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Living with a past-its-prime computer

I’m playing catch-up a bit. This weekend, Lifehacker ran a guide about living with a computer that’s past its prime.

I’ve made a career of that. One of my desktop PCs at work (arguably the more important one) is old enough that I ought to be preparing to send it off to second grade. And for a few years I administered a server farm that was in a similar state. They finally started upgrading the hardware as I was walking out the door. (I might have stayed longer if they’d done that sooner.) And at home, I ran with out-of-date computer equipment for about a decade, just this summer buying something current. Buying something current is very nice, but not always practical.

So of course I’ll comment on a few of Lifehacker’s points.

Read More »Living with a past-its-prime computer

Fathers: Give your family a gift this Father’s Day weekend

I’m sitting here watching NBC’s tribute to Tim Russert tonight. Although he was famous for being the biggest political guru of his generation, he was also the author of two books, both about fatherhood.

He died today of a heart attack. He was only 58.

I would have liked to have asked my dad what to do to minimize the risk of heart attack. Being a doctor, he should know. But I can’t. He died of a heart attack in 1994, age 51.I think I know what Dad would say, although he would say it with a whole lot more authority, having four degrees and the title "D.O." to his name.

I’m sure Dad would point out that not all of the factors are within our control. The best we can do is control the factors that we can control. (Not that he did, sadly.)

I don’t know much about medicine (Dad didn’t want me to be a doctor, and honestly, I never had much interest), but I know plenty about controlling the factors we can, in hopes of minimizing the factors we can’t.

But diet is a big factor, and we can control it. We can (and should) eat foods lower in cholesterol. We can (and should) avoid hydrogenated oils as much as possible. And we can (and should) eat foods that seem to lower cholesterol, such as oatmeal. Soy is also rumored to lower cholesterol, but the question is whether it actually lowers cholesterol, or if it merely replaces lots of foods that are high in cholesterol.

So, here’s the gift I want fathers to give their families this week. Start eating oatmeal for breakfast at least a couple of times a week. And if you’re really ambitious, eat fake soy meat a couple of times a week instead of the real thing.

Trust me on this one. I’m a red-blooded, beef-eating Kansas City native. I grew up on the stuff. Eight years ago I gave up meat for Lent, mostly because it was something that seemed possible but extremely difficult to do. I wanted to see if I could do it. So I did it–barely. Then I went out for BBQ afterward.

Back then, I tried soy burgers. I wasn’t impressed. Trust me. They’re better now. If you don’t like one brand, try another, but my favorites are the Boca Flame Grilled. Soy bacon is good too. It doesn’t look a thing like the real stuff, but it tastes fine.

If there’s a relatively minor and tolerable adjustment that we can make to potentially increase the number of our years, and almost certainly increase the quality of those years, shouldn’t we do it?

$13.99 a day for three days isn’t $39 total!

On Monday, I had the pleasure of renting a car. The insurance company was paying–the pleasure came courtesy of the 81-year-old woman who rear-ended my wife and son as they sat at a stop sign–but I learned a lot about rental company tactics.The insurance company was paying $24 a day, which would put you in a mid-sized car–roughly the size of a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. So the rental company tried to upsell me. Enterprise stuck me in a Buick LeSabre once when the Dodge Neon I initially tried to rent had a flat tire. I hated the thing. It was comfortable, but it was huge, I couldn’t park it, the brakes were mushy, and the steering was mushy. I felt like I was stuck in a big bowl of oatmeal.

But they didn’t want to put me in a LeSabre. They wanted to put me in an SUV or a minivan. Completely impractical. Besides, I wanted fuel economy. I pointed to a Ford Focus. “How’s that gas mileage compare to my Honda Civic?” I asked.

“It has to be pretty close,” he said.

“I’ll take one.”

Once inside, he said he also had a Toyota Corolla. I lit up. “I’ll take the Corolla.” He said the last person who rented it got 38 MPG out of it. I like 38 MPG.

Then he took me outside to see the car. It was cleaner than my car, had fewer scratches on my car, when he put the key in the ignition and turned it, the engine started. It promised to cost less per mile to drive than a Civic, and someone else was paying the bill. What’s not to like?

Then he tried to sell me insurance. By then I was getting frustrated because all this upselling was making me even later for work, and I was plenty late enough. They had primo insurance for $23.99 a day, which was more than the daily cost of renting a Corolla. He said it would give me a million dollars in liability. I don’t remember what else. I probably rolled my eyes. I think he sensed there was no way, no how he was going to sell that to me, so he turned to the “cheap” $13.99 insurance.

“I don’t think I need insurance because American Family said they’d cover me since I have full coverage.”

“What’s your deductible?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never had to use it.” (Remember that second sentence.)

“It’s probably $500. So for $13.99 a day, we can save you the hassle of having to deal with American Family if anything happens.” Then he went over the things it would cover.

I started to get antsy, knowing how late for work I was getting. I tuned him out, which was the best thing to do. Otherwise I’d get even more irritated.

“So for just $39, we can take care of you for three days.”

I ignored the mathematical fact that $13.99 times 3 is $41.97, not $39. Any sixth grader should know that.

“$39 is a lot of money,” I said. That’s true, isn’t it? That’s about how much it costs to fill a Corolla’s gas tank in Missouri right now.

He laughed. “So’s $500!”

“Yeah, but I’ve never had to use that deductible, so the chances of me having to use any insurance this week on this car are about zero. So it really doesn’t make any sense to pay $39 for something I’m not going to use.”

“Suit yourself,” he said.

It suited me fine. The car was in our possession from roughly 9 AM on Monday until about 5 PM today (Wednesday). I guess that’s about 56 hours. My wife ran errands for a couple of hours each day and went to the doctor on Wednesday, but I think it’s safe to say that the car spent at least 41.97 hours sitting in our driveway.

Nothing bad happened in our driveway. I’m sure the dog sniffed it a few times.

I’m guessing the salesman who was helping me was probably 24 or 25, and in all fairness, when I was his age I didn’t think $39 was a lot of money either, even if it was really $41.97. Let’s face it. When I was 19, I was making about six bucks an hour. When I was 24, I was making a shade over $12 an hour, and after $6 per hour, that seemed like a lot of money. That was 9 years ago. Let’s guess this whippersnapper makes $15 an hour and made $8 an hour selling dishwashers at Best Buy five years ago. When you go from making $160 a week to $2400 a month, $41.97 seems like nothing. I’m sure he’ll spend more than that on dinner and drinks on Friday.

And I’m sure he and thousands of others like him manage to convince a lot of people every day that $41.97 is really $39, and $39 is nothing, so they sign on the line. All those nothings pile up really quick, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a $9 billion company.


But that “only” tactic doesn’t work on me anymore. Quote me $41.97, and I can tell you it takes me an hour and a half to make that, pre-tax. Factor in taxes, and it takes me more than two hours to make that. That’s a quarter of my day! If I’m going to waste $41.97, I can think of a number of things I’d much rather waste $41.97 on. Maybe a full tank of gas. Or half a week’s worth of groceries. Or 288 diapers, if I shop at Dollar General. That might last my son a month.

But I spared him the Dr. Walter Johnson Economics 51 lesson on Opportunity Cost ($101 per credit hour in 1994 at Mizzou). Like I said, I was already late for work. I’d probably already blown $28 worth of vacation time and I didn’t want to make it $41.97.

How to find motivation to balance your budget

This week I read a story on Get Rich Slowly about a couple who refuses to budget. The conversation ended when the person who needed to budget bragged about getting five shrubs on sale for $10 each. She didn’t need them, but the deal was too good to pass up.Consumerism is an easy trap to fall into because of easy credit, and the messages are all around us. Most people who know me probably categorize me as an extreme cheapskate. Certainly there are lots of things I could be doing that I don’t, but even by doing a few little things you can improve your financial situation immensely.

Watch less TV. I think this is a really big one, because TV is the primary source of marketing messages. It’s not just the commercials either. The TV shows give lots of messages about how you’re supposed to live. It’s not a realistic picture.

At one point in my life I was able to go a year without watching TV, just watching the World Series each year. I watch more now. I try to catch This Old House on Sunday evenings and sometimes I’ll watch a show with my wife, so I probably watch 3-4 hours a week now. But that’s a lot less than average.

My advice to someone who wants to watch more TV than I do would be to watch older movies (1940s-1960s), as that would make it harder to compare your life to someone else’s. Plus, there’s a lot less product placement and other marketing shenanigans going on, and if you watch it on video, no commercials.

Have realistic expectations. A lot of 20-somethings seem to think they have to have furniture as nice as their parents. That’s unrealistic and sometimes impractical. The previous generation didn’t always have what they have now. Walk into the home of a 50-something, and some of the furniture will be new, but some of it will be 10-15 years old, possibly more. The furnishings were bought over the course of many years. Plus, nicer things are impractical when you have kids running around. There will be spills and stains and dirt. Kids need to be taught to respect things, but what’s the point of ruining a $1,000 sofa to teach the lesson? It’s better to put something older and cheaper in harm’s way instead–much easier on the credit card and on your sanity.

Budget. A budget isn’t some mystical thing. It’s a simple list of your money as it comes and goes. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet. In one column, list all your sources of income–your paycheck, plus anything you make on the side. Add up that total.

In another column, list your monthly expenses. That’s everything–your car payment, rent or mortgage, credit card bills, utility bills, gasoline, food, and entertainment. You may have to save your receipts for a month to do this realistically. Add up that total. Hopefully it’s a smaller number than the first total.

I first did this in college when I was treasurer for my fraternity. We were in serious financial trouble but nobody knew why. I grabbed the checkbook, did the simple analysis I described above, and figured out we were spending more than $400 per member every month. We were only charging $380 a month for people to live there.

When we couldn’t raise rates, I started cancelling things. I cancelled the Super Bowl Party. I cancelled cable TV in the lounge. If it wasn’t a basic necessity of life, it went. It made me unpopular and it didn’t balance the budget, but it cut the shortfall.

I’m guessing most of the people who voted against me raising rates are having more trouble paying their bills today than they need to.

The expenses involved in a personal budget are different than for an organization, but the principles are identical. You still need to have more coming in every month than comes out, and if you can’t figure out how to make more, the only way to have more money is to spend less.

Reward yourself. Practically. A few years ago my budget was tight and I’d taken on an expensive hobby. Then I realized what I spent on food every day. It started with $1 for a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Lunch was $5 at the cafeteria. And usually I spent another dollar or two in the vending machine. I let my ego tell me it wasn’t worth my time to pack a lunch.

Then I did this math equation: (365-52-52-10-10)*7 and came up with $1,687. I was spending $1,687 a year on (mostly) bad food because I thought I was too important to pack my own lunch.

I was also making about $15,000 a year less than I make now. Dice.com tells me I’m slightly underpaid now, let alone then. Who was I kidding? That $1,687 was a luxury I couldn’t afford.

So I went to the store, bought a Thermos and a big can of coffee, bought some instant oatmeal and some breakfast bars and granola bars, and started packing fruit and sandwiches. What was left became my hobby budget.

I couldn’t motivate myself to cut that expense just to have more money, but being able to afford something I otherwise couldn’t was enough motivation for me. Eventually I shrunk the hobby budget and started using that money to pay down debt.

But had my situation been different I don’t think it would have been a bad thing, necessarily, to keep using that to fund a hobby. It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like everyone else is passing you by, even if they’re passing you by on borrowed money.

Look at opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is about the only thing I remember from college economics. The theory goes like this: The cost of a new car isn’t $20,000. It’s what else I could have done with that money. So the cost of a new car is a plasma TV ($5,000), a high-def DVD player ($500), a nice computer ($1,500), a new high-efficiency furnace ($4,000), a nice vacation ($3,000), all three current generation video game systems (roughly $1,000), a new living room set ($2,000), and you’d still have $3,000 left to replace two or three appliances with high-end models, or all your major appliances with new low-to-mid-range models.

Would it be worth driving an older car for a few more years to be able to afford to go on a home-improvement binge like that?

Or here’s the way I prefer to look at it. I could invest that money conservatively, using a no-load index fund that just does exactly what the Dow Jones Industrial Average does. Historically, money invested in the DJIA doubles every seven years. Some seven-year periods are better than others, of course. If I dump $20,000 into that kind of a fund, it will be worth $320,000 in 28 years.

The sticker price on the Honda Civic sitting in my driveway was around $15,000, but that’s not what it cost me. It didn’t cost $16,500 either (I paid some interest on it because I didn’t have the cash to buy it outright immediately). It cost $264,000.

I know some people look down on me for driving what’s now a five-year-old car, but I can build myself a very nice nest egg just by keeping my cars two or three times as long as everyone else does. Will they still be looking down on me if I retire at 65 and they have to work 10 more years because they still have debt to pay off?

If the cost of a secure future is driving a car typical of what 16-year-olds drive, I’ll pay that price. It’s a bargain.

Don’t pay interest. If you have a choice between financing something and waiting a while and paying cash, wait and pay cash. Paying interest is like paying rent. It’s paying money off and having nothing to show for it in the end.

I do use interest-free periods to buy things because that gives me a little more time to get the money together. I financed a furnace earlier this year because they offered 6 months same as cash. I probably could have paid cash on the spot but it would have been less comfortable. Being able to spread my payments out over six months allows me to pay more on the mortgage, which does charge interest.

How to improve your laptop\’s speed

Yes, it’s possible to improve the performance of an aging laptop. What’s better is that there are at least three things you can do that won’t cost any money. And while there’s a lot less under the hood of a laptop that you can replace when compared to a desktop, there are two (sometimes three) hardware upgrades you can make that can make a big difference.Disable the modem if you don’t use it. Many, if not most modems have Winmodems inside rather than hardware modems to cut costs and save battery power. But when you’re not using that modem, its device drivers are hogging memory and they could even be stealing precious CPU cycles. Right-click My Computer, hit Properties, click Hardware, then click Device Manager. Expand the part that says Modems, then right-click on your modem and select Disable.

Disable any other hardware you don’t use. If you don’t use your laptop’s serial and parallel ports, disable them in your BIOS. The speed difference may or may not make a difference depending on the age of your laptop, but if you’re trying to squeeze every last bit of speed from it, this can help.

Disabling your sound card if you don’t use it usually makes a noticeable difference, regardless of your laptop’s age. The sound hardware on most laptops is CPU-intensive.

Experiment with your display’s color depth. Usually you don’t want to change the resolution on a laptop, but you can change color depth to a lower setting and see if it helps. Paradoxically, picking the lowest setting doesn’t always yield the highest speed. And sometimes, depending on the video chipset, the fastest setting is the highest one. Still, it’s usually worth spending 30 minutes experimenting.

Max out your memory. With any laptop, you want to be hitting the swap file (virtual memory) as little as possible. Laptop hard drives are slower than their desktop equivalents–5400 RPM drives are pretty much impossible to buy on the desktop anymore, but a 5400 RPM disk is a high-end drive in laptop land–so the performance hit with virtual memory is more painful.

So the easiest upgrade you can make for an aging laptop is to yank out whatever replaceable memory is inside and install the largest modules that will work in their place. Be sure to check compatibility, as many laptops are picky about memory size and/or speed. Buying from a place like Crucial that guarantees compatibility is a good bet.

If the laptop is so old that Crucial doesn’t stock memory for it, or if the memory is just prohibitively expensive due to obsolesence, there’s always the secondhand market (Ebay and the like), but check the seller’s return policy, and always buy brand-name memory such as Crucial or Kingston. Generic memory very frequently causes problems. In 10 years of repairing, installing, and building computers, I’ve seen maybe 10 bad name-brand memory modules, total. When one of my clients or employers has used generic memory, at least 25% of it ended up failing on my watch. Some was dead on arrival, while some worked for a while but quickly developed problems.

I’m all for generics most of the time–I have generic oatmeal and off-brand coffee for breakfast, wash my hair with generic shampoo, I brushed my teeth with generic toothpaste this morning, I’m wearing private-label pants as I write, I put generic mustard on my sandwiches, and when I have a headache I take generic ibuprofen–but generic computer memory is a waste of money.

Upgrade the hard drive. Boot times and the time it takes to launch applications software greatly affects how we perceive a computer’s speed. Each generation of hard drive generally is much faster than the last, so replacing a hard drive in an aging laptop can give a huge boost.

Hard drive speed is more complicated than just buying the drive with the fastest RPM. Even buying the drive with the fastest RPM, lowest seek time, and biggest cache doesn’t necessarily always yield the fastest drive, but it will get you close. Since anything close to the top of the performance curve is likely to saturate the IDE bus at its peak speed in an aging laptop, that’s good enough when you’re buying an upgrade.

One caveat is that a lot of BIOSes on older laptops won’t recognize a monster hard drive. A rough rule of thumb is that anything from 1999-2000 or older will max out at 32 GB, and laptops from 1997 or so will max out at around 8 GB. Do a Google search on your model of laptop and words like “hard drive” and “bios limitation” to see the largest drive your laptop will support. Be sure to search Google Groups in addition to the Web. Sometimes you can get a BIOS upgrade to support larger drives, but often you cannot.

What happens when you install a drive your system can’t handle can be unpredictable. Sometimes a 40-gig drive will just show up as a 32-gig drive. Other times the system won’t boot at all. So it pays to do some research first.

CPU upgrades. These can be dicey on a laptop–sometimes the CPU is soldered to the board, and sometimes it’s not very accessible. Even when you can get to the CPU, mobile CPUs cost more than their desktop equivalents and are harder to find. Still, sometimes it’s possible to replace a CPU in a laptop. If you have an adventurous spirit and lots of hardware know-how, it might be worth searching Google with the model of your laptop and the words “CPU upgrade.” Again, search Google Groups in addition to the Web.

The road to financial independence

Early in The Millionaire Next Door, Danko and Stanley single out the Scottish. When my wife, Emily, read it, she said, “That explains everything about you!”

When I read it, I thought it explained everything about my two grandfathers–one was rich, one was poor, both were Scottish, and both spent their money pretty much the same way.

I’ve been reading a lot of these kinds of books because I’m not going to let what happened to us back in May ever happen again.But I blame Emily. She’s the one who started bringing me these kinds of books.

So what am I doing? I can’t list everything, but I can definitely give enough examples to highlight this Scot’s mindset.

Pick up that quarter. You know that adage that if a lawyer drops a quarter, it costs him more money to bend down and pick it up than to leave it be? Forget that. A lawyer standing in a parking lot isn’t billing time. I always pick up that quarter. I’m not a vulture–if I see someone drop a coin or three, I pick them up and hand them to the person. But if it’s on the ground and there’s no sign of the rightful owner, it goes in my pocket, whether it’s 75 cents or a penny.

Be scrappy. When I was out of work, I walked around picking up aluminum cans. At 45 cents a pound with a 10-pound minimum (a pound is roughly 35 cans), it was a slow way to make money. But if you’re out walking for exercise anyway, pick ’em up. I pick up cans when I spot them in parking lots, and I save the cans the local hoodlums throw in my yard. The last time we took cans in, we got more than $8. That pays for dinner for a night or two, if you cook. I only gather cans when someone’s not paying me to do something else, but during those times, why not?

Pay down your debt. Once Em and I got on our feet financially and it was clear we wouldn’t have to live off our savings anymore, we paid off our cars. We’d been making extra payments anyway. By paying off her 5-year loan in 3 years and mine in 2, we probably saved $3,000 in interest charges. That 3 grand is going to come in handy.

And that’s Biblical: Romans 13:8 says, “Owe no man anything, except love.” Does that mean my home mortgage and my car loans are sin? Yep. At least we’ve got two sins out of our lives.

If you can’t pay it all off, make extra payments. Even tiny extra payments help. Do a Google search for a financial calculator. Plug in your home mortgage. Many will figure the effects of extra payments for you. On my mortgage, just $10 a month pays off my house a full month sooner. A lousy ten bucks a month eliminates a single $1,000 mortgage payment. I can come up with 10 bucks. About 18 months ago I quit buying a doughnut and coffee at work, taking a thermos and a couple of packets of oatmeal every morning so I’d quit spending $1 a day on those things. The total savings per month was almost 20 bucks. Packing my lunch saved another couple of bucks a day. You get the idea.

Initially I was doing it for hobby money, until I realized how much more I would save by eliminating debt first. Once that $1,000 mortgage payment and $300 car payment are no longer over my head, I can buy a lot more $10 train cars. Even if the price doubles by then, which it probably won’t.

Keep an eye out for business opportunities. My brother in law has the right idea. He and his wife bought the laundromat in the town they live in. They have to fix something once a week, but compared to their regular jobs, it’s easy money. Within a few years it will have paid for itself and the money will just be there.

He’s looking to start another business too. Ethanol costs about $1.84 a gallon and the price is steady. That’s 70 cents less than a gallon of gasoline sells for in their town. So a lot of farmers use ethanol. Many would anyway, because they’d rather support corn farmers than middle eastern oil tycoons. So he’s looking to buy an ethanol station.

Emily and I moonlight selling stuff online. She loves shopping at thrift stores and yard sales. I spotted a copy of How to Make a Fortune With Other People’s Junk and bought it (with a coupon, of course). We’re not following it exactly, but it put us on the right track. We’re small time but we’re profitable, and now she’s getting paid to do one of her favorite things.

The goal isn’t the high life. This might be the most important thing. The reason most wealthy people stay wealthy is because their goal isn’t a swanky $500,000 home in a ritzy suburb with two new foreign luxury cars in the driveway all the time.

Don’t get me wrong: I may not drive a Honda Civic all my life. But I could see myself driving a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord whether my net worth was $160,000 or $16 million. A BMW or Mercedes (or a Lincoln or Cadillac, for that matter) does nothing to improve quality of life.

The goal is something completely different: not to be anyone’s slave.

A year ago, whenever my phone rang after hours, I had to answer it. If I failed to answer the phone more than maybe once a year, I was afraid I’d be fired. So I picked up the phone and did whatever the person on the other end asked, whether it was reasonable or not, whether it made sense or not. Sometimes that meant I had to cancel plans. But it meant extra money, and I thought it proved how indispensible I was.

And it was all over one Thursday afternoon. There were cutbacks at work, and my position was eliminated. So I got in a car that belonged to Honda and drove to a house owned by the bank, where I sat down (at least the couch was owned by me) to figure out how much money was in the bank and how many months that money would last while I looked for another job.

Freedom is being able to say yes when the phone rings because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s what you have to do in order to support your lifestyle. Freedom is when it doesn’t matter if your job evaporates because you boss’ boss’ boss screwed up and lost a horrific amount of money because the main reason you’re working for him is because it’s more interesting than sitting around at home watching daytime TV.

Most people don’t have a job. Their job has them. And the main reason is because their lifestyle has them.

In a way I’m glad I learned this at age 30. I’m also very glad that Emily understands it, and that when I can’t explain something peculiar about the way I spend or (more often) don’t spend, she trusts me. This doesn’t work very well when only one person is on board.

And as long as both of us can hold down a job for about five years–a reasonable expectation, since both of us have done it before–we’ll get there.

Advice for setting up a computer lab

Two weekends ago, I headed back up to Bethlehem Lutheran Church to rebuild the computer lab I had set up for them a few years ago. Built on P3-based Compaq Deskpros and Windows 98, it had held up, but was desperately in need of repair.

The vision of this project was to set up a lab in a declining neighborhood, where kids could come to do their homework and adults could come to learn computer skills. The lab is run under adult supervision, and outsiders with teaching and/or training experience come in occasionally to teach computer literacy classes.

Ultimately, I want this project to produce some sysadmins in North St. Louis. Years ago, when this was in the planning stage, I told Pastor John Schmidtke that I wanted to see some Mercedeses and BMWs in that neighborhood, purchased with salaries earned from skills picked up in that lab.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet. But there’s still time. In the meantime, how about if I talk about what I’ve learned from three years of operation?Fancy computers not necessary

These were midrange machines when they were new. The lab cost some $10,000 to build, including materials to renovate the room. A contractor who attends my church renovated the room to my specifications. For what it’s worth, I told him there would be about 10 computers there, and the keyboards needed to sit so that a five-foot person’s elbows would make a right angle while seated. He built an around-the-room desk to hold the computers and bored out a couple of holes at each station for the keyboards.

Back to the computers. Today those computers would be worth about $100 apiece. That’s OK–they’re fine for word processing and e-mail, casual web browsing, and educational games, which was the goal. They were fine then and they’re fine now.

Any business with a philanthropic mindset could duplicate what we did here with a dozen outmoded office computers. A Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM can run Windows 95 or 98 adequately. There’s no point in messing with anything lower than that, since P2s sell for 50 bucks a pop these days. One thing I will say: The quality of the keyboards, mice, and monitors is much more important than the computers themselves. If people are going to be typing, they need decent monitors, a good mouse, and a keyboard that doesn’t feel like oatmeal. So if you’re working with a budget, plan on spending the most on monitors and optical mice.

Adequate power outlets completely necessary

There was only one hardware failure in this lab’s three years. One computer wouldn’t run, no matter what I did. It wouldn’t even power up.

Well, speaking as someone with a decade of professional experience in sales and service of computers, I’m embarrassed to say the computer that failed wasn’t plugged in. It looked like it was plugged in. But with the electrical outlets in a mismash and the cables all over the place, it wasn’t. Why didn’t I try another power cable and discover the problem? I have no excuse.

I suspect someone needed an outlet for something–be it speakers or a hair dryer, you never know–unplugged something at random, then didn’t plug it back in when finished. Worse yet, the business end of the cable ended up in a box under the desk, so everything looked fine. The result was a computer that didn’t run for about two years. I didn’t even find the stray end of the cable until I traced several other cables.

So provide as many outlets as your breaker box can handle. Provide extras. People will bring in other things they want to plug in. Three outlets per seat (computer, monitor, and speakers) is inadequate. To be safe, plan on four.

Create system images

You’ll have to reload the system no matter what you do. Lockdown software can be counted on to break things for the innocent and at best only slow down the people who are going to circumvent it. When the goal is for people to learn how things work, they need to be at least somewhat free to experiment. So make images of a working system with all software installed. Train someone to re-image the system. Then don’t be shy about re-imaging. Do it once a week or any time something goes wrong with a computer. If you can’t afford Norton Ghost or PowerQuest DriveImage, a freeware alternative called Savepart exists. Use it. Come to think of it, use that, and spend the money you’d spend on Ghost or DriveImage on better keyboards or mice.

Use identical hardware

System images don’t save you much trouble if your hardware is all different. Your image probably won’t work. Use systems that are as similar as possible: same motherboard, same video card, same sound card (if not on the motherboard), same network card. Put the cards in the same slots on each machine.

Frequently you can get away with not being that careful, but trust me, you don’t want the one time in a thousand that it matters to come and bite you.

Match your hardware and operating system

Sometimes it’s not possible to use completely identical hardware. In those instances, make sure any dissimilar hardware is recognized by the OS without loading any drivers. For example, this lab has a mix of Netgear and Intel network cards. The Netgear isn’t recognized by Windows but the Intel is. So I made the image for a Netgear, and when the system comes up with an Intel, it handles the situation gracefully.

Do the same thing for the sound cards and video cards.

Don’t ask too much of your systems

Yes, Windows XP will install and boot on a Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM. But there is absolutely no benefit to it. XP wants lots of memory and CPU power, and when it doesn’t get it, it’s a slow pig. Realistically, a P2 with 64 megs ought to be running Windows 98. Don’t even try 2000 or XP unless you have P3s faster than 500 MHz with 256 MB of RAM.

While there are subtle differences between versions, for the most part Windows is Windows. If someone can use Windows 98 and Office 97, it’s easy to adjust to the current versions. Don’t be afraid of running back-level versions.

Get discounted charity/educational software

You don’t have to pay $200 for Windows and $500 for Office to build a computer lab for a charity. I don’t know what charity or educational prices are right now, but it’s a fraction of that. The rule of thumb is this: If you don’t pay sales tax, you don’t have to pay full price for software either.

Most computer stores can get you information on charity pricing. Support your local computer store. You might need it someday. Who knows–the owner may be able to get you a line on some things you need.

And if worse comes to worse, run Linux. That was my original plan, but Pastor Schmidtke wanted to use what local businesses were using. That’s a better plan, but if you can’t afford software, Linux works nicely and is more than adequate for things like word processing and web browsing.

Just do it. That’s about all else I can say. The lab in your head isn’t doing anyone a bit of good. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. If you’ve got a vision for this, get what you can to get the lab up and running. You can always come back and add newer or more computers later.


Real keyboards. I’ve written a lot about keyboards in the past. I’m picky. I’m a good typist, or at least used to be before my wrists went the way of Bo Jackson’s hip (with all due respect to Bo Jackson; that’s not to say I could type like Bo Jackson could run or throw or hit a baseball), and the majority of keyboards are absolutely abominable. Maybe that’s because I learned to type on manual typewriters–no, I’m not that old, my high school was just that far behind–but I need some feedback from my keyboard. The first computer keyboard I could touch type on was the old-fashioned IBM PS/2 keyboard. I eventually learned how to handle the abominable cheap oatmeal pieces of junk, but I never learned to like them.

IBM’s buckling spring keyswitches evoked strong emotions; people either loved them or hated them. Other highly regarded keyboards generally used keyswitches made by Alps Electric; they were a little quieter and a little softer but still gave some feedback.

Those who managed to get them swear by their Northgates, or the present-day Northgate clones, the Creative Vision Avant Stellar and the Ortek MCK-142, both of whom boast of their Alps keyswitches and claim the true Northgate legacy. I understand their feel is just slightly softer than the IBM. I had a keyboard with that kind of feel; I believe it probably used Alps keyswitches. I didn’t like it as much. My sister took a liking to it so I let her keep it. I just kept buying used IBM PS/2 keyboards, the older the better. The older ones are theoretically less reliable because of potential heavier use, but they feel better. But two of my IBM keyboards are acting up now, so what to do? Do I really want to buy more used ones that are prone to go south all too soon? An original unused Northgate OmniKey sells for an Imsai price these days; they’re almost priceless. (I see some used OmniKeys on eBay right now for $50; even used ones rarely end up selling for that.) A clone will set you back $130. I’m willing to pay a fair sum for a good keyboard, but I’m a little wary of spending 10-12 times the cost of a normal keyboard on something I haven’t ever used before. I suspect I know their feel; IBM lightened up their feel towards the end, just before they stooped to everyone else’s level and started bundling $12 keyboards with their systems. I suspect the Northgate clones feel like those late-model IBMs, and I want something a little firmer.

Zeos used to sell highly regarded keyboards (from what I’ve gathered, they were actually made by a Taiwanese company called Nan Tan, who’s still in business but seems more interested in making commodity $12 keyboards these days), but Micron bought Zeos years ago and jettisoned the keyboards. Nobody talks about Zeos keyboards anymore. I only used one of those once, and I don’t remember it being the bomb, but I remember it being a lot better than, say, a run-of-the-mill NMB keyboard. Supposedly they used Alps keyswitches as well, so the feel was probably a lot like a Northgate.

I was learning far more about keyboards than I ever wanted to know, but I still couldn’t find anyone who would sell me a decent keyboard for a two-figure price. Then I stumbled across www.pckeyboard.com . That’s Unicomp, a small company out of Lexington, Kentucky. The significance? IBM made keyboards there. They spun off Lexmark, and Lexmark made keyboards there. Real keyboards come from Lexington, Kentucky, just like real baseball bats come from Louisville, Kentucky. I don’t know what springs to mind when anyone else hears the word Kentucky, but those are the two things I think of.

In 1996, Lexmark quietly sold their keyboard technology to these guys, who quietly sell IBM lookalike/feelalike keyboards for about 50 bucks. They sell both the so-called “enhanced” models (no thanks) and models with the old-fashioned, loud, patented buckling springs that go clackety clack. They also fix IBM keyboards. I like this. For half the price of an MCK-142, I can have what I really want. They even claim to have a 104-key model with Windows keys, which would be really nice, but I can’t find it on the Web site. I’ll have to call. I’d buy two or three 104-key buckling spring keyboards in a heartbeat because I constantly use the Windows-M and Windows-R keyboard shortcuts. I usually redefine one of the ALT keys as a Windows key using Microsoft’s Kernel Toys, but that doesn’t help you in NT, and it’s good to have two ALT keys. The ALT-arrow key combinations get awkward if you redefine the right ALT key, but ALT-F4 gets awkward if you redefine the left ALT key.

They apparently also had a programmable IBM feelalike in the past, but I can’t seem to find pricing on that one either. Programmable macros along with the IBM feel would be true luxury. I’d probably willingly pay $150 for that, as frequently as I re-key certain strings of characters.

It looks like I need to make some friends in Lexington.