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Apple and its controversial pentalobular screws

I see the ‘net is overrun today with complaints about Apple switching to oddball Pentalobular screws (sometimes called “pentagram” screws–is that an accident, or people being snarky?) and the occasional person claiming to know where to get a Pentalobular driver for a few dollars, but few people actually being, you know, helpful.

So here’s where you can get one for $2.35, plus shipping. http://www.sw-box.com/Professional-Screw-Driver-Opening-Tool-For-Iphone-4.html
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Getting domesticated (or at least more handy)

I go back to work tomorrow. I wish I could take at least another day or two off, but something came up and they need me Monday.

I spent some time tackling little projects around the house. Watching This Old House for the last six months or so is paying off.The day we brought my son home, I had a project waiting for me. A wind storm had ripped one of the gutters almost completely off the house. It was hanging by a thread on one end, and the other end had twisted itself around a vent over the kitchen. Nice. The vent probably kept the gutter from completely coming off.

I asked a friend from church to help me with it, because there wasn’t really any way one person could do it all at once–especially when that person is me. While I’m perfectly comfortable straightening metal, drilling pilot holes, and screwing it into place, I’d rather fill out tax forms than climb on the roof. Fortunately, with help we got it done in about 30 minutes.

When the weather finally gets nicer, I’ll drive some screws into the other gutters. For now they’re hanging on OK, but I doubt they’ll last another year without some intervention.

I also fixed a leak in the bathroom sink. I fixed it a few months ago with a bunch of PVC pipe repair kits, but the local Sears Hardware didn’t carry exactly the combination of parts I needed to reach from one end to the other. I ended up needing to mate two threaded pipes in the middle. My temporary fix was to put a smaller piece of pipe inside the two. Most of the time it worked, but sometimes it leaked.

I managed to find a threaded connector at Home Depot that fit, but it was galvanized steel and weighed way too much. There was no way these PVC pipes would support that weight. I settled for a female adapter. It screws into the threaded pipe on the bottom, and I rely on a press fit to for the top. I could secure it with some PVC glue, but first I’ll see if friction and gravity do their jobs. PVC glue isn’t something I want around the house with a little one roaming around.

Finally, I have some loose kitchen tiles. I found the original adhesive in the garage this morning. When I pulled one of the tiles, I could see why the adhesive failed: It’s the wrong kind of adhesive for the subfloor I have. So I picked up a combination adhesive/grout and we’ll see how it does. I’m not sure if one substance can do two jobs well, but theoretically I only need a little, and I’d rather buy a little of one thing than a little of two things. And I don’t see how it could be any worse than the original stuff.

I ended up paying about $10 for a quart of the adhesive/grout, $3 for a trowel, and another $3 for the tool for applying the grout. That’s not too bad. I should need a chisel, but with the original grout crumbling, I think I can get by without it. Good thing, because I couldn’t find one at Home Depot.

I’ve never laid tile before, but I’ve seen it done several times now on This Old House, so at least I know what the proper technique looks like. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but neither did whoever put this stuff down.

Once I get this project out of the way, the house will be a little bit nicer and a little bit safer. And I’ll have a little more experience.

Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

In 2004, after being back in the hobby a few months, I decided I didn’t want a train layout like the ones I saw in the magazines, which all take a hi-rail approach. The layouts looked nice, but they all had the same buildings and figures on them. I wanted to do something different. That got me looking for tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout. And it started a quest that continues to this day.

Don’t get me wrong. Today I have more than enough tin buildings to populate an 8×8 layout. Had I known what I was looking for from the start, it would have taken a lot less time. I might as well share my experience.

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Selling my soul to Google

I’ve enabled Google ads on my site for all visitors. Previously, for the past three months or so, I had been displaying ads only when the site referrer was something outside of this site.

If you object to online advertising, you can easily log in to the site, go to your preferences, scroll to the bottom, and check all the boxes you want, leaving the Google Ads block unchecked. So long as you don’t sign out before your next visit, the site will hold that preference the same way it holds your theme of choice. You can turn off other blocks as well, to make the page load faster or whatever.I don’t object to advertising as long as it’s somewhat relevant. I used to buy Computer Shopper magazine primarily for the ads, back in the days when it was the size of a Sears catalog. Seems hard to believe, looking at it now, but in the days before the ‘net, it was the way people in the know bought their gear.

I do believe that the ad and editorial departments should be completely separate. I deliberately choose not to subscribe to one particular hobby publication specifically because its editorial content seems to cater too much to its advertisers.

Outsourcing the advertising to a third party like Google is a good way to do that. I have no way of controlling what ads Google places and where. So I write what I would normally write, and Google tries to come up with some ads that are relevant. I carry on just as I normally would, and if all goes well, I make a little money.

The second-cheapest way to get household necessities

The topic at lunch at work turned to saving money around the house earlier this week, largely because one of my coworkers suddenly found himself with full responsibility for his two pre-teen nieces. The coworkers who are parents started talking about the best places to get good used clothes, the best places to get food cheap, and other stuff. Not being a parent, I just listened. I’m not at that stage in life.

I’m in a different stage of life, still a relatively new homeowner. Yesterday I paid a grand total of $5 for an ironing board and a stepladder, two things I’ve been surviving without. I’m about ready to quit going to the hardware store and to Kmart.The secret is estate sales.

Estate sales are usually crowded affairs, as people swoop in from all corners of the globe to cram themselves into tiny houses in search of things that are rare, things that are cheap, or best yet, rare and cheap.

I see two types at estate sales. The first is the well-to-do, who are there in hopes of securing antiques and collectibles for pennies on the dollar. The other is recent immigrants, who are generally there in search of inexpensive household necessities. They already know the secret.

The best time to go to estate sales is either really early or really late. If you get there early–it seems like people show up an hour early sometimes–you’ll get the best selection but you’ll pay top dollar. In some cases I’ve seen things priced at literally 10 times what they’re worth. In less extreme cases, I’ve seen tools priced the same as a new one at Sears.

Then again, yesterday I bought a pair of small pruning shears for 50 cents and a sharpening file for a quarter.

If you get there on the last day, reality has kicked in, the sucker prices have generally gone away, and dickering becomes the rule of the day. Prices drop by a factor of two or three, and the later it gets, the more willing they are to listen to prices.

If you’re shopping for household necessities, this is a good thing. The antique furniture dealers have no interest in ironing boards and laundry baskets and trash cans. Recent immigrants do, but chances are they already have those things. Stuff like this is often priced low to begin with, and it gets cheaper as time marches on because the chances of someone buying it are pretty low.

You can get household appliances cheap too. I saw a 20-inch Zenith TV marked at $50 yesterday. I know it works because they had it turned on. I’ll bet someone will get it for $20 today. I saw a washer and a dryer priced around $200 each yesterday. The washer was less than two years old. The dryer was a bit older but it was a Maytag. Those prices were decent, and could go way down if they sat long enough. If you’re willing to live without a warranty, you can save yourself a bundle. Two years ago I paid $900 for a washer and a fridge. A friend gave me a dryer. It looks like it could be 25 years old but it works and I was happy to save $250.

But yesterday I wasn’t looking for appliances. I wasn’t necessarily looking for household necessities either, but I’ve been needing a stepladder and a full-size ironing board. So when I spotted one marked at $4.50 and $6, respectively, I wasn’t going to pass them up. It was around noon, and it was a Friday-Saturday sale. They’d be closing up shop in an hour or two. Anything under $20 was automatically half price. I dragged the ironing board and the stepladder up to the checkout. “Five dollars is fine,” she said.

And it was fine with me too. I still remember the day when I went out to either Wal-Mart or Kmart (I try not to shop at Wal-Mart anymore but I did then), days before I moved out of my mom’s house for good, to buy household necessities. After spending more than $200 on things like trash cans and laundry baskets, there was still a lot of stuff I lacked.

If I’d known then what I know now, I probably could have gone to three sales, spent a grand total of 50 bucks, and ended up lacking a lot less.

Shopping an estate sale for trains

My girlfriend loves shopping at yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and basically everywhere people look for bargains.

I’m not into that all that much. I’m a guy. So I just asked her to keep an eye out for tools for me if she happened to be garage sale-ing.

This week she found an estate sale with tools and trains. It started at 7:30 this morning. So I dragged myself out of bed to go.The description said "electric trains." Usually when people say electric trains, they mean old American Flyer, Lionel or Marx, because that was what those companies used to put on their boxes. "Model trains" usually means HO or N scale. Nothing against those, but they’re not my thing. And besides, you can buy those anywhere.

When I got there, it was right at 7:30. It looked like they’d started early because there were lots of people there. I noticed a lot of people glancing at the trains but not staying long. I took a look. The glossy brightly-colored enameled bodies instantly told me it was pre-war stuff. I looked at the prices. $85 for a refrigerated car. $28 for a gondola. $24 for a caboose. These guys had gone to the library and looked up the values of the cars. I know because the guy told me so.

"Are these prices about right? I went to the library and looked them up."

I explained to him that the Greenberg price guides tend to be skewed in favor of the east coast. Prices are higher there, partly because the cost of living is higher out there than in the midwest, and partly because there’s a bigger following over there. Lionel and Marx were both New York companies. Gilbert was a New Haven company. Flyer was a Chicago company before selling out to Gilbert, but that was prior to 1938. There’s more appeal to the stuff on the east coast because you find people whose grandfather or great uncle worked for one of those companies, or some other connection.

What I didn’t tell him (but should have) was that those prices are for mint condition. And while his items were in nice shape, they were anything but mint. Most of them would grade to excellent, or very good. Stepping down a grade knocks anywhere from 10%-50% off the price of the item.

The cars also weren’t 100% original. At some point the couplers on the cars had been replaced with Lionel post-war couplers. That’s an upgrade, which is probably why the original owner had done it, and whoever did the upgrade did a good job, but from a collector’s point of view, it lowers the value. It’s an advantage to people who run the trains, but someone like me isn’t going to pay extra for it.

The prewar freight set that was priced at $137 total at this sale probably would have been priced closer to $75 at Marty’s Model Railroads, frankly. Marty probably would have given him $40 total.

He also had two passenger sets. They would have graded out to Good, possibly only Fair. They, too, were priced at mint.

There was a nice prewar engine. I forget the number. It was priced at $250 for the engine and tender. That’s a fair price if it’s a whistling tender, if the engine is in perfect working order, and the paint is good. The paint was really good on the engine. But it probably at least needed a lube job. With no way to test the engine, there was no way I was going to pay $250 for it.

I spied a couple of postwar Marx diesels, priced at $50. It was an A-B pair, with the B unit being a dummy. A quick examination revealed the front had been cracked and re-glued. Diesels tend to go for more than steam engines the same age, but in that condition, and untested, a Marx should only go for $20.

I also spied a couple of pairs of Marx metal switches. They were the electric variety. I’m told metal Marx switches were prewar. I don’t know about that, since all of the metal ones I’ve ever seen were in a lot with postwar equipment. Maybe they were put together after the war with old parts. Marx was known for that. At any rate, the Marx metal switches are highly desirable. The later plastic switches sit higher than your track, so you have to shim your track for the locomotives to run right. These don’t. Also, the design allows Marx and American Flyer engines with thicker wheels than Lionels to pass through them. So a metal Marx switch lets you run any train you want. And unlike the Lionels of the same vintage, they run off a fixed 18 volts, not from the track, so they tend to work more reliably.

The only Lionel switch that compares is the Lionel 1121, which Lionel didn’t make for very long. It’s easier to make the 1121 self-tending, but in all other regards the Marx is better.

The switches were priced at $10 per pair, including the original boxes, control panels and wires (but the wires need to be replaced). That’s not a fabulous price, but it’s fair. I paid $10 per pair for some plastic Marx manual switches at Marty’s back in December. Marx switches tend to sell for $10 per pair on eBay, but then you have to deal with shipping.

So I bought the two pair of switches, and nothing else.

Later, my girlfriend told me they wouldn’t take her check. So I guess it’s a good thing I only got the switches. I wouldn’t have been able to get any more even if I’d wanted to, because I only had $24 in cash on me.

It was a mild disappointment. I took a quick look at the tools and saw the same thing. Prices were very close to what I would pay at Sears. Only at Sears, I’d get a warranty on it, and if I bought $100 worth of stuff, I’d get a $5 off coupon on my next purchase.

It was a mild disappointment. She was disappointed too. I’m going to assume it wasn’t typical. She told me it wasn’t a very good estate sale.

I think I’ll go back tomorrow afternoon, towards the end, and see if the trains are still there. Maybe then he’ll be looking to deal. Marty can charge the prices he does because he’s willing and able to sit on inventory for months or years. Individuals usually can’t or won’t do that. But he was charging more than Marty would.

If not, there’ll be more next week, or if not, the week after. ‘Tis the season, and very early in the season, at that.

Good things come to those who drag their feet

A month ago, I was looking to buy a fridge and a washer and a dryer. My family came in to help me.
Mostly I got frustrated. I went into Sears and liked their prices, and the salesperson offered six months’ free financing. But you never buy the first place you look. We went to a Maytag dealer. The salesperson was extremely nice and helpful and offered me a year of free financing, but the prices were high. I had checked Best Buy a few days before. Pricing was comparable to Sears, and they offered their standard six-month free financing, but I could save a little at Sears by buying Kenmore, which was being made by Whirlpool last month.

I decided that for the price difference, I could go to Sears and pay off the appliances in half the time. So we went back. The salesperson who had helped me was gone. I told another salesperson I’d need financing. He offered me rates that were comparable to a typical exploitative rent-to-own joint. “It’s just 1.9 percent a month,” he said.

A 22.8 percent APR? In this day and age? With my credit rating? You’ve got to be kidding me. I might as well just put it on the Discover card I already have and avoid having yet another credit check done. Or watch the mail for a card with a really low introductory rate, for that matter. I told the guy that earlier in the day I could have gotten free financing. He said that must have been a mistake. I told him I wasn’t interested and left him with a half-filled-out ticket.

By then I wasn’t in the mood to go spend four figures on a bunch of stuff and have to deal with delivery arrangements. So I went home and took a nap. I closed on the house. I started moving. The appliances task sat. And sat.

A week ago, I mentioned to some friends that I still needed to go buy my big appliances.

“Gas or electric dryer?” one of my friends asked.

“Gas,” I said.

“You want one?” she asked.

“You’re trying to get rid of one?” I asked.

“It came with my house. It’s not very old but I had a set that was less than a year old, so I wanted mine. So it’s just sitting in my basement. Yours,” she said.

Nice. That saved me at least 300 bucks. Good things come to those who drag their feet.

So last night I went into Best Bait-n-Switch to try my luck. I couldn’t remember if the dryer she was giving me was a Whirlpool or a Frigidaire. A lot of people want a matching set, but I don’t care much about that. Look at my stereo: My receiver is a JVC and my CD changer is a Sony. And nobody’s going to look at my washer and dryer.

The salesman said he saw fewer returns on Whirlpools and that Whirlpool customer service was easier to deal with. Pricing was comparable. Unfortunately, you never know with this place whether he was being sincere or whether Whirlpool was running some kind of incentive to move inventory. I remember in my retail days it seemed like there was a promotion with some vendor or another every month. I still remember my manager sitting us down at a meeting one day. “IBMs are the best. I don’t know why,” she said. “Make up something. They’re running a promotion this month.”

I’d spotted a $379 Frigidaire washer on the Web. Whirlpool didn’t have a direct equivalent, but there was a $399 Whirlpool that had better features. And then there was a $459 Maytag, discounted to $429, that had more features still. And it was a Maytag. Maybe I should have stuck to my guns and bought the Frigidaire. But I bought the Maytag.

Then I went and looked at refrigerators. He started me out in the $699 aisle. But the fridge in my first apartment was a bottom-end model that didn’t even work right. The fridge in my current apartment is a bottom-end GE that does work. I could buy the same thing for 350 bucks and be content with it, if not happy. Mom’s been trying to talk me into an icemaker. So I told the guy I wanted a fridge that had an icemaker, or could have one added.

There was a $399 Frigidaire that fit the bill. Very basic. But it was everything I needed, really. I glanced over at the fridges next to it. There was a $499 model that had nicer shelves, a third drawer, and all the drawers were clear. I liked it better. I’ll like having clear drawers. I have this nasty habit of buying produce, putting it in a drawer, and then forgetting I bought it. A couple of months later, I remember. So clear drawers will save me some big money over the life of the fridge.

There was a $459 model that had a third drawer but didn’t have the nice shelves. And then there was a $429 model. It had the nice shelves and clear drawers (three of them) and everything else I wanted. I couldn’t understand why it was priced lower. The salesman didn’t know why it was priced lower. I bought it.

I skipped the extended warranties. Ask the salespeople about the warranty terms sometime and then ask the customer service people. You’ll get different stories from them. I learned that the hard way about 10 years ago. A lot of it is discretionary. Why should you pay $100 per appliance to get to go to different stores and talk to different people until you get what you want? It’s better to pay a little extra to get equipment that’s less likely to need service in the first place, which is what I did in the case of the washer. Losing a fridge is a bigger deal, but I also know it isn’t all that common.

Then I asked about financing. He said 12 months, interest-free. Nice. I’ll take it. I filled out the application, got everything in order, and then I got the bait-and-switch, in the form of the magical words “unadvertised special.” How about 18 months of interest-free financing?


Good things come to those who drag their feet.

Don’t bury publishing yet

Ray Ozzie is one of my heroes. He has a rare mix of good programming ability, creativity, and a keen sense of observation. Like it or hate it, Lotus Notes changed the world, and Notes was Ozzie’s baby. Time will tell what impact Groove will have on the computing landscape (I don’t understand what it is yet) but in 1992, who outside of Lotus understood what Notes did either?
But no one uses Notes anymore, you say? Think again. Consider Exchange: It’s just watered-down Notes with a prettier user interface. Strip out a bunch of the power and put it in a sexier dress. Oh yeah. And take away the reliability. That’s all. Microsoft wouldn’t have come up with Exchange without Notes.

Anyway, when Ray Ozzie makes a bold statement, I’m inclined to listen. But on Wednesday, Ray Ozzie declared traditional publishing dead. I disagree. Dying, sure. But paper has 10 years left in it, if not 20. Or a hundred.

You see, radio was supposed to kill off newspapers. It’s much cheaper and much timelier, you know. And it takes a lot less effort. The problem was it wasn’t portable–a radio weighed as much as you did. Well, guess what? Today, radio’s portable (and a cheap portable radio costs less than the Sunday paper) and it still has all of its advantages. But it didn’t kill off paper.

Television was supposed to kill off radio and paper because it had all the advantages of radio, along with moving pictures. It didn’t. Radio’s still here.

In journalism school eight years ago, I watched a video that predicted people’s major news source would be the Internet by the early aughts. I think a majority of my classmates who watched that in 1994 thought it was possible. We watched it again in 1995, in another class. Most people laughed at it.

New media does not kill old media. New media forces old media to adapt. Newspapers increased the depth of their reporting. There’s still news radio today, but the majority of radio stations are dedicated to music, talk, and sports (or talk about sports). Traditional media outlets didn’t know what to do with the Internet. Bloggers did. Blogging will not replace the other media. It will complement it. It will criticize it. It will force it to adapt. Kill it? Certainly not quickly.

I remember sitting in Journalism 200 class at age 19, listening to Don Ranly, a grizzled professor who’s taught virtually every student who’s been through the University of Missouri School of Journalism for the past 30 years. He bellowed a lot of things that semester, including some things targetted at me. But one thing he said that I’ll never forget was this: Freedom of the press is for those who own one!

A press costs millions of dollars. So while freedom of speech is for everyone, freedom of the press is for the elite. At best, in 1994, freedom of the press meant I could read anything I wanted. I certainly couldn’t print anything I wanted.

But my Internet connection costs about the same as my monthly phone bill. This computer cost me $194. Within the limits of my Internet connection, I can print anything I want, whenever I want. I can’t stream video, but I could if I went to colocation. I have true freedom of the press, and anyone who lives in a major metro area can have the same freedom I have.

I also note the majority of blogs don’t do much original reporting. They link and they comment, like I’m doing now. Sometimes the links are on other blogs. Often they are on a Web site originating with a major old media outlet. Or they’re a link to a link to a link that leads to old media. But don’t get me wrong. What the bloggers say sometimes can make or break a traditional media outlet.

Yes, we live in a revolutionary time. Ray Ozzie is dead right about that. We’ll bring about some death. TV and radio didn’t kill all newspapers. But they helped kill a lot of newspapers. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat and Kansas City Times aren’t around anymore. Realistically, a town has to be the size of Chicago if it’s going to support two newspapers. The once-mighty Computer Shopper, which used to be the size of the Sears catalog every month, is down to less than 200 pages, the victim of the Internet.

But we’ll bring about a lot more change than death. And let’s not be too arrogant here. For all we know, blogging might be the next really big thing. But it’s just as likely that it’s only a passing fad.