Estimating the value of a Marx train

One of the most frequent questions I see or receive directly about Marx trains is what a Marx train is worth, or the value of a Marx train. Of course without seeing the train, it’s nearly impossible to give a good estimate, but there are some general rules that you can follow, either to protect yourself as a buyer, or to keep your expectations realistic as a seller.

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In the city, a $6 antenna is all you need

There are a lot of good plans for DIY antennas on the web that you can make for less than $10 worth of parts, which is good considering the flood of $50 antennas on the market that are little more than hype.

A couple of years ago I made a Gray-Hoverman antenna. I had no complaints about how it worked, but it wasn’t very durable. And in St. Louis it was overkill–it picked up everything tvfool.com said I could get indoors and nothing more. No SIUC PBS station for me. A Gray-Hoverman is probably more useful along the eastern seaboard where the cities and TV stations are closer together.

Rather than fix the Gray-Howerman yet again, or build something else, I bought a basic, traditional-looking RCA ANT111F for $6. Even the simplest DIY antenna, made primarily of a cardboard box with aluminum foil, costs $3-$4 in materials to make and my time is worth more than the difference. If my kids were a bit older, a DIY antenna would be a great science experiment to do with them, but they aren’t.

I did find my reception in the basement, below ground level, was pretty abysmal. The range seemed to be less than five miles, and I could only get about five channels. But on the first floor, with the antenna about seven feet above ground level, my range is 10-12 miles, depending on the strength of the distant signal, and I could get 30 channels. To improve reception in the basement, I connected a longer cable to the antenna (using a cheap keystone jack as a coupler) so I could put it up in the ceiling, closer to ground level. When I did that, I could get 24 channels, though the signal strength wasn’t all that good.

One thing to remember when changing or repositioning an antenna: always scan for new channels afterward.

The stupid juice–it burns

John Dominik has been on a tear lately. Yesterday he wrote twice; the latter piece, The Stupid Juice–it Burns, shows an attitude that’s far too rare these days and frankly is one of the best pieces I’ve read in a very long time, anywhere. He laments people’s tendency to act as if those who disagree with them are subhuman and have no right to exist.

If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest you do.
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Two thoughts on Egypt and Mubarek

Pro-Mubarek protesters: Beating up foreign journalists who are trying to get both sides of the story doesn’t advance your cause at all.

CNN anchors: When you put extremist imams on the air to give their point of view, why not just let them say their peace, then get them off the air, rather than argue with them? I want to know who they think will get power and why they think that. I’m not all that interested in listening to the two of you argue. In fact, it made me change the channel to PBS. You and I agree, and we both disagree with him, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to change his mind.

That is all.

The Gray-Hoverman antenna

I threw together a Gray-Hoverman antenna tonight. It’s literally two pieces of bent copper wire taped to a piece of plywood, connected with a 75 to 300 ohm transformer like this one, stashed behind the entertainment center. I’ll pretty it up at some point.

This $6 transformer is the most expensive part you need to build a quality antenna

I now get 15 channels of over-the-air TV. With my old antenna, I only got 10.

With some tinkering, Antennapoint suggests I should be able to get channels from as many as 9 nearby cities, including, potentially, Springfield IL, and Jefferson City, MO.

I’m definitely hoping to pull in a couple of additional distant PBS stations, since they tend to vary their programming a little bit more. It would be nice to get an additional PBS Kids station, since the local PBS Kids stopped carrying a couple of shows my oldest son liked.

A basic cable TV package only gives you 20 channels, and most of them are stuff you wouldn’t want to watch anyway. And they usually don’t include the extra DTV channels. For instance, the local PBS channel also broadcasts a channel that alternates between home improvement and cooking, a kids channel, and a news channel. All are better than their cable equivalents, and they’re free. A couple of the other stations broadcast syndicated programming on a secondary channel.

I eventually want to build a better one and possibly mount it in the attic or even outdoors. But it’s amazing what 30 minutes with a piece of scrap lumber and $2 worth of wire yielded.

How to become a millionaire in 10 years (safely)

I saw a blog post today called How to become a millionaire in 10 years. The majority of commenters dismissed it outright.

I don’t like that attitude. The plan makes some assumptions that aren’t always true. But having the plan is an important first step. What’s impossible now might not be impossible in a few years, so it makes sense to do what you can now.The plan, in brief, is this: Invest $996 a week, get a 12% return, and in 10 years, you’ve got a million bucks.

Let’s look at the first objection. It is optimistic. Unfortunately, the guy who floats that figure the most frequently is exaggerating. But you can come close by tweaking your strategy a bit. Twelve may be a bit optimistic, but it’s probably close enough. If you’re pessimistic, use a figure of 7% and adjust the rest of your math.

It may be tempting to try to do better. I suggest not. Average returns are all you need. Warren Buffett has said repeatedly that it’s better to spend your energy increasing your earning power rather than trying to outperform the market.

The second objection was that the numbers were just too unreasonable, so how do you become a millionaire in 20 years?

That’s easy. Save less. According to this handy calculator, $1,100 a month for 20 years at 12% more than does the trick.

Or you can save $2,000 a month for 15 years and pass the million mark.

So the math is sound. Let’s tackle that really big objection: How in tarnation do you come up with $996 a week to save? (And no, you don’t have to already be a millionaire in order to do it.)

The key is the same as paying off debt quickly. Don’t try to do it all at once. Take some baby steps. If the best you can do is half that, you still reach the goal in 15 years. Start by saving what you can, then ratchet it up when you can.

I set out to find a large number of common ways that people can save $996 per week (or more). Step one is the big kahuna, which will save most people a cool $24,000 a year right off the bat.

Step one: Pay off your cars and your mortgage. Between a house and two cars in the driveway, it’s safe to say most families are spending $2,000 a month. Some are spending a little more, others a little less. The trick here is the debt snowball. Look at your statements, pick the car you can pay off the soonest, then scrape together whatever extra cash you can and pay that much extra every month until you have that car paid off. Then take what you were paying on that car, and apply all that money to the other car. After that, apply all that money to the house.

Chances are very good that you can pay all of that off in less than seven years. The biggest reason why is because banks generally won’t loan you more money than you would be able to pay off in that timeframe. The reason for the subprime mortgage crisis was because banks started ignoring that rule and giving loans to pretty much anyone.

If you are a middle class family that manages to pay the bills somehow, some way every month, I’m reasonably confident in saying that you can pay off all your debt in seven years, then dump that car and mortgage money into an index fund and be a millionaire in another 20.

What about cars in the meantime? Drive the paid-off cars as long as you can, then replace them with the least expensive vehicles that are practical. Given a choice between driving a Lexus and looking like a millionaire, or driving a Toyota Corolla and being a millionaire, personally, I’d choose the latter.

So this gets you roughly halfway there. Let’s see if we can nickel and dime our way to the other half.

Step two: Live off one salary. If you’re married and your spouse works, try as much as possible to live off one salary and bank the other. This was the strategy my in-laws used to pay off their debts (rather than the debt snowball). If one of you brings home $26,000 a year or more after taxes, that gets you the other half immediately. Congratulations.

If step two is impractical or impossible, or doesn’t quite get you there, here are some smaller steps to get you there.

Step three: Put your raises and windfalls towards savings, rather than lifestyle changes. Someone I know was talking just yesterday about a job opportunity that paid a cool $30,000 more than he makes currently. “Lifestyle change!” he said excitedly.

Personally, I’ve never been able to make that kind of a jump, although I’ve made a couple of much smaller jumps since 2006.

Unfortunately it’s often difficult to get much of a raise from a current employer–the money comes when you change jobs. If you’re able to, say, move to a new employer and get a raise of around 10 percent, that takes care of a few of your 52 weeks. Do that every 2-3 years, and you can work your way towards the goal.

This strategy can take care of about four weeks.

Step four: Bank your tax refund. If you get a tax refund every year, instead of using that money to buy something, put it towards the goal.

In most cases, I would think the tax refund takes care of anywhere from 1-3 weeks.

Brown-bag your lunch. Early in my career, I ate out pretty much every day. My day started with a cup of coffee and a doughnut in the cafeteria ($2), and on a good day, lunch cost another $5. Eventually I realized these habits were costing me almost $1,400 a year. Brown-bagging isn’t free, but I figure brown-bagging every day costs less than $400 a year.

That’s another week, or possibly two.

Cut the cable and phone. My local cable provider charges up to $70 per month for some of its packages. Basic cable costs $40, which is still outrageous. If you can live without cable altogether, you can get anywhere from half a week to 3/4 of a week right there. If not, cut back as much as possible.

So how do you live without cable? My wife and I rent movies from Red Box about once a week. It costs a dollar. Other than that, we watch over the air TV. Sometimes there’s nothing on, but when I visit people who have cable, a lot of times there’s nothing on at their house either. The DTV changeover means there’ll be more local channels–many PBS stations are broadcasting on several frequencies, and DTV stations have a range of about 120 miles, so there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to pick up stations from nearby cities that you couldn’t get before.

So try it. If you can’t live without it, cut back as much as you can.

The same goes for your phone line. Are you paying for Call Notes? Cancel it and get an answering machine. Call waiting? Cancel it unless you can’t live without it, but in this day and age when everyone has cell phones and e-mail, I’ll bet you can. Call forwarding? Cut. If you buy everything Southwestern Bell tries to sell you, you can easily pay $50 or more per month for your phone line. When I ordered phone service, I asked for just a dial tone, and repeated the request every time they tried to upsell me. I pay just a shade over $20 a month for my dialtone. I can receive all the calls I want for free, and make all the local calls I want for free too.

By cutting back on cable and phone, most people should be able to save another $996 a year.

Take a long, hard look at the cell phone. Do you have two cell phones with $99 ulimited talk plans? Do you really need two?

Cricket offers an unlimited talk plan for $35 a month. But you may be able to save even more by cutting down the number of cell phones you have, or just getting pay as you go phones for emergency use and sharing phones as much as possible.

And keep in mind that a landline lets you make all the local calls you want. Ditching the land line and going all cellular may be trendy, but it’s not always economical.

My wife and I have one cell phone with a plan that costs us $30 a month, plus a pay-as-you-go phone that we refill as needed, for $25 a pop. It ends up costing us $10 a month, on average.

I can see how someone could potentially save another week’s worth by getting stingy with the cell phones. Maybe more.

Save on your utilities. Buying a programmable thermostat and setting it to not work as much at night and to minimize heating/cooling during the hours when we’re not home saved us a bundle. To the tune of $100 a month.

Weatherproofing the house helps too. Put film on the windows during the winter, and put weatherstripping on all the doors. I also went into my basement, where the utilities come into the house, and found a number of holes for wires that are much larger than they need to be. I filled those in with putty to keep the elements out.

If you really want to be a stingy Scottish miser, invest a few hundred dollars in a whole-house fan. These fans can replace all the air in your house in a matter of minutes. So in the morning when it’s coolest, you can open some doors and windows, run the fan for a few minutes, then shut off the fan, close the house back up, and give your air conditioner a big head start.

Also, for some reason society says we should keep our houses at 70 degrees in the summer and 80 degrees in the winter. Why? We keep ours at about 75 during the summer and between 70 and 75 in the winter. Once you get used to it, it’s comfortable. The savings aren’t exactly peanuts.

Using fans can help keep the air moving, making those temperatures more tolerable.

Squeezing the utilities ought to take care of another week or two.

Go out less. I know some people who easily spend $100 a week going out on Friday nights. Rent a movie from Redbox, have a couple of drinks at home, and save the difference, which is five weeks’ worth.

Cut the Starbucks habit. Do you start off your day with the stereotypical $5 cup of coffee at Starbucks? That’s $1,050 right there. Bank $996 to cut off another week, and you have $54 left to buy a coffee maker (if you don’t have one) and a year’s worth of reasonably good coffee.

Cut the bottled water habit. If you drink three bottles of water a day, that’s commendable because it’s healthy, but you’ve also fallen for the biggest scam in recent memory. Cut the bottled water, buy a water filter, and bank a thousand bucks.

Cut back on expensive hobbies. I’d rather not think about what I used to spend on my Lionel train habit. I know some people spend five figures a year on theirs. I was never that bad, but at its peak I know I was spending more than $1,000 a year on it. I’ve cut back, and the last two or three years I’ve probably spent a couple hundred.

I think it’s safe to say that most households have at least one or two expensive hobbies that could be cut back and still be enjoyable. Buy less and try enjoying what you have. Or buy used instead of new.

Or perhaps they could (gulp) be eliminated, for the time being at least.

Call this one another week’s worth.

Use the library. I know someone who is a voracious reader, which is admirable. She reads a couple of books a week, easily. That’s admirable, but the problem is she buys all these books at retail. A book collector might perk up and call it an investment, but there’s very little collectible interest in Nicholas Sparks and Nora Roberts. She buys the books, reads them once, and then they sit on the shelf until she gives them to someone.

She probably could save $1,000 a year by using the library instead.

Eat out less. Eating out once a week at $20 a pop easily works out to $1,000 a year. Cut that back, whether it’s by eating somewhere less expensive or just eating out one less time, and you’ve got another week’s worth of $996.

Use public transportation to go to work. The average person commutes about 20 miles a workday. That’s $2,436 a year if you go by the IRS standard mileage rates, which factors in depreciation and maintenance on top of gas. The savings wouldn’t quite get me a full two weeks’ worth due to the cost of a monthly pass, but it would get me close. Call it two weeks.

Buy used and generic when possible. I’ve read that the poor are less likely to buy generic than the wealthy, out of fear of being ripped off. The fear is usually unfounded. Generics usually are made in the same factory right alongside one of their brand name competitors, and the only difference is the label that gets put on in the end.

But let’s talk used. Last week my wife and I bought my son about $80 worth of toys, but we paid $4 for them. They came from a church rummage sale. They were a bit dirty, but we ran them through the dishwasher to clean and sanitize them (they’re plastic). The swing was missing the strap to strap him in, but we replaced it with a belt from a thrift store, which cost another dollar. It fits perfectly.

At the same rummage sale, I bought myself a button-down shirt for a dollar. It looked new. I remember paying $20-$25 in a store for something comparable.

I bought the shoes I’m wearing right now at an estate sale. They didn’t look like they’d ever been worn, and I checked the fit before I bought them. I’ve been wearing them for more than a year now. I paid $3 for them. They would have cost me $50 in a store.

Most people buy a new computer every three or four years. I buy off-lease business computers every three or four years instead. They’re better built so they’re less likely to break (I’ve never had one break on me), and a $100 business PC that’s a few years old will be about as fast as a new computer that costs about $500. So I figure this practice saves me about $400 every three or four years.

I once saw someone in line ahead of me at a department store try to drop a thousand dollars on new clothes. He had several nice shirts, some nice pants, socks, some nice ties. I was pretty impressed with his haul. The problem was he tried to buy them on credit, and was denied. My work clothes mostly come from secondhand sources. They don’t look as nice as what that guy had, but what good does it do to look nice if you can’t pay your bills?

I figure it’s pretty easy to save a thousand or two a year by buying generic and used stuff.

Be careful with the flex-spend account. Back when I was single, I was annoyed because every year HR made us attend a meeting trying to coerce us into signing up for a Flexible Spending Account (also known as a cafeteria plan). These plans made no sense for me whatsoever. Some years my medical expenses were $100. Some years they were $200. Other years they were $20. So if I put $1,000 in, as they tried to convince me to do, I would have been wasting a lot of money. Being in the 14% tax bracket, at best I stood to save $28 if I had a $200 year. But if I put in $200, then I might turn around and have a $20 year and waste $180.

Now I’m married and my wife is diabetic. In this case it’s a no-brainer. We sat down and figured out how often she goes to the doctor, and what she spends on supplies in a given month. Her expenses are predictable, and high enough to make it worth doing. Between her expenses and having a son, I put the maximum in, since babies are always needing various FSA-eligible things, and they go to the doctor on a regularly scheduled basis.

If you’re in the 28% tax bracket and you put $3,000 into an FSA, being able to use pre-tax dollars for those medical expenses saves you about $840 a year. Not quite a week’s worth, but close. You can probably scrape up the other $156.

But if your medical expenses are always really low, you can save a bundle by not putting anything in such a plan. Employers love these plans because people frequently don’t track them very well, and anything left in the kitty at the end of the year goes to the company. It’s a great way to steal from your employees, frankly, and that’s why HR departments push them so hard. If you don’t need one, don’t put the money in, and pay yourself instead.

I think it’s safe to chalk up judicious use (or non-use) of an FSA as another week’s worth.

Be careful with AFLAC. AFLAC is a similar thing. My employer’s HR loves to push AFLAC on us. “I have three kids. I know I’m going to make at least one trip to the ER every year, and that pays for my AFLAC,” the pitch goes.

Think it through. I have a peculiar talent for injuring myself with sharp objects. But I’ve found that my best bet is to go to urgent care when it happens and put it on my FSA. Urgent care always gets to me faster than the overburdened ER, and it costs half as much. I did the math, and AFLAC just didn’t make sense. One trip to the ER didn’t cover a full year’s worth of AFLAC.

Maybe when my son gets older and starts playing sports and stuff, AFLAC will make sense. I’ll revisit it then. But do the math yourself, rather than just taking HR’s pitch. They’re salespeople. Their job isn’t to help you, their job is to make the company money by taking back as much of your salary as possible.

Making the right decision on AFLAC isn’t going to save you a full week’s worth, but it can make up for a shortfall.

Get a side gig. I’ve come up with more than 26 week’s worth of common ways to save $996, but not all of them will necessarily apply to everyone. Having a side gig is a good way to make up the shortfall. I can tell you to mow lawns or fix bicycles or make quilts, but I’d rather let you find something more ideal, since the best thing for you to do probably isn’t the best thing for me. Here’s a series of questions to ask yourself to help you find a side gig.

What do you enjoy?
Is there some service that you can provide at a better value than your potential competitors, whether it’s because you’re cheaper, or because your work is higher quality?
Is there some product that has resale value that you know how to find and then resell some way, after making any necessary repairs?

Basically, you need to find a product or a service that you already know well and enjoy that allows you to add value to it. Don’t quit your job to do it; do it on weekends or evenings with the goal of making a bit. If you can make $50 a week, that works out to $2,500 a year. That’s a reasonable early goal, then build it up from there. Some side gigs grow into full-time jobs but others don’t. Your chances of succeeding are much better if you don’t try to rely on it as a full-time job.

Start small, then let it grow (hopefully) to fill whatever number of $996 shortfalls you have in a year. And as you gain skill and experience, it could potentially grow beyond that, either allowing you to reduce some cutbacks, or achieve the ultimate goal more quickly.

So there you have it. Not everything in this list applies to everybody. But I would say the majority of these things do apply to anyone who can call themselves upper middle class. Such a family can take this list, find 52 things, and join the ranks of the wealthy in a decade or two, if they’re willing to let savings take priority over keeping up appearances.

But I also suspect that pretty much anyone who owns a home and two vehicles can probably take this list and find lots of things they can cut. They might not be able to find a full $996 a week for all 52 weeks of the year. So it will take them longer, but it’s possible. Making some sacrifices now in order to have financial independence later is worth it.

The most important thing is to put everything on the table. The year 2005 was my turning point. I lost my job, and it seemed like everyone who needed IT people couldn’t afford them. Stretching the pennies was necessary for us to stay afloat when I was in between jobs. Eventually I found one. The cutbacks that allowed us to make ends meet while my best source of income was doing odd computer jobs also allowed us to pay off our house early after I regained steady employment.

With the house out of the way, financial independence certainly is my next goal. I’m not sure that this formula is precisely what I want to follow in order to get there. But it’s important not to dismiss such formulas immediately just because they seem difficult or nearly impossible.

The key to success, financial or otherwise, is to take difficult problems and find solutions, rather than dismissing them immediately as impossible. One strategy is to break the problem down. This problem conveniently breaks down into 52 smaller problems. I’ll admit I had to sit and think a very long time to come up with 52 smaller answers.

I just have one more thing to say. Please try. I’m currently reading a financial book written in 1975 that said the average U.S. household headed by someone aged 24-34 had $2,500 in savings. In today’s dollars, that’s a shade over $10,000. Today, the average household has zero savings and around $10,000 in credit card debt, on top of car payments and rent or a mortgage. That has a lot to do with why our economy is such a wreck right now. We can’t buy any more stuff because we’re paying too much in interest.

It’s not too late for one or two generations to rise from these ashes and buy our country back. So let’s do it.

Dateline\’s getting sued

I see that Dateline’s being sued because someone who found himself on the “To Catch a Predator” segment and killed himself. His sister is suing for $105 million.

Good.I don’t normally like lawsuits, but Dateline is the most despicable excuse for journalism in the entire world, and yes, I know that takes some doing. Remember, this is the same television show that decided that GM pickup trucks didn’t explode spectacularly enough in collisions and rigged them with explosives, then presented this dramatization as fact.

What Dateline does in its To Catch a Predator segment isn’t journalism at all. It’s entrapment, pure and simple. And capturing it on film turns it into something more closely resembling so-called “reality TV” than anything else–certainly more than journalism.

The job of a journalist is to report events. What this segment of the show does isn’t to report the events–it creates them. What’s worse is that it puts the people caught on camera on trial in the court of public opinion. Many of the people who end up on the show end up having their cases dismissed in court for lack of evidence.

If the police want to engage in this sort of activity, that’s one thing. When a sensationalistic television show does it, unintended consequences happen.

I have no sympathy for pediphiles. But engaging in entrapment to put them on television as a form of entertainment isn’t the proper or ethical way to deal with them. Plus, it certainly isn’t journalism, and it gives a bad name to those who do try to practice journalism in an ethical and principled manner.

Unfortunately, a $105 million lawsuit isn’t going to do much to change Dateline’s practices. The show stays on the air because it gets reasonably good ratings and is dirt cheap to produce. That’s why they put it on in every time slot where another show fails. Even with the occasional nine-figure lawsuit thrown in, it’s far cheaper to produce than any sitcom.

If you don’t like the direction this country or society is headed, thank shows like this. Sensationalism and celebrity gossip is what passes for news these days, so the things that really matter don’t even get mentioned.

If you want to get your news from television, watch Jim Lehrer on PBS. Liberals think it’s too conservative; conservatives think it’s too liberal. That’s usually an indication that it’s doing something right. Flawed though it may be, at least it is journalism, unlike most of what ends up on television news anymore.

I remember someone asking one of my journalism instructors (Bob Sullivan, now an MSNBC columnist) for an example of balanced journalism. Surprisingly, he didn’t hesitate. “MacNeil/Lehrer,” he said. Then he laughed. “And no one watches.”

Sad.

I can find better journalism than Dateline without switching from NBC, however. It happens every Saturday night. Yes, I’m talking about Weekend Update. And it was better even when Norm McDonald was hosting.

Build better ads with Taguchi

Ever since I first read about the Taguchi method in Robert X. Cringely’s PBS column a year ago, I’ve been fascinated by it.

Since then I’ve seen a few more references to it on the Web, but frankly I think I need an engineer and a statistician to explain the formula to me.Here’s the theory behind Taguchi: Let’s stay I’m trying to design a high-quality chair. I can make lots of decisions when I design it: the type of wood to use, the brand of sealer to use, and what color to paint it. Now any idiot ought to know that white paint versus green paint should make no difference on the durability of the chair. But if it’s less obvious, how do you figure out what variables matter?

Enter Taguchi. Mathematically you can figure out which variable matters, so you can reduce the number of tests. Let’s say I have 12 different types of wood I can buy locally, 12 brands of sealer, and 144 different paints. If I’m remembering high school algebra correctly, that gives me 20,736 different combinations to test. Taguchi will let me quickly figure out that the type of wood I use is the most important factor, letting me build and test 12 chairs instead of 20,000+.

If you’ve noticed that cars are a lot more reliable today than they were 20 years ago, Taguchi has a lot to do with it. The Japanese learned about Taguchi first, which was why Toyota and Honda came from out of nowhere. I remember when people made fun of Hondas. Nobody does that anymore.

Cringley talked over a year ago about applying Taguchi to advertising. Well, I found a free Taguchi ad comparator. That’s a lot better than the $499 product he was talking about a year ago.

I haven’t had time to test it yet, but if I ever decide to try to sell something on Ebay, I’m going to search for old ads for the same thing and run them through it to see if I can figure out why some listings fetch more bids than others (assuming it isn’t an obvious reason, like the item being in poor condition, having a bad photograph, or being listed in the wrong category).

Napster and the decline of copyright–part 2

“Am I remiss in wanting to protect the possibility of recouping my losses from all those years ago?  In the wake of Aimee [Mann]’s deserved recognition, why shouldn’t I be able to at the least make back my money selling a `protected’ product?” Breslau asked. “And then, besides, Aimee, Doug Vargas and Michael Evans (the other former Snakes) could start seeing a couple dollars too?”

Napster hurts big record labels a little. But it hurts little record labels like Ambiguous Records, whose big star’s records are still sitting in Breslau’s basement after 19 years, even more. But what about the musicians themselves?

I asked Breslau about the typical musician’s plight. I’d heard Courtney Love’s assertions that she made less money than I make, but at that point Breslau seemed much more real, possibly more candid and, frankly, more interesting.

“Many musicians are poor and struggle their whole lives to stay above water. Those who have regular gigs either in orchestras, as jingle players, teaching, or as sidemen aren’t making what your insurance broker is,” Breslau said. “A great many folks who are involved with music drift in and out of making a living and eventually their day gig becomes the gig. The few, the proud, the multimillionaires represent a tiny, tiny few.  Probably the same percentage that pro hoop players represent as figured against all those who played junior high ball.”

Breslau mentioned a musician he’s working with. He’s 60 years old and has been playing 150 shows a year for the past 10 years, has a worldwide following and critical acclaim. Yet he’s having difficulty finding an apartment and health insurance he can afford, and the rigors of touring are starting to catch up with him.

I asked Breslau what he thought legitimate uses of Napster might be, if there were any. His response surprised me.

He cited Napster as potentially a distribution method, and certainly a marketing and promotional tool. “For some an unspooling, open ended library like Napster can be an incredible tool, a repository of discovery and a font of fun,” Breslau said. “Those who use it the most are students and those who have work-at-home gigs.”

Napster may replace some of the more traditional methods of introduction to new music, but not for him, at least not completely.

“For someone like me who has a demanding job, family and still wants to take advantage of sunshine, the editorial screen and organization that a music store (chain or boutique) or radio provides is still very useful. It guides me to what I’m interested in and when I’m frustrated in that search and still thirst after who knows what, I now have a new tool to seek my heart’s desire through–that’s to the good.

“I do miss great radio though–WFMU here in New York is a last outpost of dedicated eclecticism,” Breslau said. “When I was growing up in suburban Maryland, WGTB, Georgetown U’s station and the old WHFS – a truly great free-form commercial station in the day–were keys to whole other worlds for me.  The role of the `trusted guide’ is perhaps diminishing and I think that’s not a good thing. Plus the art of the segue is now almost completely relegated to clubs. Great segues can illuminate whole new contexts and resonances betwixt and between different songs and musics that you have to hear to get hip to.”

I asked Breslau if he thought Napster, as some claim, was responsible for the decline in record sales cited by large labels. He didn’t seem to buy it.

“I’d say the lion’s share of the change in market share comes from the explosion of entertainment options,” Breslau said. “It’s inevitable in a world of computers, gaming, cable television and myriad other entertainment outlets that the recorded music industry should see its share of the entertainment pie diminish. Competition has totally diffused viewing habits in visual mediums–there’s no reason music should be any different.”

Breslau’s words brought to mind a quote from an interview with U2’s Bono and The Edge I read in 1994 in Details magazine. At that point, MP3 was very much in its infancy, gigabyte hard drives cost $400 and recordable CD drives cost $1,000, a 28.8 kpbs dialup connection was state of the art, and the Internet wasn’t yet a commercial success. It seemed a different world from today, but like today, record sales were down. And The Edge, U2’s lead guitarist, observed, “More people are buying video games today than records.”

And Breslau disagreed with the common idea that today’s music isn’t as good as the music of earlier, more commercially successful days.

“The broader industry is guilty of saturation marketing for fewer and fewer products while releasing all kinds of stuff they never have any intention of supporting. There is lots of good music out there,” Breslau said. “I think its arguable that today’s scene is actually broader and more vital than 5 years ago, but the predominance of mega-hit mentality with little attention spent on building artist’s careers tends to push the obvious and two-dimensional stuff out there to the fore. The idea of a company supporting an artist who comes to maturity in craft and commerce by their third recording is almost quaint at this point.”

Some examples of bands who needed three or four albums to reach maturity: U2, Rush, and Bruce Springsteen–none of whom any record executive would mind having on a label. Impatience is hurting the industry in the long term at least as much as Napster.

And Breslau said it’s too early to judge Napster’s true impact.

“Young people, particularly those in college, are now pouring some of their musical curiosity/energy into downloading and not to listening to radio or scouring live venues or music stores for new gems,” Breslau said. We’re seeing some of this impact today.

“What will be interesting to see is the long term implications of these new habits,” Breslau continued. “College age is when life long musical appreciation and consumption habits get formed.”

I liked the way Breslau concluded one of our conversations. As one who has been hurt by Napster–how many people download Bark Along With the Young Snakes instead of buying it from him?–he still sees a potential for it to be a good thing overall, so long as the law is respected.

“Napster can be many positive things: a way to give your art to the world, a way to build an audience for your art, a test of commercial viability, a great marketing tool–but all of those are affirmative voluntary acts,” Breslau said. “What troubles me is when the technology becomes compulsory, when an individual’s choice and right is overwhelmed by another individual’s desire without regard to the other’s circumstance, goals or intention. If technology is to be liberating and empowering, its radical implications must be grounded in respect for an individual’s right to privacy and liberty, and, yes, that includes the exercise of property rights.”

Part 1 in a series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

01/16/2001

AMD and DDR. Good news for hardware enthusiasts wanting AMD-based DDR systems. Via shipped its 266 MHz DDR chipset Monday. This is good news because Via can in all likelihood supply their chipsets in larger quantities than AMD can or will. It’ll take a little while for the KT266 to appear in earnest, but this should soon silence the DIY crowd, who’ve been protesting very loudly that they can’t get boards or chips. Virtually all of Gigabyte’s 760 boards are going to Compaq and Micron, which does make sense. Compaq and Micron will order boards and 266 MHz FSB chips in quantities of hundreds of thousands. The shops catering to the DIY crowd won’t. Given a limited supply, the big fish will get first dibs–it’s easier and less expensive to deal with two big customers than with a hundred tiny ones.

Infoworld. I think my Infoworld subscription has finally lapsed. I’ve been trying to let it lapse for months. I’d get a “This is your last issue if you don’t renew NOW!” warning attached to the cover, which would then be followed by six issues or so, before I’d get another warning. I think I’ve been getting these since last June.

Well, today I went to Infoworld’s site, and I remember why I’ve been trying to let my subscription lapse. They’re bleeding pundits. Q&A maestro Mark Pace quit. Then his partner, Brooks Talley, quit. Bob Metcalfe retired. Sean Dugan quit. Now, Stuart McClue and Joel Scambray are quitting, to be replaced by P.J. Connolly. They tried Connolly as a columnist once before. That experiment lasted about a month, probably because he wrote more about the Grateful Dead than he did about the subject at hand. (Which made me self-conscious about mentioning Aimee Mann and the Kansas City Royals too frequently, but I generally don’t mention them on a weekly basis, so I’m probably OK.)

Their best remaining columnists are Brian Livingston, Nicholas Petreley, and Ed Foster. Livingston has a lot of useful tips, while Foster is genuinely entertaining and provides a useful service to readers. Infoworld’s Robert X. Cringely isn’t quite as entertaining or as insightful as PBS’ Robert X. Cringely, but he’s usually worth a quick read. But there are half as many reasons to read the magazine now as there once were.

Amazon. Amazon’s under fire again from a number of directions, including Ed Foster, and I can’t say I’m in love with all of their practices, but I can’t help but notice something. From my limited vantage point, it would seem consumers don’t really seem to care all that much about Amazon’s business practices. I provided links to buy my book elsewhere, but the sales rankings at the other places are pathetic even after doing so. Sales at Borders and B&N are nearly non-existent. Sales at Fatbrain are sporadic at best. But there are a handful of venues where it sells well. The used places sell what copies they can get very quickly. And when Amazon can manage to allow people to order it, it sells very well. If they can’t get a used copy cheap, people would rather buy from Amazon, period. And they’ll even pay a higher price at Amazon than they will elsewhere. A number of people paid full cover price from Amazon off links from this site, even when it was available for less elsewhere. (Amazon seems to be currently selling it for $19.95 or so.)

Some people swear by Apple. I swear at Apple. Apparently Steve Jobs does too . (Not for the easily offended.)

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