What to look for in a router

I revisit the topic of what to look for in a router every six or seven years. As important as it always was, I think it’s even more important today, as there are a number of underpowered routers on the market and it’s best to avoid them.

This post originated in 2010. I revised it for 2017 needs, and by the time I was done, I’m not sure much of my 2010 text was left. But that’s OK.

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I got an LED bulb, and it is fabulous.

I half-heartedly checked Home Depot’s web site today, and saw they had 429-lumen, 8.6-watt (40W equivalent) LED bulbs at my local store. Finally!

So when I had a chance, I drove over, plunked down my 19 bucks, and brought one home.

It’s not perfect. But I like it an awful lot.I tried the bulb out in a lamp first, to test the light quality. It’s very similar to the last batch of CFLs I bought. Not quite as yellow as my remaining incandescent bulbs, but nice.

It’s not quite bright enough to use in a lamp, and it’s fairly directional. You’ll want at least a 60W equivalent for that, and probably more. Give it time.

In my son’s bedroom, the light worked great. It works nicely in overhead lights, and it’s dimmable. Dimmable CFLs are expensive and hard to find, so I might as well buy LED bulbs instead since they use less power and last 2-3 times as long.

In operation, I found the LED bulb never got uncomfortably hot to the touch.

LED bulbs produce no UV light, so they won’t attract bugs and they won’t cause the pictures on your walls to fade. That sounds like a plus to me.

And, believe it or not, they’re assembled in the USA. Presumably most of the components, if not all of them, are made in China, but LED bulbs are one of the few things you can buy that support manufacturing jobs here in the States.

The bulbs have a five-year warranty. I suggest saving the receipt and perhaps the packaging, and writing the date of purchase on the base of the bulb in pencil. That way if the bulb fails prematurely, you can do something about it.

The 46-year life expectancy claim sounds overly optimistic, but 15-20 years wouldn’t surprise me.

I suggest you “burn in” the bulb by leaving it on for 24 hours straight. Like any other electronic device, if it survives that first 24 hours of running continuously, it’s likely to last years.

If the bulb is going in a bedroom or someplace else where leaving it on for 24 hours is impractical, put it in a lamp and leave the lamp on for 24 hours, then install the bulb where you intend to use it.

At $19 a pop, I’m not going to run out to convert the whole house. But as old bulbs burn out, I’ll buy LEDs to replace them. As time goes on, they’ll only improve, and prices will come down. But these bulbs are good enough to be useful today.

The energy savings isn’t chump change–LED bulbs pay for themselves in a couple of years if they replace old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. Not only do you get more lumens per watt, but the less wattage you consume, the lower your cooling bills will be. I was an early adopter of CFLs–I have them everywhere but my kids’ rooms, and a seldom-used light in the shower of one bathroom. Between that, my thermal curtains, and a programmable thermostat, I haven’t had a $200 electric bill in years.

Energy isn’t going to get any cheaper, and we consume more of it per person than the rest of the world. We can voluntarily cut our energy usage, or we can wait for China and India to show up with guns and force the issue. I’d rather cut it voluntarily.

Incoming link: http://mondayevening.wordpress.com/2009/02/17/led-bulb-glows-after-i-turn-it-off/

What to the rich do with their money?

Charlie brought up the question of what the rich do with their money in response to the theory of trickle-down economics. This seems timely, as one of my coworkers and I talked trickle-down just yesterday.The theory is often maligned, and usually by people who don’t understand it very well. But frankly its proponents don’t always understand it either.

The classic justification is that if you tax the rich less, they’ll use that savings to buy things like boats and luxury cars, creating jobs for people who build and sell things like boats and luxury cars, and for the suppliers of those companies. And the argument is that this economic activity spreads the wealth better than the government taxing and redistributing wealth, due to government overhead.

At least that’s the simple, back-of-a-napkin explanation you’re likely to hear from a conservative activist when you ask the question. It’s the one I’ve always heard.

The theory is more complicated than that. For most of the 20th century, the fabulously rich were taxed at extremely high rates–70 or even 90 percent. The economist Arthur Laffer argued that if one taxed the rich at a lower rate, then tax revenue would actually increase–the reason being that someone who had the ability to make $10 million probably also had the ability to make more than that, but would probably be more willing to try to make more if the government weren’t taking 90% of the spoils.

Ronald Reagan lowered that upper tax rate to 50%. And sure enough, revenue went up, because 50% of $20 million is more than 90% of $10 million. So both the entrepreneur and the government won.

But contrary to what the modern Republican party seems to think, Laffer didn’t argue that the less you taxed, the more revenue would increase. Tax revenue is a more like a bell curve–tax at 0%, and revenue will be $0. Likewise, take 100%, and revenue will be $0, because nobody will work (or they’ll hide it if they do). The question is what percentage puts tax revenue at the top of the bell curve. I believe that history says it’s somewhere around 38%. Ironically, it was a Democrat who demonstrated that rate. (Hint: it wasn’t Jimmy Carter.)

And when Democrats malign trickle-down economics, they ignore one important fact: When Reagan cut taxes, revenue did rise–a lot. And when Bush I cut them further, it rose even more. The problem was that spending in Washington outpaced revenue growth during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. In the waning years of Clinton’s presidency, revenue finally caught up with spending, and for two years in a row there was actually a small surplus.

And in all fairness to Bush II, that’s been the biggest problem with his economic policy the past 8 years. Revenue went down slightly when he cut the highest tax bracket. But the bigger problem is that Washington spending increased beyond Reagan levels. Had spending stayed in check, we might still be talking about small deficits and occasional surpluses. Instead, he kept taxes low while signing budgets that made Clinton look like a fiscal conservative.

But that’s enough about trickle-down economics. Let’s talk about the rich.

A little over three years ago, I was walking out to my car after work when a couple of well-dressed men approached me and asked for a jump start. I pulled my Honda up to their rental luxury car, we hooked up the cables, got the car started, and they went on their way.

I now believe one of the men that day was the man who soon became the CEO of that company. I won’t name him or the company. Perhaps he was interviewing for the job that day. Not long afterward, he got the job, and as a result of one of his earliest decisions, I lost mine.

So I did a favor for a guy who made $4.81 million last year, and the thanks I got was unemployment.

The soak-the-rich attitude comes from stories like that. When we think of the rich, we think of CEOs who take over large, failing companies, get rid of lots of people, bring in their people, and in the end the companies don’t really get much better, but in the meantime they pocket a few million dollars every year. And when they lose their jobs, they get a golden parachute of a few million more.

But the majority of the rich aren’t like that. They’re more like the owner of the next company I worked for. It was a small consulting company, but it was smaller when he bought it. He bought it during a dark time in its history, brought in some good people, and together they worked hard to make the company profitable again.

In 2006, not long after I met him, he sold the company to a much larger competitor and turned a nice profit for himself. They only retained him for a short time, but he’s not hurting for money. Shrewdly, he didn’t sell them the building, so the company is still paying him rent every month.

Nobody knows what his future plans are, but some people who know him better than I do believe he’ll start another company at some point.

Read books like The Millionaire Next Door, and you’ll find the majority of millionaires are unassuming people who park their Ford Crown Victorias in front of ranch-style houses every night. They’re often self-employed, and usually made their first million by saving a lot and investing in themselves.

I have little respect for the first CEO I talked about, because he has his job mostly because he looks and acts the part. He dresses well, looks like a movie star, and when he talks, he can convince you he cares. But let’s talk qualifications. During his first year on the job, his company’s shares were worth about $1.20 apiece. Now they’re worth 42 cents per share and the company is $1 billion deeper in debt. That’s not all his fault, but it’s hard to argue that he’s done much to turn the company around, and it’s even harder to argue that those results are worth $4.81 million a year. I would think they could outsource his job to India and get comparable results for $100,000 a year and bank the savings.

At least they’d save more than they saved by outsourcing people like me.

I have a lot of respect for my other former employer, because he took a bad situation and turned it around, and he got the job because he bought a company with his own money. He invested his time, energy, and money in it, and besides making himself wealthier, he also created jobs–about 200 of them at his company’s peak–including one for a 31-year-old newlywed who was down on his luck and had worked for two other employers that same year.

The problem with trying to use tax policy to soak people like the first guy I mentioned is that it’s very difficult to do without also hurting the second one I mentioned. And if tax policy hurts him, he might as well just stay retired and play golf or whatever he enjoys doing, rather than starting a new company and making some new jobs for people.

And frankly I’m not sure what we gain when we make people like the first guy pay. I guess we feel better for a while. But the main thing we do is motivate him to hire the very best accountants and lawyers to find and exploit every loophole they can. So he still keeps most of his money, the government gets less than it projected, and the masses are blissfully ignorant, thinking they got some fat cat to finally give up his fair share, whatever that means, but they never see any tangible benefit.

Outlandish CEO pay and incestuous boards of directors loaded with conflicts of interest that perpetuate these outlandish compensation packages really are a separate issue, and the tax code isn’t the appropriate place to try to fix it.

But back to that tax code, and the second guy–the one worth worrying about. For what it’s worth, neither of the two major presidential candidates is likely to do anything that would singlehandedly persuade the second guy to stay retired. A return to Reagan’s or Carter’s income tax levels might, but neither candidate is proposing something like that. The difference between the two is much narrower than either of them want the rest of us to think, and their political rhetoric reflects that.

How to get my job (2006 edition)

It seems like every year or two, somebody asks me how to get my job. Given the way the last year or so has gone, I can’t believe anyone’s asking me that question, but it’s been coming back up again. I’ve made some mistakes in my career–obviously–but since I’m still in the field, I must have done a few things right too.

I guess it makes sense to trace my career and see what I would do differently.1984: Yes, it all started when I was 10. I’d wanted a computer for as long as I could remember, and that year, Mom and Dad finally bought one. I spent as much time messing with that old Commodore as I could. And when I wasn’t messing with that Commodore, I was reading about it. It was an obsession. It bordered on unhealthy. Or maybe it was unhealthy.

In high school, if you’d offered me a choice between a date with the best-looking girl in the school or a new Amiga 1200 or 3000, I might very well have taken the computer. Sure, I was interested in girls, but the computer wouldn’t break up with me, right?

I bring this up for one reason: If you’re wanting to get into the field for money, find something else to do. Go into sales or something. If you don’t absolutely love this stuff, you won’t last, so there’s no point in wasting your time.

1994: I started my career in sales. When polite company isn’t around, I say I whored myself out for a large consumer electronics chain. That might be a bit more accurate. In a way it was a good move. A lot of IT people my age started their careers the way I did. It’s better than fast food, at least in regards that IT recruiters use it as a scouting ground. Work there and do well, and it’s just a matter of time before recruiters will want to talk to you.

What I did right: I started filling in for the store’s technician, who frequently had problems showing up for work.

What I’d do differently: First, I’d find out who the best salesperson was, and really learn how to sell. I’ve worked with IT management people who couldn’t figure out how to make their computer play solitaire, but they know a little bit about selling, so their jobs are safe, even though they had no qualifications.

The other thing I’d do differently is to get A+ certification. It’s not strictly necessary to get a better job, but it opens more doors. A lot of jobs require A+ certification just because some idiot in HR (and yes, most of them are idiots) decided it’s a good idea.

1995: I caught a break because I knew both Macintosh and IBM hardware, I knew OS/2, and I had connections at the journalism school at the University of Missouri. A professor mentioned the job opening to me and handed me a phone number. After class I called the number. The guy on the other end asked me what I knew how to do. I told him, he told me he’d pay me $7 an hour, and asked when I could start.

It was supposed to be a temporary gig. But it turned out I knew how to do a lot more than just the grunt work that needed to be done, so they found money to keep me. And when I was about to graduate, they offered me a full-time job.

What I did right: I showed up for work, I did everything they asked me to do, and whenever somebody else was sick and they asked me to try to fill in, I filled in and actually managed to do a decent job.

What I’d do differently: It wasn’t a bad gig, until Yoko Ono came along. Actually she was from Pittsburgh and she was Scottish-American. But the relationship interfered with the job and the job interfered with the relationship. And when something went wrong with one, it messed up the other too. I’d have done well to learn how to separate the two. That’s a lot to ask of someone who’s 23. Now I’m 31 and don’t know how now either. Neither does my 40-year-old boss.

1998: I moved to St. Louis to take another job in IT. This was also the year I re-discovered God and religion. This was a dream job, working for my church. I took a demotion and a pay cut to do it. Of course I didn’t know until I’d already quit my other job that it was a demotion.

I’ll get off track if I talk about it much more than that, so let’s just talk about what went right and wrong.

What I did right: I racked up a lot of impressive statistics and I learned how to do everything they asked me to do. I usually wasn’t happy about it, but I always did as well or better than the person who replaced me. The guy I replaced was a legend and I don’t think anyone would have been able to replace him adequately.

What I did wrong: I shouldn’t have taken the demotion. Not at 23. If you’re married and have kids, I can see taking a demotion so you can work better hours to spend more time with your family. When you’re 23 and single, you can’t waste time climbing a ladder you already climbed once. A banker in Columbia offered me a job as a systems administrator when he found out I knew OS/2. I should have taken it and called St. Louis and told them I wasn’t coming.

This job really went downhill as another relationship was coming to an end too. No need to re-hash that.

I made one other mistake. I won’t elaborate on it. But if you see upper management doing something unethical, LEAVE.

2005: Mercenary time. My first contract was with a very large and very nearly bankrupt cable company. The work wasn’t nearly as interesting or challenging as my previous job, and my coworkers were at either extreme: Some were among the very best people I’d ever worked with, and some of them were just overgrown high school bullies. But it was work, and the pay was fair, which was nice after working for seven years at anywhere from $15,000-$20,000 less than I was worth. Making a double mortgage payment and still having more money left over at the end of the month than I’d had a year before was very nice.

What I did right: I came in, learned quickly, took things seriously, was very professional and very effective.

What I did wrong: I didn’t press in. I did what I was asked, and that was it. That’s what a hired gun does. And the result was I was treated like a hired gun. As soon as the money got tough, I was the first one out the door.

I had coworkers who didn’t want me to learn more about the system. Since they didn’t want to show me, I should have found another way to learn it. And I should have loosened up.

2006: I won’t tell you who I’m working for now, other than to say it’s someone you’ve definitely heard of.

This time, I made an effort to go to lunch with my coworkers. I didn’t do that at the cable company because I was trying to save money. I’d gone without enough money for a couple of months and was deathly afraid of having to do it again. I’m still a tightwad and everyone knows it, but I’m willing to spend $7 to bond with my coworkers once a week. The theory is it’s a lot harder to show the door to someone you like than to someone you barely know.

The other thing I did this time was to steal some responsibility. I volunteer for everything. Sometimes they end up giving it to someone else anyway. But I’m always willing. When people give me some of their old responsibilities, I take them, and I figure out how to do them faster and smarter. After about two months, now my boss is surprised when I do something his way.

My path isn’t the only path. There are two previous bosses I wouldn’t hesitate to work for again. One is a retired U.S. Marine. He went into the Marine Corps as a technician, fixing teletype machines. When teletypes became less important, he moved on to computers. When he retired, he kept on working for the military as a contractor.

Most of my coworkers today took a similar path. Some enjoyed very long careers as defense contractors after their military days came to an end.

That seems to me to be a good route to take if you don’t have a lot of connections. And the upside to the military approach is that you know your job won’t be outsourced to India. That’s a real danger and that danger is going to get a lot bigger before it gets any smaller.

The other previous boss has a degree in psychology. He started working with computers because he found them interesting. I don’t know how he got started in the field, but during the time I worked for him, he was the epitome of connections. He knew everybody, and whenever something goofy came up, he knew how to get in touch with them to get the answer. The result? He’s every bit as entrenched as a tenured professor would be. The difference is there’s no question as to whether that’s a good thing.

BMW is opening a plant in India

Here’s the best tidbit from the article I found:

“The Indian automobile market offers significant growth potential in the long term. With our increased presence there, we will be well positioned to fully tap into this potential,” Chief Executive Helmut Panke said in a statement.Well, duh. All those Indian IT workers are going to need fancy cars to buy once their salaries get more in line with the rest of the world.

Are other automobile manufacturers listening?

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.

How to make your laptop more reliable (or at least die trying)

People have been asking me a lot of notebook/laptop questions lately, so I figure it’s probably a good time for me to write about them. I’ll tackle reliability first, then I’ll tackle upgrades. Here’s how you can make your laptop more reliable.

About five years ago, I wrote and published a newspaper column titled, “10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Buy a Laptop.” I still think the best way to get a reliable computer is to skip the laptop and get a desktop, but since people are going to buy laptops anyway, here’s what I’ve learned about keeping them reliable.

Buy the extended warranty. My normal response when people ask me if I want these is to say, “I fix these things for a living. I am an extended warranty.”But most laptops have no technician-serviceable parts inside and few technician-replaceable parts inside, let alone user-serviceable stuff. Aside from swapping a hard drive, RAM, or optical drive, a laptop might as well be a car with the hood welded shut.

Plus, a common malady of laptops is a busted screen. The manufacturer’s warranty won’t honor that. I wouldn’t cover it if I were offering extended warranties either, but most extended warranties do. If the warranty costs $150 or less and covers a busted screen, get it. At $300 it’s a tougher sell, seeing as entry-level laptops cost about $600, but I’d even think about them at that price.

Brand matters less than it used to. I used to look at PC Magazine and PC World reliability ratings. Usually people who asked already had their mind made up and bought something other than what I recommended anyway (and then regretted it), but the difference in manufacturers is evaporating. Most laptops are designed by the same engineers and made in the same factories these days regardless of whose name goes on it. And most support is outsourced to India too. I specifically recommended IBM primarily because their support was still U.S.-based, but with the sale of its PC business, that could change at any time now.

So no matter what you buy, you’ll get something of questionable reliability supported by technicians of questionable experience and ability, not that that’s going to matter much because you won’t be able to understand him or her anyway. If the terrible VOIP connection to India will get you if the accent doesn’t.

Buy a really good laptop bag. My laptop has lasted five years. I know at least one person who knows as much or more about computers than I do, but his laptops generally have a shorter life expectancy. The only difference I can see is the laptop bag.

He (along with everyone else I know) uses the typical laptop bags. My bag is an oversized, overweight leather bag. When the bag hits something, it usually leaves a mark. It weighs more than the laptop does, but seems to do an outstanding job of protecting it. I live with the weight. I’d rather have a laptop that works, and besides, I can use the exercise. I’m not exactly buff.

The bag discovery isn’t anything I can take credit for, by the way. The manufacturer messed up the order and included that bag with the laptop as appeasement. So a $150 bag to protect a laptop, whether it costs $600 or $4500, seems to be a good investment. Remember, you can always use the bag for the next laptop, so you only have to buy it once.

On the other extreme, I’ve seen people carry laptops in plastic grocery bags. They deserve all the troubles they get. That’s usually a lot, if you’re wondering.

Don’t put your laptop in overhead storage bins on airplanes. This should go without saying. But I’ve seen people with PhDs do it, so maybe that’s a truth that’s only obvious to computer techs. When the other stuff in the compartment shifts, the bag will get crushed, and that’ll be the end of your laptop screen. When the screen breaks, it’s usually cheaper to buy a new laptop.

Take the laptop as carry-on luggage, and stow it underneath your seat. There’s no other safe place for a laptop on an airplane.

Be aware of the hidden costs. Assuming your laptop makes it beyond its warranty period, there are two things that are as certain as death and taxes: The battery is going to die and need to be replaced, and the same goes for the hard drive.

Batteries aren’t cheap. If it’s under $100, count yourself lucky. And don’t be shocked if it’s $200. Don’t bother buying an extra one now to save for later; it’ll be dead by the time you need it. You might like having a spare to keep charged and swap in when the other one dies though.

Fortunately, laptop hard drives have gotten cheap. You can still spend $200 on a laptop hard drive if you want, but Newegg.com has drives starting in the $60 range.

Make backups. Buy yourself a nice, big memory stick and copy over anything you care about (certainly your My Documents folder at the very least) every day. Laptop hard drives die all the time and usually without warning. So be ready for it. Or get yourself an external USB 2.0 hard drive. A copy of Ghost or a similar program for making images of the internal drive is also useful–that way, when the drive dies, you don’t have to spend all weekend reloading everything.

Get a good laptop surge protector. A portable single-outlet surge protector sells for $10-$20. Get one and use it. Those summertime hiccups that cause your lights to flicker aren’t good for your laptop either, and laptops are a lot more expensive than light bulbs.

Most people buy APC units, but Belkin offers a unit that costs a little less and offers a lot more protection. Expect to pay anywhere from $7-$20. It’s money well spent–you’re protecting a delicate machine that costs several times that.

When looking at a surge protector, more joules (the equivalent of one amp traveling through one ohm of resistance for one second) is better. And if you use the modem in the laptop, don’t forget to plug it into the modem outlet in the surge protector, since surges coming through the phone line can damage the laptop and, in my experience at least, are more likely to do harm.

Selling untested memory is new? Whatever.

An article on the “new” practice of low-tier manufacturers selling untested memory got attention on Slashdot this week.

This isn’t a new practice. I’ve known about it for about eight years.There’s a pretty good reason why all name-brand memory is priced pretty much the same. You can occasionally catch a break in pricing, but on average, a Kingston module is going to cost about the same as a Crucial module, and so will any other top-tier brand. Memory from a computer manufacturer like HP or Sun may cost a bit more still, ostensibly because the manufacturer tests for compatibility. They may or may not actually test the module you buy, but at least they’ll guarantee it not only works but works in the machine you put it in.

If you’re building your own PC, by all means buy Crucial or Kingston memory or go to a specialty high-performance memory like Mushkin. The same holds true for upgrading a name-brand PC. But pay the extra money for server memory from the company who made your server. An hour of downtime will obliterate the $100 you might save.

But there’s another tier of memory. I first became aware of it back in the days when a typical issue of Computer Shopper was as thick as the Greater St. Louis White Pages. Tucked away in the back, there was always someone who beat the typical memory prices and he usually beat it by a long shot–at least 30%. For several years, that was how I bought my memory, and for a long time I got away with it.

Then along came Slot 1 and Super 7. Once CPU rates broke the 233 MHz barrier, the systems became a whole lot harder on their memory. I don’t know what was special about 233 MHz, but that cheap commodity memory just didn’t cut it anymore. Suddenly, I started noticing that commodity memory often didn’t pass the rudimentary memory test that computers perform before they load the operating system. That’s akin to flunking grade-school recess, so I started looking into it.

What I found was that commodity memory generally isn’t tested, or it’s tested very loosely. What’s worse yet is that the chips on some commodity memory were tested, and failed. They were certified for use in things like pagers and other consumer devices, but not up to the higher demands of computers.

So, having known this for about 8 years, you can imagine what I thought when I read the headline “Why untested DRAMs are getting into more and more products.” I was thinking hey, an upgrade! Since it didn’t test bad, at least there’s a chance it’ll work!

Maybe this practice has evolved in the past few months, as the author of the article in question alleges. But it’s hardly a new trick. In the highly competitive no-name clone market, this has been going on since at least the days of the 486. What was going on in the days of the 386 is even scarier.

Will Dell and the boys follow suit, like the author fears? I doubt it. PCs are problematic enough as it is, and it only takes a few months to lose a reputation that was built over the course of a decade. Shipping commodity memory isn’t like outsourcing technical support to India–there’s a fair percentage of your customer base who will never use your tech support. All of your customers will use your memory.

I can’t imagine commodity memory ending up in any name-brand PC, unless it’s a name brand whose ship is sinking fast.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this old trick is showing back up again. The business is competitive, PC sales are down, the economy isn’t what it was 10 years ago, and profit margins are impossibly thin. If todays untested and/or defective memory is better than 1997’s, someone’s going to use it.

But part of the story never changes: Always buy your memory from a reputable manufacturer and distributor, so you know what you’re getting and whence it came. You’ll save a lot of frustration over the life of the PC that receives the upgrade.

Outsourcing hurts all of us

Cringely has written eloquently about the effects of outsourcing to India.

Outsourcing hurts more than just IT.Every day, I drive past an old factory. I don’t know what’s in it now. From its appearances, not much, because I’ve never seen any traffic around the place. The sign and the smokestack says “International Shoe Company.” Curious, I did a little bit of digging. It seems that at one time this was the largest shoe manufacturer in North America. It’s pretty obvious that it isn’t anymore. It’s not for lack of people around to staff the factory–there are plenty of people in the neighborhood. From the looks of some of them, they could use a job. But the factory sits, abandoned, for one simple reason.

We don’t want to pay people $5.25 an hour to make our shoes. Those of us who are willing to pay people $5.25 an hour to make our shoes can’t, because not enough other people are willing.

So the once-proud factory sits.

I drive past a smaller operation every day too. It’s boarded up and fenced up, and overgrown with weeds. A faded sign says, “Missouri Candle and Wax Co.” It obviously never employed as many people as ISCO did. But there’s a neighborhood all around it. I’m sure at one time it supported a few households in the neighborhood around it.

Not anymore. The neighborhood’s in better shape than the candle place, due to some rehabbing that’s going on. But I guarantee the people moving into those houses don’t work anywhere in the neighborhood, because the jobs aren’t there anymore.

The jobs aren’t there because we don’t want to pay people $5.25 an hour to make our candles.

Now, I can kind of see paying lower prices for shoes, in some cases. You need shoes. I can’t so much as walk to my car without shoes, some days. If you don’t have a lot of money, you’ll buy the cheapest shoes you can find. It’s a matter of survival.

But candles? Candles are a luxury item.

Like Cringely says, the government isn’t going to do anything about it because the government doesn’t care. Big business wants to offshore, and modern Republicans don’t seem to believe big business is capable of doing anything wrong. If big business says it should outsource, well then, God Himself must have handed them a stone tablet that says, “Thou shalt outsource.” Democrats won’t solve the problem because Democrats need needy people in order to keep their jobs. So Democrats profit from offshoring just as much as Republicans, although for different reasons.

Richard Gephardt suggested solving the problem by instituting an international minimum wage. That would solve it neatly–if a Chinese worker makes $5.25 an hour, then suddenly it’s cheaper to pay the $5.25-an-hour worker who lives next door to make your candles and shoes and computers.

But Richard Gephardt isn’t going to be our next president, and Richard Gephardt knows just as well as you and I know that there won’t be an international minimum wage coming down the pike any time soon. It’s just election-year rhetoric.

That means you and I have to solve the problem.

Cringely said one thing that I disagree with. He said companies who offer good customer service grow. Maybe sometimes they do, but if that were true, virtually everybody would be bigger than Wal-Mart, because at Wal-Mart, “customer service” is synonymous with “customer returns.” If you need to know where you would find mineral oil, it’ll take you half an hour to find an answer to your question. If you’re lucky.

I guarantee if you walked into A. G. McAdow’s in Pharisburg, Ohio in 1883 looking for mineral oil, my great great grandfather could tell you if he had it and where it would be. He’d even know what the stuff was.

I’ll tell you what customer service is. It absolutely shocked me when I got it last week. I went to Marty’s Model Railroads, and I’ll admit, the reason I went there was because they have the best prices I’ve found locally on used train stuff, and I can get it without the hassle of bidding on eBay. I asked Marty if he had a Marx coupler. He went and looked. He came back and said he didn’t have a coupler but he had an entire truck, and asked what I wanted to do with it. I said I wanted to make a conversion car. He pointed me to the cheapie bin, told me exactly what I should look for, and then when I found an $8 car that was suitable, he took the car, along with the Marx truck, into the back room, drilled out the Lionel truck, and came back with the one-truck Lionel car and a nut and a bolt. We put the car back together on his counter, by the checkout. Then he charged me 10 bucks.

Ten bucks would have been a good deal if he’d just handed me all the pieces and said good luck. But with his tools in the back room, he was able to do in five minutes what would have taken me most of an hour.

Later that week, I took in two Lionel locomotives for repair and bought another conversion car–this time, not because I knew I’d get the lowest price, but purely because I knew he’d treat me well.

When I go to pick those locomotives back up, I need to tell him that’s exactly why.

Marty’s business is growing, but I don’t know if that’s because of outstanding customer service or if it’s simply because he’s the only shop left in eastern Missouri that fixes Lionel trains.

Activists talk about thinking globally and acting locally. Building a sustainable economy requires less global thinking and more local acting.

Don’t go to Lowe’s and Home Depot if there’s a corner hardware store you can go to. The last two times I’ve gone to a local mom-and-pop hardware store I got help without asking for it, got exactly what I needed, and got out of there faster than I’d be able to get out of the big-box store. And as far as the price, I probably made up for it on gas. Remember, Lowe’s and Home Depot are megacorporations. More of the money you spend at the mom-and-pop place will stay in the area.

Don’t go to Wal-Mart if you can get what you need someplace else. Target is a megacorporation too, but it puts more money into the communities it works in. But if there’s a locally owned business left, frequent that.

Don’t go to chain restaurants if there’s a locally owned place you can go to instead. It seems like St. Louis has a thousand delightful locally-owned restaurants. There is no reason whatsoever for a St. Louisan ever to eat at Olive Garden.

And wherever you go, check to see where the product you’re buying was made. I needed a putty knife the other week. The cheapest one was made in China. The one on the peg next to it was made in Canada and it cost 10 cents more. I bought the Canadian one. Neither one helps the U.S. worker, but when I buy the Canadian one, I know the guy who made it was paid a fair wage, and that’s worth the extra 10 cents to me.

Sometimes you have to get creative to avoid these things. If I want model train stuff, Lionel and its competitors all seem to be building everything in China. But I don’t have to buy new stuff.

The same goes for clothes. If all the clothes you like are made in countries that operate as the world’s sweatshop, buy used ones. At least then the operation that created the sweatshop doesn’t profit a second time. Besides, used clothes are cheap. And no one will ever know those year-old clothes weren’t originally your year-old clothes.

DVD players are all made in China today. So there, the decision is pretty easy. Buy the cheapest one. Then you’ve got more money left over for the times when you do have a choice.

Finding a list of countries whose workers earn a living wage has proven difficult for me. Does anyone else out there have such a list?

Of course, I would first prefer to buy locally made and then used, given the option.

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