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A shift may be coming

I’ve been seeing news segments and stories about how people are choosing not to replace things, but rather, repair them, saving money in the process, but hurting the big-box stores as well.

I can see how this could be a good thing in the long run, though.Think about it. Big-box stores sell cheap goods made overseas, paying underutilized and/or unskilled workers less than $10/hour to do it.

Repair is semi-skilled or skilled work, depending on what it is you’re fixing. By definition the work has to occur on the local level. And the local level is where we’re hurting for jobs.

Not only that, it’s easy to find storefront space, assuming the repair doesn’t take place on-site. Most commercial districts have some vacancies; go into the older parts of town or into shopping malls, and you can find lots of vacancies. Last weekend I ran into an acquaintance from high school who just opened a store; he said rent is dirt cheap right now. Landlords are begging people to lease storefront space.

In the long run, it’s almost always cheaper to spend a little more money on a higher quality product (say, a pair of shoes) and then repair it when it needs it. So it’s a win-win all around.

It’s bad for the big-box stores I guess, but having worked in a big-box store myself, I know firsthand that big-box stores aren’t good for anyone but the corporations who own them and the corporations who lease to them. They don’t utilize their workers to their ability, they don’t encourage their workers to better themselves, and if they pay a living wage, they just barely do it. That’s if they bother to pay the worker at all–in my second stint at a certain big-box store, they missed two pay periods before I got fed up and told the store manager I needed my money so I could pay my bills.

I’d love to see more big-box stores close and more small, independent specialty stores and repair shops open in the business districts that the big boxes destroyed. Society as a whole will save money, and it will create jobs that are actually worth having.

The international man of mystery

I’ve been following the Clark Rockefeller story with a lot of interest, perhaps because I’m a parent now, and perhaps because the early news stories kind of made it sound like I should know who he was, although I’d never heard of him before.

Now that the new details are out there, I don’t feel nearly so bad now. Even the people who knew him well didn’t know the half of it.The Telegraph has a good rundown on the current theory about the man. Personally, I think it’ll make a great book and perhaps a movie someday.

The story basically goes like this. Last week, an eccentric and mysterious Boston millionaire disappeared with his daughter during a custody visit. Rumors about their whereabouts spread quickly, including the Caribbean, but the two were eventually found in Baltimore, in an apartment he had recently purchased.

There was no trace of the man prior to 1991. The famous Nelson Rockefeller had a son named Michael Clark Rockefeller, and this Clark Rockefeller seemed to want people to think he either was that person or somehow related to him, but Michael Clark Rockefeller died in 1961 at the age of 23.

As people around the country followed the story, they started noticing this man looked familiar, but they didn’t know him as Clark Rockefeller. But they knew various other people who certainly looked and acted a lot like this Clark Rockefeller, and like him, they would just appear and vanish mysteriously.

Rockefeller appeared in New York in 1991. He never said much about his background, but was well spoken, appeared to be highly intelligent and educated, and could converse with authority on various subject matters. He soon talked his way into high society circles, participated in community groups, and gained influence, particularly in New England, where he settled with his wife, Sandra Boss, an ivy league graduate and wealthy executive. They had a daughter, and he played stay-at-home dad while she earned $1.4 million a year. They divorced in 2007, partly because she believed he might not be what he said he was. Unable to produce any kind of government-issued identification, he didn’t put up much of a fight in the divorce proceedings.

No marriage certificate was ever filed. I wonder if this could cause legal problems for Rockefeller now. After all, if the marriage was never legal, why is there need for a divorce and a settlement? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story seems to begin around 1979 or 1980. A German teenager named Christian Gerhartsreiter or Christian Gerhart Streiter met an American and exchanged addresses. The American said to look him up if he was ever on this side of the Atlantic. Surprisingly, he showed up on their doorstep in Connecticut not long afterward. Unable to accommodate him, they put an ad in the paper. A nearby family who had sponsored a number of exchange students answered.

The young German attended school but seemed put off by a middle class lifestyle. The people who knew Streiter remember him as condescending and arrogant, yet charming. He claimed an elite background, yet there is some indication that his father actually painted houses for a living.

He also could creep people out, so he lived with several different people during the school year, although he remained in touch occasionally with his first host family. After a year of school in the United States, he headed west, first to Minnesota, then to California, where he said he was using the name Christopher Crowe.

In the early 1980s, a man named Christopher Chichester appeared in high society circles in California. Claiming to be British, he charmed his way into belonging. During this time, it appears Chichester applied for a stockbroker’s license and perhaps a driver’s license as well. The fingerprints he provided would prove interesting a few years later.

In February 1985, Chichester’s landlords disappeared. A couple of months later, he disappeared as well. Although Chichester wasn’t a suspect, the authorities wanted to speak with him.

In 1988, a man identifying himself as Christopher Crowe surfaced in Connecticut, where he attempted to sell a truck belonging to John Sohus, the landlord who had vanished back in California. Crowe couldn’t produce the paperwork for the truck, so the potential buyer alerted police. But Crowe disappeared again.

In 1994, human remains turned up on the former Sohus property. Authorities believed they had found John Sohus, although his wife has never been found. Authorities still wanted to question Chichester, who they described as a con man who would mingle in social circles and make friends with wealthy, influential people.

But it was 13 years before any trace of Chichester appeared again.

In August 2007, after Baltimore police arrested Clark Rockefeller, people in California noticed that Rockefeller bore a striking resemblance to Christopher Chichester and started calling police. After Rockefeller was fingerprinted, California authorities checked the prints against the prints provided by Chichester more than two decades earlier. They seemed to match.

Rockefeller has said little. Through his attorney, he says that he has little or no memory prior to his marriage in 1995, that as far as he knows his name is Rockefeller, and he most definitely isn’t Christopher Chichester. Other than that, he refuses to stay anything. He sits in a cell, held without bail, because prosecutors don’t believe any amount of money will guarantee he will show up for trial.

And investigators don’t buy the memory story. While they’re giving limited information to the press, new details about Clark Rockefeller’s possible past appear every few hours.

Some questions certainly remain. Early on, some people observed Clark Rockefeller had the distinctive Rockefeller nose, saying it was either genuine or a very good copy. Is the resemblance coincidental? Did someone note once that he looked like a Rockefeller, planting the idea of a new identity in this man’s mind? Or did the former Christopher Chichester decide to take on the Rockefeller identity and have plastic surgery in the late 1980s or early 1990s to make the claim look more believable?

And while it’s possible to track the movements of the various aliases from New England to California and back from 1981 to 1985 to 1988 to 1991, what happened in those gaps?

And perhaps most chillingly, if he wasn’t a suspect in 1985, why did Christopher Chichester flee? If he had nothing to hide, why wouldn’t he answer investigators’ questions?

Some may wonder how a mediocre student could display such knowledge of travel and physics, among other subjects, but it looks like this guy has a fondness for libraries and hasn’t had a job in 28 years. I’m guessing if he spent a significant part of the day in libraries with his nose in books while everyone else is at work, he could become conversant in pretty much anything.

Of course I also wonder how he managed to travel the country and keep up appearances for nearly a decade and a half without a job. Travel and housing cost money, and how did he finance his expensive taste in clothes? Marrying a millionaire certainly helped during the last 12 years, but where did he find the money to woo her?

This story is only going to get better. But I do hope there are no more literal skeletons involved.

One way for neighbors to harass each other

Dan Rutter always makes me laugh. And his current front page is no exception: While he normally talks computers or R/C toys, he’s made no secret of his love for cats. And last week he made an impassioned plea for Australians to adopt cats. And he noted that his shelter of choice also has “dogs and camels and stuff.”

Which of course gave me an idea.Of course I haven’t tried this because, well, I don’t live in Australia, and when I clicked on the link promising camels all I got were fluffy bunny rabbits. No big nasty teeth, no bones strewn about, and no knights who say “ni!” in sight.

So here’s what I’m thinking, assuming someplace that promised camels actually delivered or something. I had a bad lease about five years ago that I was looking for a way out of. The place wasn’t so much the problem, it was that my neighbors were psycho.

Well, guess what? The lease didn’t say anything about not allowing pets. Camel, anyone?

I think that would have been the end of my lease. Fortunately, we’re talking about people who aren’t very smart here.

Landlords, here’s what to do if one of your tenants gets a camel. First, find out if it’s female. Hopefully it is. Then, rent a male camel from somewhere. (You’re on your own as to where you can get a camel for a day in the United States.) You know what’s next. Lots of little camels running around, that’s what.

Then when the neighbor comes calling, you act all innocent. Camel? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Oh, that camel! Nope, couldn’t be him, he was neutered. Your camel must have gotten friendly with a stray or something…

Or maybe I’m just slap-happy.

Lucky for me, my neighbors are cool. I’m the weirdest guy in the neighborhood.

Trust me, after living next door to people who believed the X-Files were real, it’s good to be the weirdest guy in the neighborhood.

How to pad your resume while meeting chicks.

Padding your resume while meeting chicks. I got a phone call last night offering me just that. Seriously. I didn’t hang up or ask to be taken off the calling list because it was a friend. Not a male friend with a harebrained, sleazy scheme. It was Jeanne. So it was a female friend with a sleazy scheme.
I guess it helps to know Jeanne. She has the distinction of being the only female friend who’s ever offered to lend me a copy of Playboy. She said she bought it for the articles. One of those articles was an interview with some film hunk. Another article was an interview with Aimee Mann. But I think it was all a diabolical plot to see what it would take to get me to read a copy of Playboy in front of her.

This time, Jeanne’s plotting to get me to serve on a committee. She tells me there are virtually no males on the committee. “Sixty to one, Dave! With odds like those you can’t lose!” she said.

Didn’t I hear someone say that about the Red Sox earlier this year?

Let’s change the subject to something more cheerful. How about if I list my qualifications?

1. I’m a male of the species homo sapiens.
2. I’m a sucker for dogs that are smarter than my former landlords my eighth grade science teacher the creeps who dated my sister when I was in college. That’s not every dog I’ve ever seen, but it’s a sizable percentage.

Gatermann says this is the most pathetic thing Jeanne’s ever asked me to do. And yes, Gatermann was there when Jeanne conned me into reading that magazine in front of her. (Yes, I gave in. I had to know what Aimee Mann had to say about Jewel, OK? And yes, her interview was just that–an interview.)

I serve on several committees, few of which work as well as I’d like, so it’s probably a good idea for me to participate, just to see if anyone else knows how to make a committee work right. The time commitment is small, so it just makes sense. In a sick sort of way.

Or maybe you can just say I’m easily finding ways to justify padding my resume while meeting women.

Harry Connick Jr. One of my coworkers pulled out a package he’d just received from Amazon. “I ordered two Harry Connick Jr. CDs,” he said. “This is what they sent.” He whipped out two CDs. They got that much right. But the CDs he received were (drum roll) The Bee Gees and LeAnn Rhimes.

He talked about how much he likes Harry Connick Jr. and how he has two tickets to go see him in some faraway city and he’s bringing a date.

“That’s what you think those tickets are for,” I said. Then, in my best concert-announcer voice, I said, “One night only! The Bee Gees! With very special guest LeAnn Rhimes!”

He glared at me.

Speaking of annoying… I got mail from someone who claims to have invented the “compressed ramdisk” technique I’ve talked about here and in my book, said something at least mildly disparaging about Andre Moreira–one of the other Windows-in-a-ramdisk pioneers–and he says he’s patented the technique, and wants me to download a trial copy of his software and link to it off my site.

I e-mailed him and asked him to set the record straight. It sounded to me like he’s claiming to have invented the compressed ramdisk–something CP/M owners were doing way back in 1984, if not earlier–and he wants free advertising from me for his commercial product.

Now, I could be wrong about that. I was wrong about OS/2 being the next big thing, after all. But if I’ve got the story more or less right, then the answer is no.

Now how did CP/M owners do compressed ramdisks? You’d just put your must-have utilities and applications into an .LBR file, then you’d run SQ on it to compress it. Then in profile.sub–the CP/M equivalent of autoexec.bat–you copied the archive to M: (CP/M’s built-in ramdisk) and then you decompressed it. In the days when applications were smaller than 64K, you could put your OS’ crucial utilities, plus WordStar and dBASE into a ramdisk and smoke all your neighbors who were running that newfangled MS-DOS.

I rediscovered the technique on my Commodore 128 (which was capable of running CP/M) in the late 1980s and thought I was really hot stuff with my 512K ramdisk.

Anyone who thinks the compressed ramdisk was invented in 1999 or 2000 either doesn’t remember his history or is smoking crack.

SCSI! SCSI vs. IDE is a long debate, almost a religious war, and it always has been. I remember seeing SCSI/IDE debates on BBSs in the early 1990s. Few argued that IDE was better than SCSI, though some did–but when you’re using an 8 MHz bus it doesn’t really matter–but IDE generally was less expensive than SCSI. The difference wasn’t always great. I remember seeing an IDE drive sell for $10 less than the SCSI version. The controller might have cost more, but back in the days when a 40-meg drive would set you back $300, a $10 premium for SCSI was nothing. To me, that settled the argument. It didn’t for everyone.

Today, IDE is cheap. Real cheap. A 20-gig drive costs you 50 bucks. A 7200-rpm 40-gig drive is all the drive many people will ever need, and it’s 99 bucks. And for simple computers, that’s great. If it fails, so what? Buy two drives and copy your important data over. At today’s prices you can afford to do that.

SCSI isn’t cheap. It’s hard to find a controller for less than $150, whereas IDE is included free on your motherboard. And if you find a SCSI drive for less than $150, it’s a closeout special. A 20-gig SCSI drive is likely to set you back $175-$200.

Superficially, the difference is philosophy. The IDE drive is designed to be cheap. Good enough to run Word, good enough to play Quake, quiet enough to not wake the baby, cheap enough to sell them by the warehouseful.

SCSI is designed for workstations and servers, where the only things that matter are speed, reliability, speed and speed. (Kind of like spam egg spam and spam in that Monty Python skit). If it costs $1,000 and requires a wind tunnel to cool it and ear protection to use it, who cares? It’s fast! So this is where you see extreme spindle rates like 10,000 and 15,000 RPM and seek times of 4.9 or even 3.9 milliseconds and disk caches of 4, 8, or even 16 MB. It’s also not uncommon to find a 5-year warranty.

In all fairness, I put my Quantum Atlas 10K3 in a Coolermaster cooler. It’s a big bay adapter that acts like a big heatsink and has a single fan, and it also dampens the sound. The setup is no louder than some of the 5400 RPM IDE drives Quantum was manufacturing in 1996-97.

OK, so what’s the practical difference?

IDE is faithful and dumb. You give it requests, it handles them in the order received. SCSI is smart. You send a bunch of read and write requests, and SCSI will figure out the optimal order to execute them in. That’s why you can defrag a SCSI drive while running other things without interrupting the defrag process very much. (Out of order execution is also one of the main things that makes modern CPUs faster than the 486.)

And if you’re running multiple devices, only one IDE device can talk at a time. SCSI devices can talk until you run out of bandwidth. So 160 MB/sec and 320 MB/sec SCSI is actually useful, unlike 133 MB/sec IDE, which is only useful until your drive’s onboard cache empties. Who cares whether a 2-meg cache empties in 0.0303 seconds or 0.01503 seconds?

There’s another advantage to SCSI with multiple devices. With IDE devices, you get two devices per channel, one interrupt per channel. With SCSI, you can do 7 devices per channel and interrupt. Some cards may give you 14. I know a lot of us are awfully crowded for interrupts, so being able to string a ton of devices off a single channel is very appealing. IRQ conflicts are rare these days but they’re not unheard of. SCSI giving you in one interrupt what IDE gives you in four is very nice in a crowded system.