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Will Firefox be Netscape’s revenge?

John C. Dvorak says the browser wars are still raging. He cites figures from his blog as evidence that IE only has 50% market share.Well, my logs have always indicated that IE accounts for somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of hits to my blog. The reason for that is pretty simple. This blog appeared in its first form about five years ago. Two months later, I published a computer book that, among other things, advocated using any browser but Internet Explorer and contained detailed instructions for removing Internet Explorer from Windows 95, 95B, and 98.

It’s pretty safe to say a large percentage of my early readership found out about my blog from my book, and the people who read my blog most likely read it because they read my book and liked it, and if they liked my book, they probably agreed with it and were therefore very highly likely to be running Netscape.

For a while I switched to IE, primarily because IE had better keyboard navigation than Netscape and I had repetitive stress injury. I said so. Around that time I saw IE usage increase. I don’t think it had much to do with me. Netscape’s market share was headed for single digits.

By the time Mozilla was approaching version 1.0, I was squarely back in the Mozilla camp and advocating it. Again, IE traffic started to drop. Did it have much to do with me? Something, surely. People who agree with me are more likely to visit again than people who disagree with me.

I think John C. Dvorak’s logs are more likely to reflect PC enthusiasts than mine, simply because he’s a PC Magazine columnist and I’m the author of a now obscure computer book who happens to enjoy blogging, and who blogs about baseball, Christianity and Lionel trains as often as computers these days. That’s opposed to a year ago, when I had a reputation for writing about baseball and Christianity as often as computers. So hey, my horizons are broadening.

Since more of my traffic comes from Google and other search engines than anywhere else, and often it’s people looking for ways to hook up DVD players to old TVs, ways to disable websense, or information on Lyman Bostock, I probably get a decent portion of the non-computer enthusiast crowd.

I think IE’s market share is somwhere between 60 and 75 percent.

I also think it’s going to drop. The last person I told about Firefox wasn’t so confident about it when I told him it was at version 0.93. Now that the magic 1.0 is near, it’s going to jump as early adopters who are nervous about beta software jump. When it hits version 1.1, it’s going to jump even more when people who have been sensitized by Microsoft dot-oh releases start switching.

So while I think Dvorak is wrong about IE’s market share, I think he’s right that it’s dropping and that the browser wars aren’t over.

What day is it again?

Passing a few minutes before a movie started tonight, my girlfriend and I went into a nearby store to look around. And what did we find?

Christmas stuff.

Am I smoking crack, or is it still August?I probably shouldn’t encourage them, but I bought some stuff. Many of those collectible holiday village sets happen to be sized about right for O scale Lionel trains. Those that aren’t are usually sized about right for HO scale. I doubt it’s an accident. Around 100 years ago, J. Lionel Cowen convinced everyone that a train belonged around the Christmas tree. These days, ceramic villages and figures are more popular than the trains, and the big brands are every bit as overpriced as anything Lionel or MTH have made in the past decade, but they’re still sized so they’ll look right if a Lionel train escapes from the attic and ventures into the neighborhood. New traditions have a better chance of usurping older traditions if they fit in with them first.

These weren’t Lemax or Department 56. They were cheap knockoffs. This particular series of knockoffs pairs up O scale-sized figures with HO scale-sized buildings. Not my thang. I’m anything but a scale bigot but half-sized buildings get on my nerves.

But I bought a few figures. They came four to a package for a dollar. You’re lucky to pay less than $4 per figure at a hobby shop. For my four bucks, I got 16 figures.

Yes, the figures are dressed in heavy coats and there’s snow on the bases they stand on. So I won’t have them on the train layout at the same time as my open-top convertible 1:43-scale cars. But the availability of the figures makes it just as cheap and easy to make winter scenes, just like the 50-cent Homies figures make it cheap and easy to make summertime scenes.

Useless trivia answer: If you’ve ever wondered where 1:43 scale toy cars come from, they come from trains as well. The British decided that O scale should be 1:43, and Hornby decided it would be nice to be able to sell cars with which boys could populate their cities. The cars became popular toys in their own right, and the 1:43 scale was copied by other companies, so 1:43 scale cars lived on long after Hornby stopped selling O scale trains.

End useless trivia.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Useless Christmas merchandising in August. I decided I wanted 16 vaguely O scale figures in winter dress more than I wanted $4.24.

But I passed on the wreaths and the holly. I can’t think of any good use for those in my basement.

Removing paint from old plastic models and toys

So, someone got the bright idea that my Dad’s Lionel 6017 caboose needed a gold roof and painted it. Great, huh?

Believe it or not, it’s possible to remove paint from plastic and metal toys and models, using household items, easily and inexpensively. Whether you’re wanting to restore an old Lionel train to what it’s supposed to look like or wanting to strip chipped paint off a Matchbox car to prepare it for repainting, it’s easy to do.All you need is an old toothbrush, a pair of rubber gloves, a bottle of pine cleaner, and a plastic container–ideally one large enough to hold the item but with very little room left over.

Pine Sol isn’t as good for this as the cheapy knock-offs. The formula seems to have changed in recent years, making it more gentle than it used to be. Place the item in the container, pour in some of the cleaner, and let it sit.

In the case of Dad’s caboose, I should just pour in enough to immerse the roof since that’s all that’s painted. The cleaner will also gladly take off the white lettering that came from the factory, and I want to leave that alone. If the entire item is painted, cover the whole thing.

Within a few minutes the paint will start to bubble. Let it sit overnight, then put on the gloves, pull out the item and start scrubbing. Most of the paint will peel right off. If you have any stubborn spots, immerse it again and let it sit a while longer. Change the bath if it’s too stubborn.

You’ll be amazed at how easily it works.

If you intend to repaint, remember to primer first. Apply two thin coats. Just hold the can a few inches from the item and spray a fine mist. It doesn’t have to cover completely. Let it dry, then apply another fine mist. Ideally, the primer should be as similar to the top coat as possible, but it’s not necessary.

To apply the final coat, again, spray a fine mist. Shake the can liberally beforehand to mix in all of the pigment. Three or four thin coats look much better than one thick coat. If you’re going to apply decals, use a glossy finish. If you want a flat finish, you can apply a flat lacquer finish after applying decals. Take your time, and you’ll have an item to be proud of.

As for Dad’s Lionel 6017, no paint for it once the paint removal is complete. It’s staying red plastic with simple white lettering, just as the guys in New York intended 50 years ago.

The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

Toy trains are a funny thing. Vintage Lionel trains are almost a status symbol, and their value has almost taken a mythical quality. Marx, on the other hand, was the working class brand in the 1950s, the company that had something for you no matter how much you had available to spend.

For the most part, today’s prices reflect that. Lionels are expensive and Marxes are cheap.

Sort of.

Read More »The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

Help! I do tech support for everyone I know! (Version 1.1)

Here’s an interesting dilemma: How do you avoid becoming the primary technical support contact for all of your friends and family?

(If this sounds vaguely familiar, yes, this is a revised version of something I wrote a year and a half ago.)This was a question Richard “Rich Job” Jobity asked two Christmases ago. I thought it was an unbelievably good question. I had to think about the answer for a while. That label fit me for a very long time. Sometime within the last couple of years it stopped, but I never knew exactly why. He made me think about it, and I found I’d done some interesting things on a subconscious level.

There was a time when I didn’t mind. I was 16 and still learning, I had some disposable time on my hands, and, frankly, I enjoyed the attention. You can learn a lot by fixing other people’s computers. It can also be a good way to meet lots of interesting people. And I used at least one of those friends as a reference to get my first three computer-related jobs. But over time, my desire changed.

I think a good first step is to identify exactly why it is you don’t want to be the primary technical support contact for all your friends and family.

In my case, I spend 40 hours a week setting up and fixing computers. And while I definitely spend some time off the clock thinking about computers, I also definitely want to spend some time off the clock thinking about something other than computers.

I have a life. I have a house to take care of, I have meetings to go to, and I have a social life. Not only that, I have bills to pay and errands to run, and physical needs to tend to as well, like cooking dinner and sleeping. And people get really annoyed with me for some reason if I don’t ever wash my clothes.

I’ve been in that situation. Once I had a friend calling me literally every night for a week with some new computer problem and keeping me on the phone for several hours a night while we tried to sort them out. A couple of years before that, someone in Washington was running a computer company and using me as his primary (unpaid) technical support, often taking an hour or two of my day, and getting upset if more than about 12 hours passed without me responding.

I think it’s perfectly understandable for any reasonable person to not like situations like this. So here are my tips for someone who wants to head off that kind of a problem.

Have realistic expectations on all sides. So the first step is to make sure your friends and your family understand that you have responsibilities in life other than making sure their computers work. You’ll do your best to help them, but it’s unrealistic to expect you to drop everything for a computer problem the same way you would drop everything for a death in the family.

Limit your availability. Don’t help someone with a computer problem while you’re in the middle of dinner. You’ll be able to concentrate better without your stomach growling and you won’t harbor resentment about your dinner getting cold. Have him or her step away from the computer and go for a walk and call back in half an hour. The time away from the computer will clear his or her mind and help him or her better answer your questions. Don’t waver on this; five-minute problems have ways of becoming hour-long problems.

Here’s a variant of that. I had a friend having problems with a Dell. She called Dell. She got tired of waiting on hold. “I know, I’ll call Dave,” she said. “Dave’s easier to get ahold of than this.”

She may have tried to call me, but last week I was everywhere but home, it seemed. She didn’t leave a message, so I didn’t know she’d called. The moral of the story: Don’t be easier to get ahold of than Dell. Or whoever it was that built the computer or wrote the software.

What if I’d been home? It depends. If I’d been home and playing Railroad Tycoon, I’d be under more obligation to help a friend in need than I would be if I were home but my girlfriend was over and we were in the middle of dinner or a movie. The key is to remember your other obligations and don’t compromise on them.

Sometimes that means not answering the phone. In this day and age when 50% of the population will answer their cellphone even if they’re sitting on the toilet, this is heresy. I usually make a reasonable effort to answer the phone. But if I’m in the middle of something, I won’t. At least one time when I made no effort to answer the phone when my girlfriend was over, she took it as one of the biggest compliments she ever got. (That relationship didn’t last, so maybe I should have answered the phone, but hey, at the time I didn’t feel like it.)

Whoever it was didn’t leave a message. If it’d been important, either they would have left a message or they would have called me back. (Maybe it was the friend who’d thought of using me as a substitute for Dell tech support. Who knows.)

Don’t do a company’s work for them. If someone’s having a problem with a Dell, or having a problem dialing in to the Internet, I stay away from the problem. If a Dell is having hardware problems, the user will have to call Dell eventually anyway, and the tech will have procedures to follow, and there’s no room in those procedures for a third-party diagnosis. Even if that third party is a friend’s cousin’s neighbor who supposedly wrote a computer book for O’Reilly three years ago. (For all the technician knows, it was a book about Emacs, and you can know Emacs yet know a whole lot of nothing about computer hardware, especially Dell hardware. But more likely he’ll just think the person’s lying.) For the record, when I call Dell or Gateway or HP, I jump through all the same stupid hoops. Even though I’ve written a computer book and I’ve been building and fixing computers my entire adult life.

And if someone can’t dial into an ISP, well, I may very well know more about computers than the guy at the ISP who’s going to pick up the phone. I may or may not be more intelligent and and more pleasant and more articulate than he is. But the fact is, I can only speculate about whatever problems the ISP may be having. And seeing as I don’t use modems anymore and haven’t for years, I’m not exactly in a good position to troubleshoot the things. Someone who does tech support for an ISP does it every day. He’s going to do a better job than me, even if he’s not as smart as I am.

Know your limits. A year ago, a friend was having problems with OS X. She asked if I’d look at it. I politely turned her down. There are ideal circumstances under which to try to solve a problem, but the moment you’re seeing the OS for the first time isn’t it. She called Apple and eventually they got it worked out. It’s a year later now. Her computer works fine, we’re still on speaking terms, and I still haven’t ever seen OS X.

Around the same time, another friend toasted her hard drive. I took on that challenge, because it was PC hardware and she was running an operating system I’d written a book about. It took me a while to solve the problem, but I solved it. It was a growth opportunity for me, and she’s happy.

And this is related to the next point: If you’re not certain about something, say so. It’s much better to say, “This is what I would do, but I’m really not sure it’s the best thing to do” than it is to give some bad advice and pretend that it’s gospel. Get your ego out of the way. There’s no need to try to look good all the time. No matter what you do, you’ll be wrong sometime. And one of the easiest ways to be wrong is to run your mouth when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Limit your responsibility. If your uncle has a six-year-old PC running Windows 95 and ran out and bought a USB-only printer because it was on sale at Kmart and now he’s having problems getting it running and he never asked you about any of this, how much responsibility should you be willing to shoulder to get that printer running?

I’m inclined to say very little. It’s one thing to give some bad advice. It’s another to be dragged into a bad decision. If the only good way to get the peripheral running is to buy Windows XP and wipe the hard drive and install it clean, don’t let that be your problem.

Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into giving support for free software downloaded off the ‘Net, supercheap peripherals bought from who-knows-where, or anything else you can’t control.

You can take this to an extreme if you want: Partition the hard drive, move My Documents over to the second partition, and then create an image of the operating system and applications (installed on the first partition, of course). Any time you install something new, create a new image. When your friend or relative runs into trouble, have him or her re-image the computer. He or she can reinstall Kazaa or whatever notorious app probably caused the problem if desired, but you can disclaim responsibility for it.

Which brings me to:

Disclaim all responsibility for poor computer habits. Gatermann and I have a friend whose brother repeatedly does everything I’d do if I wanted to set out to mess up someone’s computer. He downloads and installs every gimmicky piece of free-with-strings-attached software he can find, turning his computer into a bevy of spyware. He runs around on Kazaa and other file-sharing networks, acquiring a busload of who-knows-what. He opens every e-mail attachment anybody sends to him, amassing a large collection of viruses. He probably does things I’ve never thought of.

Gatermann installed antivirus software on the computer, and we’ve both run Ad-Aware on it (if I recall, one time I ran it I found 284 instances of spyware). Both of us have rebuilt the system from scratch numerous times. The kid never learns. Why should he? Whatever he does, one of Tim’s friends will come over and fix it. (I guarantee it won’t be me though. I got sick of doing it.)

Some good rules to make people follow if they expect help from you:
1. Run antivirus software and keep it current. This is a non-negotiable if you’re running Windows.
2. Stay off P2P networks entirely. Their clients install spyware, and you know about the MP3 buffer overflow vulnerability in WinXP, don’t you? Buy the record and make your own MP3s. Can’t afford $17 CDs? Buy them used on Half.com then.
3. Never open an unexpected e-mail attachment. Even from your best friend. It’s trivially easy to make e-mail look like it came from someone else. If someone who knows both of you got a virus, you can get virus-infected e-mail that looks like it’s from that friend.
4. If you don’t need it, don’t install it. Most free Windows software comes with strings attached in the form of spyware, these days. If you don’t want to pay for software, run Linux.
5. If you must violate rule 4, run Ad-Aware religiously.

Don’t take responsibility when someone asks your advice and then refuses to follow it. That unpaid gig doing tech support for a computer company in Washington ended when he had a computer that wouldn’t boot. He sent me the relevant files. I told him how to fix the problem. The next day he complained it didn’t help, and sent me the files again. It was obvious from looking at the files that he didn’t do what I told him to do. I called him on it. He got defensive. He caught me on a bad day and I really didn’t want to hear it. The next day he sent me a long list of questions. I answered the first two or three, then said, “Sorry, I’m out of time.”

I never heard from him again. But at that point it was just as well. Why help someone who doesn’t respect you enough to follow your advice?

A less extreme example was when an ex-girlfriend’s younger brother refused to give up Kazaa. Every time I fixed the computer, he reinstalled Kazaa and one problem or another came back. Finally I told him, her, and their parents that I’d fixed the problems, but they were going to keep coming back as long as he used Kazaa. Ultimately they decided that free music was more important than a stable computer and staying within the law, but that was their decision.

Have other interests besides computers. My former high school computer science teacher took me aside a few years ago and asked me if it wouldn’t be great if someday people asked me as many questions about God as they were asking me then about computers.

I have relatives who know I’m into Genealogy, and they know that I’ve traced one branch of my family through William the Conqueror and all the way back to before the time of Christ. But some of them don’t know I fix computers for a living.

Some nights when I come home from work, I don’t even turn a computer on. I go straight to the basement, plug in my transformers, and watch a Lionel train run around in circles. I might stay down there all night except for when the phone rings (there are no phone outlets in my basement) or for dinner. Ronald Reagan used to do that. He said it helped him relax and take his mind off things. My dad did too. It works. And no, there’s no computer hooked up to it and there won’t be. This is where I go to escape from computers.

So I don’t find I have the problem anymore where people only want to talk to me about computers. Balance is important. Don’t let your computer knowledge keep you from pursuing your other interests.

Charge money. I don’t charge my family members, but with very few exceptions, I don’t do free technical support. I do make sure I give friends, acquaintances, and neighbors a good deal for their money. But if helping them is going to keep me from mowing my lawn, or if it’s going to force me to cancel plans with my girlfriend, then I need to be compensated enough to be able to pay someone else to mow my lawn, or to take my girlfriend out for a nice dinner that more than makes up for the cancellation.

It’s all about balance. So what if your entire block has the most stable computers in the world, if your grass is three feet tall and you have no friends and no significant other because you can’t make time to meet anyone for dinner?

I’ve had employers bill me out at anywhere from $50 to $75 per hour. Under ideal conditions, where they drop the computer off with the expectation of getting it back within 2 weeks, I bill myself out at significantly less than that. But for on-site service at odd hours, I believe it’s perfectly appropriate for a computer professional to bill at those kinds of rates.

Even if you’re a hobbyist, you need to be fair to yourself. Computer repair is a skill that takes longer to learn than mowing lawns, and the tools required are every bit as specialized and every bit as expensive. In St. Louis, many people charge what amounts to $25 an hour to mow a lawn.

And? This doesn’t mean I never get computer-related phone calls. One Sunday when a family member called me with a noisy fan in a power supply, I found him a cheap replacement. I’ve fixed girlfriends’ computers before. The last computer I built was a birthday present for my current girlfriend.

But I’m not afraid to answer the phone, I don’t find myself giving people longshot answers just to get them off the phone long enough for me to go somewhere or start screening my phone calls. And I find myself getting annoyed with people less. Those are all good things.

Munich\’s unexpected migration costs prove nothing so far

I saw an article in the Toronto Star in which Steve Ballmer was, um, well, talking gleefully about the city of Munich’s highly publicized and controversial migration to Linux, server to desktop, costing more money than expected.

So I suppose Mr. Ballmer is prepared to reimburse one of my clients for its unexpected expenses in migrating from VMS to Windows then, eh?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.I wouldn’t call myself a migration specialist, per se, but it seems that during my career, just as often as not I’ve been involved in projects that are migrations to something or other, and more often than not, they’ve been migrations to Windows. I helped one of the first OS/2 networks outside of IBM itself migrate to Windows NT. I helped lots of smaller clients migrate from various versions of Mac OS to Windows NT. I’ve done a couple of small projects that migrated something Windows- or VMS-based to Linux. Last year I helped a client migrate from VMS to Windows 2003. Right now I’m working on a project that migrates another client from VMS to Windows 2000/2003.

I’m not trying to prove that I’m a migration expert, but I do think I’ve learned a few things along the way. And one of the first things I learned is that if you’re trying to migrate in order to save money right away, you’re migrating for the wrong reason and your project is probably going to fail very quickly. It’s very hard for a migration to save you that much money that quickly, and if it does, then that means its predecessor was so broken that somebody ought to be fired for not replacing it five years earlier.

The other thing I’ve learned is that a migration always always has unexpected costs, for a very simple reason. It’s impossible to know everything that’s going on on your network. I don’t know everything that’s going on on my home network, and most of the time, I’m the only one using it.

You might say I’m scatterbrained. I say you might be right. But let me give you an example from a network other than mine. In my first job, they decommissioned DOS-based WordPerfect years before I was born started working there. But since the system didn’t prevent people from installing software, people just smuggled in their copies of WordPerfect from home, installed it, and went right on using it, creating new data. Then I came along to migrate them to Windows NT, and they planned the same charade all over again. Only this time, they weren’t able to install their copy of WordPerfect. When told it was illegal to install and we weren’t going to do it, they said they needed that data in order to do their job.

That, my friend, is an unexpected expense.

The city of Munich undoubtedly has data in obsolete formats, being used every day by people, without anyone else knowing about it. I have a client still running something they rely on every day in dBASE II. Yes, TWO! Yes, when the account manager told me that, I made a joke about CP/M. For those of you who haven’t been around that long, dBASE II was obsoleted more than 20 years ago, although some people continued to use it after it was replaced by dBASE III. Some longer than others, it seems…

In this line of work, you find weird stuff. I know weird stuff is attracted to me, but I know I’m not the only one who finds this.

And weird stuff like that, my friend, can sometimes be an unexpected major expense.

The unexpected expenses my current client paid in its current migration paid for me to have a box full of my dad’s old Lionel trains fixed up better than new, and then to buy a bunch of new stuff. Trust me, it wasn’t cheap. And trust me, only a percentage of what my employer got trickled down to me.

I’m sure the city of Munich went into this knowing some or all of this. I’m also sure this wasn’t about money, even though Microsoft is gloating about money now.

What Steve Ballmer wants everyone to forget is that Microsoft came in with the lowest bid. Maybe not initially, but in the end they did. And Munich went with a Linux-based solution anyway.

Why? I’ll tell you why. New Microsoft Office releases every two years. New versions of operating systems every three to four years. New bloatware service packs that guarantee you’ll have to replace your hardware every three years, released every year. Annual antivirus subscription rates. Lost productivity when a virus slips through the cracks anyway. Lost productivity when spyware breaks some required business app.

MCSEs work cheap, and the software is inexpensive at first. But you get nickled and dimed to death.

Linux is more costly than expected this year. But the next four years will be less expensive than anticipated.

And Munich may be betting on that.

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.

Recapturing the charm of Dad’s Lionel train

I unboxed Dad’s old Lionel train Monday night. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Dad’s train led a rough life. My investigative reporting skills tell me he got the train sometime between 1949 and 1952, and then sometime after 1953 he got a new locomotive and cars. And then sometime in the 1960s, the trains ended up in a box. I remember him telling me it came out a few times in the 1970s for Christmas, but most of my memories of Dad’s train are four big pieces of plywood with rusty track mounted on it, sitting in the garage next to a stack of repurposed liquor boxes containing train parts.

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