot of Lionel fans. It reversed the move, but started looking for a buyer, shuffling the company around within itself and then palming it off to Kenner Parker, and then, in 1986, a Lionel collector who had made his fortune selling real estate in Detroit bought the company and started operating it as Lionel Trains Inc.

Back to Lionel Corporation. Remember them? In 1991, Lionel Corporation found its toy store chain just couldn’t compete with Toys R Us’ economies of scale, and filed for bankruptcy. Starting in 1993, it liquidated. It sold the trademarks to Richard Kughn, the owner of Lionel Trains.

Kughn sold controlling interest in Lionel Trains in 1996 to Wellspring and Associates, a holding company. Rock star Neil Young also purchased a 20 percent share. The new company was called Lionel LLC.

In the late 1990s, Lionel LLC started using Asian subcontractors more and more. Its biggest competitor (and former partner) MTH Electric Trains had been doing the same thing, and undercutting Lionel in price. By 2001, Lionel was manufacturing none of its own trains, and even outsourcing the design of some of them.

In 2000, MTH sued Lionel for misappropriation of trade secrets. A designer who had worked for MTH’s subcontractor did work for Lionel’s subcontractor as well, and the result was what some call an uncanny similarity between some of Lionel’s and MTH’s locomotives. Not having seen them myself–just like many of the people who call the similarity uncanny, no doubt–I don’t know. What I do know is that MTH and Lionel have had bad blood since the early 1990s, and that Lionel’s executives and financial backers conduct themselves in a much more professional manner in public than their MTH counterparts. That may or may not say something.

At any rate, the jurors who saw the evidence agreed with MTH and awarded it $40.8 million, which was more than MTH had sought. Then, on November 1, a judge upheld the jury’s findings and ordered Lionel to stop production of certain locomotives. Lionel then filed bankruptcy two weeks later. Looking over the filing, it’s easy to see why. They have $43 million in assets. They have substantial debt–including $30 million to what appears to be a South Korean subcontractor, not a financial institution like some news reports are saying.

MTH owner Mike Wolf and his buddy, Washington D.C. trash hauling magnate Tony Lash are hopping mad and accusing Lionel of trying to dodge justice by hiding behind Chapter 11. Considering the amount essentially amounts to the corporate death penalty, one would expect them to do whatever they can to appeal. It’s silly to expect a company to not want to stay in business.

In case you haven’t figured it out, my sympathies lie with Lionel. But it’s more out of a dislike of MTH than a love for Lionel, which has basically reduced itself to an importer. It farms out design and manufacturing to the lowest bidder, slaps its name on it, prices it for trial lawyers and heart surgeons, and wonders why nobody buys its stuff.

But MTH is the Rambus of the train industry. Or SCO. Take your pick. Starting in the 1970s, train enthusiasts started using electronics to control them. Eventually these efforts got combined and led to the creation of an open industry standard called Digital Command Control (DCC). Every major maker of HO and N scale trains uses it, and has been using it for years. MTH came along, and while it was developing its own proprietary train control standard called Digital Command System (DCS), patented some elements of DCC. Then it started suing selected companies who made use of DCC.

J. Lionel Cowen was a ruthless businessman and made a lot of enemies, but he had ethics and was proud of them. Not that that’s relevant because the Lionel he founded went out of business in the 1990s and has no direct connection to Lionel, LLC, as much as Lionel, LLC tries to make it look otherwise.

I’d like to see Lionel, LLC survive but I won’t lose sleep over it. Anyone can contract with Asian firms to design and manufacture trains, and to slap the Lionel name on it, all you need is the trademark. If someone other than Lionel, LLC ends up owning that trademark, I don’t see that it makes one iota of difference.

Unless that person happens to be Mike Wolf.

But Mike Wolf isn’t going to steal my hobby away from me. I buy mostly old stuff anyway. Why should I let the Rambus of Trains ruin my fun?

Conspiracies, conspiracies everywhere

The topic of the day yesterday was Timothy McVeigh. I’d forgotten that yesterday was his day–I saw the lead story on The Kansas City Star announcing McVeigh was dead yesterday morning when I went to read up on the day’s events.
McVeigh raises a lot of uncomfortable questions. So let’s go back to a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, because that was when I got my wakeup call.

I was a crime reporter for the Columbia Missourian, a flaming liberal little daily newspaper in, frankly, what would be a worthless little town if it weren’t for the University of Missouri being there. But Columbia is situated in the middle of nowhere; aside from Columbia and Jefferson City, Central Missouri has no good-sized towns, and those two “cities” are cities only by Missouri standards. St. Louis has suburbs bigger than either of them. Central Missouri is backward, or rural, or backward and rural, depending on where you go.

Well, a guy by the name of Don Albright drove to Columbia one night and got drunk. He was pulled over, ticketed, and charged with driving while intoxicated. Albright maintained it was his constitutional right to drive drunk. Actually, he said his constitutional right to travel was being violated. “A driver is for hire,” Albright told me. “A traveler is a private citizen.”

I had a very long conversation with Albright. Albright was one of the biggest conspiracy theorists I’d ever talked to. He believed the United States was still technically a collection of British colonies; that there are actually two United States of Americas; that the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, and the Kennedy Assassination were all directly linked and part of the same conspiracy, and other bizarre beliefs. Another belief he shared with me was the New World Order, a belief Timothy McVeigh shared.

He was also militant. He took out liens on judges and prosecuting attorneys. And, on the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Albright, along with others, threatened to attack government buildings as well as press organizations that didn’t “tell what was really going on.”

By this time, I was on Albright’s black list. One of his friends anonymously called me one day and told me to watch my back, so I took the threats seriously. I consciously avoided the newsroom, courthouse, post office, and police station that day. Fortunately, nothing eventful happened.

I suspect Albright’s motivation was primarily racial. During that single conversation, he brought up plenty of racial overtones. When we investigated him further, what we discovered was a person who didn’t want to accept any responsibility for his own past.

Albright had numerous supporters in and around Columbia. I spoke with a number of them outside the Boone County courthouse on the day of one of Albright’s scheduled court appearances. The only one who would give me his name was a guy by the name of Hobbes (I think his first name was Ken). An older woman, who would only go by “Mrs. Hobbes,” (I assume she was his mother), talked to me a little bit less. They were certainly fundamentalist Christians. They gave me pamphlets, a Constitutional Driver’s License (whereby I could grant myself the right to travel the nation’s roads freely), a copy of the Constitution, information on how I could secede from the United States and become a sovereign citizen, and other materials. But they sang exactly the same song Albright did, though Albright appeared to be racially motivated.

In 1992, while a senior in high school, I met a conspiracy theorist of another feather. He was a fervent believer in the writings of George Adamski, a UFO author who claimed he had been visited by beings from a yet-undiscovered planet in the solar system. Adamski, as I recall, had been widely discredited in the 1960s. But this guy’s beliefs (I don’t recall his name anymore, unfortunately) fit these others like a hand in a glove. He, too, spoke of the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, and other oddities.

So… There are plenty of kooks like McVeigh out there. Some of them, like the last one I mentioned, are quirky but harmless. Albright, I believe, could be extremely dangerous. And, interestingly enough, although each type begins with a different premise at heart, they all come to nearly identical conclusions.

The common thread is that none of them trust the government and none of them fully understand the world around them. That’s fine. I don’t trust the government and I certainly don’t understand everything about the world around me. You can do one of two things when that happens. You can just accept that you don’t know everything and you never will know everything, and just try to understand the things that interest you or the things that affect you as best as you possibly can.

Or you can explain it all away as a giant conspiracy. Of course you can’t be the one that’s messed up. The rest of the world around you is messed up. And they’re doing it on purpose!

Time for a reality check.

Hard Fact Number One: Members of the hard left are every bit as disillusioned as members of the hard right. Most of my college professors despised Bill Clinton every bit as much as I did. They were liberal. We’ve got people on the hard left who can’t get what they want. We’ve got people on the hard right who can’t get what they want. [observation]Isn’t that called compromise?[/observation]

Hard Fact Number Two: It’s difficult to get people to cooperate with one another. It’s even more difficult to get organizations to cooperate with one another. If you spend any length of time within an organization of any considerable size, you begin to wonder how it keeps from unraveling just because of internal politics. And these are people who share the same interests! Want an example of how conspiracies are so difficult? Fine. Here’s one: Oracle and Sun and the United States Government against Microsoft. Remember how they bungled that one? And why? None of the parties could figure out what exactly they wanted on their own, let alone what they wanted collectively.

Conspiracies can happen. But they’re rare and generally short-lived.

McVeigh killed 168 people. Or, at the very least, McVeigh participated in the killing of 168 people. We don’t know if he and Terry Nichols acted alone. Probably not–there was a John Doe No. 2 who was never found. But McVeigh did kill innocent people, and he did it willfully and he expressed no remorse.

Yes, the United States Government is partially responsible for that. The Clinton administration did a lot of detestable things. Part of that was because Bill Clinton is and was a hopeless idealist, and he surrounded himself with the same types of people. They didn’t know how to handle people who didn’t share their worldview. And most of them probably didn’t forsee the possibility of a McVeigh-like backlash to Waco and Ruby Ridge. Holding the government accountable for those actions is necessary. Not handing the presidency to Al Gore is a good start, but that’s only a start. And the country was bitterly divided over that.

If you want to take that argument to its logical conclusion, who was it that put that administration in office? Hint: If you live in the United States, scroll up to the top of this page, get a good look at my picture, then go look in the mirror. You and I did that. But you didn’t vote for him, you say? Neither did I. Fifty-seven percent of us didn’t. The problem was, the 57% of us who wanted someone else couldn’t agree on the someone else to put in office, and we paid the price. But the fact is, most of us don’t care. So, since we put this government in place, aren’t we also responsible for its actions, especially when we refuse to fundamentally change it?

But blaming the United States Government for Timothy McVeigh’s actions is childish. When I was in fifth grade, another kid named Benji used to act up and then blame his poor behavior on the outcome of the 1985 World Series. There is no difference. Benji wasn’t mature enough to deal with his disappointment about the baseball season in a socially responsible manner. Timothy McVeigh wasn’t mature enough to deal with his disappointment with the government’s behavior in a socially responsible manner. The St. Louis Cardinals didn’t make Benji misbehave, and the U.S. Government didn’t make McVeigh blow up that building. The victims of McVeigh’s atrocity deserve better than that kind of logic.

Yes, the government is partially responsible because McVeigh’s actions are the consequence of some of its own actions. And the government’s job is to clean up its own mess. I’m not convinced it’s totally done that. But McVeigh was guilty, and he even admitted his guilt. The U.S. Government did what its laws call for it to do. So it actually owned up for once.

Don’t get used to it. Except for it only partially cleaning up, that is.

And, like it or not, McVeigh is now a martyr in some circles. Actually he’s been a martyr since the day of his arrest. But there’s a grain of truth in McVeigh’s beliefs. Our government is out of control, it’s irresponsible, and it’s not accountable to anyone.

But that’s our fault. Our government is supposed to be accountable to us, and as long as our Congressmen send plenty of pork back home, we keep them in office. And we vote for our presidents whimsically. The government knows that as long as they give us bread and circuses, we don’t care about much else.

And if we want to keep this kind of crap from ever happening again, we’re going to have to start giving a crap about more than just food and entertainment.

I’m not holding my breath.

01/15/2001

Mailbag:

Misc things; The trade; Depression

Why am I still messing with 486s and low-end Pentiums? I found a reference to this on the Ars Technica message board. Let’s see. I’ve got a genuine IBM PC/AT case sitting under my futon doing nothing other than looking old. I’ve got a Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum sound card with a SCSI port on it. I’ve got a couple of old SCSI CD-ROM drives. I’ve got an AGP video card I can put in it. I’ve got a network card I can put in it, of course. And I’ve got hard drives. Plus I’ve got systems with DIMMs in them that I put there because I’d rather put too much memory in a system than have it just sit in a drawer. So basically I can have a modern system for a song. A Backstreet Boys song.

I’ve got mail. Hopefully I’ll take care of it this evening.

The American Dream again. Friday’s R.I.P.: The American Dream got a far greater response than anything I’ve written since college other than Optimizing Windows itself, which had more than a year’s head start. I had some people write in saying I was right. Frank McPherson’s response echoed another common sentiment: the original dream may be dead, the problem is that this generation needs to find another. That’s certainly a valid point.

One letter asked if I really thought we need a depression. Now, mind you, I don’t want one, and I’m certainly not advocating sabotage of our economy. I think we’ll get our own depression anyway–the Great Depression came about because of heightened expectations that grew unrealistic. Had it not been for regulatory brakes on the system, I think we’d already have had one, because there’s a widespread Las Vegas mentality in investing these days. People aren’t content to double their money in seven years anymore. They want to do it in seven months. And while people can do that, it’s like Las Vegas: the odds are against you. So they take irresponsible risks. People who understand the math much better than I do tell me that if you save 10 percent of your income and just dump it in an index fund–a mutual fund that follows the stock market–and do that from the day of your first paycheck to the day of your last, you’ll retire a multimillionaire. No genius involved. And now that we have Roth IRAs, we can pay our taxes up front and reap the benefits tax-free.

I’m testing that theory. I forget what retirement age is supposed to be for my generation. Is it 70? Like those details matter. Come talk to me when I’m 70 and I’ll tell you how it worked out for me.

Let’s get back to that idea of finding another dream. Frank McPherson pointed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. That’s productive use of our discontent. I like that. It’s something we should be doing anyway, but often we have to have a certain degree of angst before we’ll consider doing the things we ought to do.

But will it give us fulfillment? Some. Is it better and more noble than materialism? You bet. Should we? You bet. But will it solve the problem?

No.

I’ve thought about it a lot myself. And yesterday one of the people I respect the most made an observation. God is popular. God’s making a comeback. He’s a star. There’s a wave of spirituality crashing through Hollywood and there’s even another one in Washington. The stars are finding God. Filmmakers are making movies about Him, or at least letting Him make cameos. Slimy politicians are talking about God. Heck, even some not-as-slimy politicians are. C.S. Lewis once observed that there are longings in our being that no travel, no education, no spouse can ever fulfill. He said it made sense that the existance of those longings suggests the existance of something that can and will one day fulfill them: God. So we’ve got some people turning in that direction now. This is good.

Or is it?

The God of pop culture isn’t it. The God of pop culture is God on your own terms. It’s a very American God. In America, cars from the factory aren’t good enough. We get special options. Sometimes that’s not good enough either, so we put the car in the garage and we hot-rod it. In America, we build our entertainment systems from discrete components, getting speakers tailored for our environment and other components to best take advantage of it all. Hey, even a lot of the mystique behind the computer is gone, and people are undertaking projects they never would have dreamed of. They visit hardware sites and talk in forums and stumble across sites like this one, looking for advice on the best motherboard, the best hard drive, the best video card, then they go build the computer of their dreams–or the closest thing their budget permits. In America, we get cars, entertainment, and computers–as well as other things–on our own terms.

No wonder there’s so much appeal to Universalism. Eastern religions are nice, because you can take what you like, leave what you don’t, and they aren’t exclusive. If I remember my world religions class correctly, the Buddha was a Hindu, and remained one until the day he died. And Christianity isn’t incompatible with them, at least on the surface. Self-help pioneer Jess Lair once said someone told him his book I Ain’t Much Baby, But I’m All I’ve Got had a lot of Zen Buddhism in it. Dr. Lair was a devout Catholic. How did Zen Buddhism end up in a book written by a Catholic who admitted in his own words that he never thought much about Zen Buddhism? There’s a lot of Zen Buddhism in the Bible, that’s how. Or is it there’s a lot of the Bible in Zen Buddhism?

If linguists can point world languages and say they can trace all of them back to a single language, it only makes sense that at one time there was a single world religion, from which all of them can be traced.

But I don’t subscribe to the idea of Universalism, which says all of them are correct. And even if I’m wrong, why does it matter?

After all, what do the other religions promise? They promise me that if I do certain things, if I lead my life in a certain way, I might find my way to some kind of heaven. The paths are slightly different, and the destination often is slightly different, but you can pretty much boil down the major world religions to that. What they don’t promise is assurance. There are a lot of mights in it. And none of them promise anything bad will happen to me if I don’t believe them, especially if I lead a good life anyway. I may cease to exist, just as anyone else who doesn’t quite do a good enough job would. Or maybe I won’t get reincarnated in the most desirable way. But if that happens, I get another chance.

Then there’s the great teacher Jesus–just about everyone regards Him as a great teacher–who taught something kinda sorta similar. He taught how to lead your life. But Jesus said something else. He said he was the fulfilment of Judaism, that He was the way to heaven. Period. There was no other way. Him or damnation.

I find it interesting that non-Christians regard Jesus as a great teacher today. If you believe one of the other messiahs, what Jesus said is pure heresy. You might find it interesting that members of Jesus’ own family thought he was a madman. His own family! He was either what He said He was, or a madman. The others may not be incompatible with Him, but He is certainly incompatible with them.

But there’s more to Jesus’ message than just that. The alternatives are works-based. Jesus said just one thing: believe. Everything else is a byproduct of taking Jesus for what He said He was and is. Don’t sweat the other stuff. It just happens, and it’s better that way than if we’d done it on our own. And Jesus said one other thing. He promised assurance. With Him, you know exactly where you’re going.

Christianity really is very simple. You can boil it down to a really simple question. Well, two, I guess. God asks, “Why should I have anything to do with you?” Then after you die, God asks, “Why should I let you in here?” The answer to both questions is the same thing. I can put it articulately, but really a one-word answer will suffice. And it has absolutely nothing to do with me.

So if I’m gonna hedge my bets, that’s where I’m gonna hedge them. I was afraid at first what I’d have to give up, but the truth was I didn’t have to give up anything. Given a little time, I just wanted to give those things up.

I realized just after college that I wouldn’t be able to buy happiness, and that the capitalism I spent four years writing about wouldn’t accomplish much. I went looking for something else. I went looking for what every unmarried 22-year-old male looks for. I thought I’d found the key to happiness when I found her. Along the way I picked Christianity back up too. When I hadn’t proven sufficiently the sincerity of my faith, she took a hike. I was crushed, but I still had something. If you subscribe to the belief that it takes 9 positives to counteract a negative, my ratio’s a bit lower than that. The difference is I always have the ace in my hand. So the ratio of disappointments to triumphs really is irrelevant, because I’ve got the triumph that trumps all disappointments.

So I guess what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is I agree with Frank. Tell materialism to take a hike, go make the world a better place.

Just don’t try to do it on your own, and don’t rely solely on human help.

Mailbag:

Misc things; The trade; Depression

01/12/2001

Let’s talk about wealth. When I was 15 or 16, I was sitting in English class and the teacher stood up and told everyone that the American Dream is dead. We would be the first generation that would have it worse than our parents did, she said.

I didn’t argue, though I should have. I figured I’d at least be the one to buck the trend, if what she said turned out to be right. A couple of years before, my dad had actually bothered to sit down with me at the kitchen table, candidly tell me the mistakes he’d made in life, and then he told me it didn’t look like I’d make those same mistakes. I trusted my dad’s judgment.

But when I look around today, I wonder if my English teacher might have been right. Wealth isn’t  about money or possessions, after all. In that regard, she’s very wrong. There’s a high school next  to one of the buildings I work in. Most of the cars in that parking lot are nicer than the cars in the parking lot for the building I work in. And there are plenty of highly paid IT professionals like me in my building.

Am I better off than my dad? Well, let’s see. In 1981 my dad decided he’d made it, so he splurged. He  bought a luxury car: a Chrysler LeBaron. It wasn’t the swankiest of cars, but it was far and away the  most loaded car he’d ever owned. The only features it was missing were a tape deck (not sure if  Chrysler was offering that in 1981), the famous Corinthian leather, and speech synthesis (which I think they  were offering that year). I thought it was a nice car.

Today, nearly 20 years later, I drive a Dodge Neon. That car has everything that 1981 LeBaron had, plus some things it didn’t. By today’s standards, it’s not a luxury car.

Ten years later, my dad bought a 1980 Chrysler Cordoba, which he let me drive most of the time. That was the swankiest car Chrysler made in 1980. Leather seats, everything adjustable… It was still  awfully nice in 1991. The car my sister drives puts that Cordoba to shame. Leather seats, but these are heated. And my sister’s car isn’t a luxury car either. It’s mid-range.

I can’t quite afford the last house my dad bought. Give me a couple of years. I could afford the  next-to-last house my dad bought pretty easily. I don’t see the point–I’d just fill the place with computers and books, and I’d have to drive longer to get to work. I like where I’m living now.

Compared to my dad, I’ve got it good. Real good. And my dad was no pauper. He was a successful doctor. Not a high-priced doctor like a brain surgeon, but he did fine.

This weekend, I was talking to my good friend Tom Gatermann. He was talking about a friend who’s  about to marry a girl from the former Soviet Union. Her hometown is just south of Siberia. His friend was talking about living conditions there. Indoor plumbing is a luxury.

I spent a couple of weeks on a Navajo reservation in 1998 and 1999. Out there, a telephone is a luxury. Sometimes electricity is a luxury. Usually, those who go without budget so they have  electricity during the hottest parts of the year, then shut it off during the mild months.

For me, budgeting involves raising or lowering the thermostat by about 5 degrees if I’m going to be  gone for a few days. Or if a month looks like it might be particularly tight for some reason, I’ll  move my thermostat and turn off all but one of my computers. I did that last year, around tax time. Comparatively, that’s not a big deal.

No, wealth isn’t about possessions. I learned that in New Mexico. Wealth is about gratefulness. My  friends down there are much wealthier than I am. They’re grateful for just about everything they  have. I take my car, my computers, my phone, my indoor plumbing, my lights… I take all of that for granted pretty much. I complain when my DSL connection isn’t working right. Meanwhile, miles away, there’s someone walking half a mile to use a neighbor’s telephone, or someone walking outside in the dead of winter to an outhouse.

My generation’s spoiled. The generation after mine is even worse. We take everything for granted. Those younger than me take everything for granted and many of them want it handed to them. And if we  don’t have something we want, it’s always someone else’s fault. Eight years ago it was George Bush’s fault. Now it’s Bill Clinton’s fault, or those mean-spirited Republicans in Congress. Or maybe it’s Bill Gates’ and Larry Ellison’s and Warren Buffett’s fault, because they’ve accumulated all that  money and won’t share.

My cubicle neighbor agrees. We talked about that the other day, and he asked me the same question my  mom asked me last week: How do we fix it?

I remember my grandmother was grateful for everything she had, which by today’s standards, was zilch. But she never thought of herself as poor. Never. She lived through the Great Depression. People who  lived through the Depression looked at things very differently.

So I told my cube neighbor and my mom the same thing: We need a good, long, hard depression.  Capitalism gave us everything we ever wanted. But we changed the rules and said it wasn’t what we  wanted. We don’t know what we have, and we won’t all make a pilgrimage en masse to see how great life  is in Siberia. The only way for us to find out what we have is to struggle for a while.

So, was my English teacher right? Are we better off than our parents? NO.

I’m very sad to say I couldn’t prove her wrong.

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