Don’t like paying for software? There’s an answer but old software isn’t it.

Corporations are in business to make money. That’s the premise of the classic business book The Goal, and the point of The Goal is that a lot of companies forget that.

That also means they’re not exactly happy to spend money unless there’s an obvious reason why spending that money is going to help them make more money. So that’s why you see 30-year-old minicomputers in data centers. That old system is still making the company money and with no clear financial benefit to replacing it, most businesses are perfectly happy to run the machine until the minute before it will no longer power up anymore.

That’s what makes quitting Windows XP so difficult for businesses. At this point, Windows XP and that 30-year-old minicomputer are both about as sexy as a Plymouth Volare station wagon. But they get the job done, and they’re much better than what they replaced, so the business leaders are content to just keep right on using what’s already paid for. Read more

Welcome, Tony’s Kansas City readers

Thanks to Tony’s Kansas City for the link this morning. Tony noted that “Security dude reminds us that Google Fiber could kill the software industry.”

That’s an interesting spin. I do think it will affect the software industry–but so long as Kansas City stays at the forefront and the rest of the country is content with being a technological backwater, the effect will be minimal. But “kill” is an awfully strong word, even if every major city in the country were to get affordable Gigabit Internet in the very near future.

I say that because of what I saw in college. Read more

Don’t try to do it all at once

I’ve been writing a lot about personal finance lately. I make no apologies for that; it’s what’s on my mind. Something that happened this weekend reminded me of why it’s hard to get on the personal finance treadmill to begin with.

The numbers are big. They’re intimidating. You can’t possibly fix it all right now.

So don’t try to fix it all right now.I had an unplanned incident this weekend. It was unplanned, avoidable, and expensive. Some people will spend $400 at the drop of a hat without flinching, but my wife and I aren’t among them. I wouldn’t let myself get upset over it, but truth be told, I thought about it a lot over the weekend.

Mainly I tried to formulate a plan to make the money back quickly. And making $400 is certainly doable, but most people don’t come up with a way to make an extra $400 in just a day.

And that’s when it hit me. Don’t try to do it all in a day.

It’s like in baseball, when a team is losing by 8 runs the way the Indians were against the Red Sox for most of last night. Usually when a team is down by 8 runs, they’re going to lose because everyone’s going to go up there and try to hit an 8-run home run. But it’s physically impossible to hit an 8-run home run.

The way you win a game when you’re losing by 8 is by getting on base any way you can, and then getting around and scoring any way you can. If enough people manage to do that, they can chip away at the lead and soon it’s a close game again.

And that’s the way I have to approach this unexpected expense. Look for the opportunity I normally wouldn’t bother with. Take snacks to work so I stay away from the vending machine for a while. Chip away at it, whether it’s a dollar at a time or ten.

That trick works with big debts too. I once used a mortgage calculator to figure out the smallest amount of extra money you could put toward your mortgage and still see a benefit. On my mortgage, the amount turned out to be $10. Just paying $10 extra per month every month would pay the house off a full month early. Ten lousy bucks. Up that to a hundred and you can start talking about years.

So that’s the key. Nickel and dime your way out of debt, and then you can be on your way to nickel and diming yourself into prosperity.

Garage sale adventures: The treadmill

Earlier this year my wife asked me to look for a treadmill. So I started keeping an eye out. A month or two ago I spotted one at an estate sale, but everything was wrong about that deal.

Today, I pulled the trigger.Unlike the last one, this one wasn’t a hulking beast of a machine, and it looked like it would come apart fairly willingly. At $45, the price was in the neighborhood of what we were willing to pay, and the owner was willing to let us test it out. I called my wife to ask her to come look at it.

She liked it. Then she tried it out and still liked it. I whipped out a couple of twenties and a five, and the previous owner’s husband and I set about disassembling it enough to fit in the back seat of a Honda Civic.

They had mentioned to another patron a willingness to come down to $35. I didn’t try to talk them down. Why? I knew I’d need his help getting it apart and getting it into the Civic. If I nickel and dimed them, he probably wouldn’t be nearly as willing to help me out.

It wasn’t a good fit. After some manhandling, we raised up the machine, rolled down the window, put a towel over the window, and I drove home with about three inches of treadmill sticking out the rear window.

I reassembled it right after lunch. I wanted to get it back together while the memory of disassembling it was still fresh, since some parts of it weren’t quite obvious, at least not to me.

Once I had it all together I cleaned it up. Sometimes a little dish detergent and an old rag is all it takes, but this one had some black marks that required Purple Power. The Purple Power did a nice job for me for the most part.

But there were a few black marks (probably from shoes) that the Purple Power didn’t do so well on. For those, I pulled out another trick. I rubbed metal polish on them. The polish actually removes a bit of the surface of the plastic, so it can affect the texture or sheen, but the slight difference in texture or sheen will almost definitely look better than the black marks would. I’ve used this trick numerous times to restore old plastic train cars, computer cases, and video game cases.

There are some scratches on the painted surface that would require some touch-up paint if I wanted it to look new, but at least I got it clean. A sunny day, a willingness to either take it apart or drag it outside, and a can of Krylon primer and gloss white paint is all it would take to get the metal parts looking new again. It might be a while before we get that sunny day.

Now we have a machine that should last several years and that I know how to take apart if and when the motor dies. If that happens, a new set of brushes should be all it will take to get it going again. It may be time consuming but the parts will cost less than $5. A new one would probably cost $200 or $250, so I think we got a pretty good deal. And while it doesn’t look completely new, I think it certainly looks presentable now.

How I saved $380 on a cellphone plan

I read earlier this year how some families are spending more than $1,000 a month on cellular phone bills. To me, it’s absolutely ridiculous to pay more than some people pay for their mortgage for communication. When I was growing up, a second phone line ($25 or so per month) was a luxury most families didn’t indulge in.

To me, the cel is primarily for emergencies. I have a pretty liberal definition of emergency–if I’m on my way home from work and my wife wants me to stop at the grocery store to pick up a couple of things, I think that’s reasonable. What I don’t think is reasonable is the expectation that I’ll spend all the time I spend in my car yakking on the phone. If it’s going to take more than a couple of minutes, we’ll talk on my landline when I get home.

Here’s how to have a phone for emergencies for less than $9 per month.The first thing is to get your hands on a phone. You may very well be able to avoid buying one in the store or signing a contract you don’t want to sign in order to get a free one. My mother in law gave us her old phone after she upgraded to a newer, snazzier one. That saved us around $20.

Chances are you may have to buy a prepaid phone outright. Some of them cost as little as $30, which isn’t bad, considering you could easily spend $30 trying to hunt down a new battery and charger for a used phone.

And I just let the cat out of the bag. The key is to buy a prepaid plan, rather than getting on the monthly contract treadmill.

If you buy a prepaid phone, all you have to do is activate it. If you get a secondhand phone, you need a new SIM card. In our case, they charged $10 for the new card. This is why I’m not too keen on spending money on a used phone because by the time you buy a SIM card, a new battery, and a charger you can easily spend more getting a used phone going than you’d spend on a new one. If you luck into a good, working phone for free like we did, great. If not, spend the 30 bucks.

The salesperson will undoubtedly try to upsell you to a monthly plan. In our case, she didn’t even try to upsell us to the cheapest monthly plan–she tried to sell us the $40/month plan, not the $30/month plan. Don’t let the salesperson get very far into the pitch. I told her we expected to use the phone once or twice a week and not for much more than 15 minutes a day.

It’s hard to upsell you to a 500-minute plan when you say something like that.

And this is the key to saving money on all purchases. Do your homework, and go in knowing what it is you want from the start. The salesperson’s job is to get you to buy a phone that does more things than most people do with their computers. Since most of us carry a phone so we can either be reached in an emergency or reach someone else in an emergency, we don’t need a computer. Keep the goal in mind and refuse to pay extra for functionality you aren’t going to use.

After she swapped the card in the phone, we just had to buy minutes. We buy minutes in $25 increments, and we get 90 days to use them. In our case, it costs a dollar a day to use the phone (you’re only charged on the days you use it), and 10 cents per minute. The other plan charges a flat 25 cents a minute. Depending on how we end up using the phone, the 25-cent plan might be better. We’ll find out. The nice thing is that since we have no monthly contract, we can walk away just as soon as we’ve used up the minutes and switch to something else.

And after the first day of use, I can say it’s not bad. At the end of every call, I get a text message telling me how much is left on my balance. That makes budgeting the minutes very easy. I’ve never seen a monthly plan do that.

I think we can get what we need with the prepaid plan. We have a land line, which we use for normal, everyday calls. That costs $24 a month if you eliminate all of the extras. You don’t need call waiting if you have a cellular phone–people can call you on that and leave a message if your line is busy. You don’t need call notes if you have an answering machine. Those cost $10 and you only have to pay for them once. Call forwarding is useless. Caller ID is useful for screening your calls, but you can screen your calls with your answering machine too, and that doesn’t cost anything.

If you’re subscribing to those things on your land line, I suggest you take a long, hard look at those features and see if you’re getting any real benefit from them.

Some people suggest getting rid of the landline altogether, but I’m not so keen on that. For $24 a month, I can make all the local calls I want for free, with no restrictions on use. And people can call me all they want for free. Plus, having the phone line lets me get DSL for $20 a month. The long distance stinks, but we don’t make a lot of long-distance calls.

I’m almost certain I would quickly end up spending more than $24 per month to make up for not having the landline.

I’ll have a better idea in 90 days if this is going to work, but for now it looks like I’ll be able to meet my cellular needs for a Scrooge-like $8.34 a month.

Take some steps to improve your health today

So Michael Moore has a new movie out, this time taking on the touchy topic of health care. I was a very outspoken opponent of Hillary Clinton’s plan 15 years ago. I’m extremely disappointed that the alternative plans crafted by the Republicans dropped as soon as the Clinton plan died.

I won’t argue that the U.S. health care system is terrible now. I will argue that some of the fault belongs to the person in our mirrors though. (And I don’t want to be rude, but Michael Moore needs to take some personal responsibility too.)The best editorial I ever saw about the Clinton plan was written by Andy Rooney. What he said then is even more true today: We drag our lard butts to the doctor because we won’t eat right, and we complain when the doctors can’t cure our problems which are to at least a certain degree, self-inflicted. Then he twisted the knife a bit, pointing out that Clinton was fond of going to McDonald’s with camera crews in tow. He said something like, “Health care is in trouble. Now excuse me while I go have a triple-cheesy-greasy with double fries. Do as I day, not as I do.”

Now to be entirely fair, society encourages us to eat out a lot. It tells us that’s how to be good parents, it’s a good way to take a load off and relieve stress, and who knows how many messages–most of which aren’t true. Remember, the originator of the message is selling something. Always always remember that.

I remember John C. Dvorak once remarking on his blog, “Someone wants us fat.” Give the little man a big cigar! The food industry wants us fat because we’ll eat more. The drug industry wants us fat because we’ll take more drugs. And once both of them get us up on that treadmill, they stand to make billions. If not trillions.

I still believe, with everything I have, that the American diet (if it can be called that) is largely to blame. We eat a lot of empty food that does our bodies no good, but does plenty of harm. Dad was saying 30 years ago that biscuits and gravy cause cancer. Today, guess what? They’re saying that sausages and gravies and highly cooked fats cause cancer. Sausage gravy does all the wrong things about as well as anything, but hot dogs are another good example.

Fast-food hamburgers may not necessarily cause cancer, but they sure do a dandy job of giving you a heart attack.

Vegetarians say they have the answer, but I’m not entirely convinced vegetarianism is absolutely necessary, nor is it a panacea. I see plenty of vegetarian cookbooks that do nothing but douse the vegetables in butter and cheese. Eat like that, and you won’t be any thinner or healthier than anyone else.

I do believe the main reason healthy vegetarians are healthy is because they pay attention. They look at the ingredients to make sure there’s no meat in there, and if there’s anything in the ingredients that they can’t pronounce, they probably end up putting it back since they can’t prove it didn’t come from an animal. And as a result, they tend to end up eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, breads that don’t have a lot of ingredients in them, and other things that provide a lot of nutrition in their calories.

I’m also convinced this is why most fad diets work initially. If you hopped on the Atkins bandwagon in the early 1990s before it became hugely popular (it had actually been around since the early 1970s), it was entirely possible to lose weight, because you would be limited largely to unprocessed meats and vegetables. But I noticed around 2000 or 2001 that a lot of people were on Atkins and weren’t losing any weight at all on it. Atkins was still saying the same things, but it wasn’t working anymore. The difference? Everyone and his uncle was peddling Atkins-friendly junk foods. Instead of being limited to meats and vegetables you cooked yourself, you could microwave processed Atkins-friendly TV dinners and gorge yourself afterward on Atkins-friendly cookies and ice cream.

People stopped losing weight, their cholesterol soared, and lots of companies made lots of money. Then the gravy train ended, but that’s OK because there’s always another one.

This is a boom for drug companies too. When your cholesterol goes sky-high, the commercials say there’s no need to change your diet. You can just pop an anti-cholesterol pill. What they don’t tell you is that the pill not only lowers your cholesterol, it also wipes out your B vitamins. So now your cholesterol is lowered, but you’re depressed and have carpal tunnel syndrome (just two things a deficiency in B vitamins can cause). So now you need another pill. Funny, the same company that makes the most popular drug for cholesterol also makes one of the most popular drugs for depression.

And that popular drug has some side effects such as abdominal pain and/or headache, sexual disfunction, and other things. But there are pills for that too.

Is it any wonder we never really get better? We take a pill for one thing, and the pill fixes that, but then we get something else. The domino effect starts, and it’s possible to go from being on no drugs to being on five in a matter of months.

About a year ago, my wife was out talking to someone. She mentioned she was diabetic. The elderly gentleman she was conversing with said he was too. They talked some more, and it turned out he became diabetic as a teenager, just as she had. He seemed like he’d lived a long and healthy life to her, so she asked if he had any secrets to share. He did. “Stay away from junk food, and you’ll be fine.”

Good advice. Simple advice. Unfortunately it’s difficult to follow, seeing as every other commercial between the hours of 4 and 8 is for junk food. Most of the rest are for drugs, with the occasional car commercial thrown in.

Here are some starting points my wife and I have picked up from the books of Dr. Mark Hyman.

1. Avoid processed food. Buy your groceries from the outer ring of the grocery store, staying out of the aisles.

2. Avoid high-fructose corn syrup. This ultra-common sweetener is very cheap, but your body doesn’t know what to do with it. Eat lots of sugar and eventually you feel full, but if you eat the same amount of high fructose corn syrup, you’ll only crave more. Is it any wonder food companies love this stuff? It costs half as much, and you eat twice as much. What’s that mean? Profit!

And guess what? Just about anything that comes in a box or a package has lots of it. When I went in search of a loaf of bread that didn’t have high fructose corn syrup in it, I was only able to find one kind, and that included all of the premium brands that promote themselves as healthy. So what did we do? We bake our own bread in a breadmaker now instead.

3. Avoid trans-fats and hydrogenated oils. Partially hydrogenated is just as bad, it just sounds a little better. This process makes food last longer on the shelf, which decreases costs, but again, your body doesn’t know what to do with it. It raises cholesterol levels but gives no nutritional benefit.

Once again, most products that come in a package have lots of them. Fortunately the tide is turning against this trend. Hopefully it lasts.

4. Eat smaller portions of meat and larger portions of fruits and vegetables. Meats aren’t necessarily all bad, although there’s little question that the hormones and other things the animals are given aren’t exactly good for us. There’s also no reason you have to eat meat at every meal, other than status. I usually have meat at one meal.

Fresh fruits and vegetables give more nutrients than meat and fewer undesirable side effects like higher cholesterol.

5. Eat whole foods that are as fresh as possible. Bleached white flour loses its nutrients. Canned vegetables lose most of their nutrients. Cook fresh, in-season vegetables and you’ll be healthier.

6. Watch the salads. How is it that people can eat salads all the time and still not lose any weight? Look at a McDonald’s nutritional guide and you’ll see most of their salads have as many calories as one of their sandwiches. Or more. They put the same junk in their salads as their sandwiches. It just looks healthy.

And even if you have a simple, traditional salad of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and shredded carrots, watch the dressings. A tablespoon of any of the common, traditional dressings has anywhere from 50-75 calories, and odds are you’ll use at least three of them. Possibly more. You could waste 10 percent of a 1,500 calorie diet on a condiment.

I don’t disagree that there’s something wrong with our medical system. That much is obvious. But the health problems that we’re creating and perpetuating with our current lifestyle would bring any medical system to its knees.

Trust me. The doctors aren’t all happy. My dad was one. He told me that if I ever told him I wanted to be a doctor, he’d lock me in my room for 7 years. Dad didn’t mind being a doctor, but he hated dealing with insurance companies and the government.

One day one of my coworkers was arguing with an insurance adjustor about a medical procedure his wife needed. The doctor said she needed it. The insurance adjustor said she didn’t, and insurance wasn’t going to cover it.

I told him to ask the insurance adjustor where he went to medical school.

Doctors go to school for a minimum of six years. I searched for an insurance adjustor job to see what the qualifications were. A two-year degree was all that was necessary. It didn’t specify that two-year degree had to be in biology or anything else relevant.

The current system is great for the drug industry, the insurance industry, and the food industry. If the system changes, I don’t expect it will get any worse for them. They have lots of lobbyists, and lots of money at stake.

I don’t expect it will get all that much better for us. The best thing for us to do is to take steps to need to use it less.

And ironically, if we use the system less and reduce the burden on it, it should get better.

The best way to optimize your firewall: Use hardware

Let’s get back to talking about utility replacements. We last talked about antivirus programs, but what about the other component of what’s commonly now called a “security suite,” the firewall?

The answer is, don’t use firewall software if at all possible–which means every man, woman and child who has a cable or DSL connection. Use a separate device.There are several good reasons for this. First, there’s the fundamental problem with running your security on the same system you’re trying to protect. If your firewall software goes haywire and crashes, you run the risk of being unprotected. It’s much safer to rely on an external device that doesn’t have an Intel or AMD processor in it and isn’t running Windows. So when someone tries to send a Windows exploit or virus to it, it bounces off because the device just doesn’t understand.

The second reason is price. A plain no-frills cable/DSL router/firewall costs about $20 at Newegg today. The unit I generally recommend is the Linksys WRT54G, which sells for about $50 new or as little as $25 used and adds wireless capability. That’s about the same as the retail price of a software firewall anyway, and it gives you better protection without robbing your system of performance.

A cheaper alternative, which was what I used to do when these devices cost $200, was to take an obsolete PC, put in a couple of cheap network cards, and run Freesco on it. It will run on any PC with a 386 processor or better (I recommend a Pentium with PCI slots for ease of setup). A 100 MHz Pentium is more than powerful enough and if you don’t already have an obsolete PC to run it on, you probably won’t have to ask around very long before finding one for a very low price or free. Today I prefer a Linksys-type box though, since they take less space, consume less electricity, generate less heat and noise, and take less time to set up.

Performance is the third reason. Two years ago I was working at a large broadband ISP that will remain nameless. It provides a “high speed security suite” as part of the subscription price. The system requirements for this suite are ridiculous–the suite itself needs anywhere from 128 to 192 megabytes of RAM all to itself to function. Basically, if you have a PC with 256 megs of RAM (which is what a fair number of PCs out there still have), loading this security suite on it will bring it to its knees. But if your firewall is running on a separate device, 256 megs of RAM is a comfortable amount of memory to run Windows XP or 2000 and basic applications.

Reliability is the fourth reason. Every high-speed security suite I’ve ever dealt with, be it a freebie provided by your ISP, or an off-the-shelf suite, hooks itself into winsock.dll. Three of the last four computer problems I’ve fixed have been related to this problem, and the symptoms are difficult to diagnose unless you’ve seen the problem before. Basically the computer loses any and all ability to do any networking, but when you call tech support, enough things work that tech support will probably tell you to reload your operating system. Unfortunately, the WinSockFix utility doesn’t seem to be well-known at ISPs.

If messing around with your Winsock isn’t bad enough, the security suite my former employer provided was overly paranoid about piracy. If you did any number of things, including but not limited to trying to install it on a second PC without getting a second key from the ISP, it would disable itself and not necessarily warn the user that it had left the PC unprotected. It was my job, when I was working there, to go through all of the disabled accounts by hand. It wasn’t an automated process. So if the security suite decided to go jump off a cliff sometime on Friday after I’d pulled the current report, it would be sometime on Monday before I would even be aware of the problem. Given that it usually takes about 20 minutes for some exploit to find an unprotected Windows box sitting on the Internet, that 48-72 hour window that you could be sitting unprotected is anything but ideal.

Things may have changed since I left that employer in November 2005, but if it’s my PC, I’m not willing to risk it. I’d much rather spend $20-$50 on a cable/DSL router to give myself firewall protection that I know I can just set up once and then ignore for a few years and won’t cause my PC to constantly fall behind on the upgrade treadmill.

And finally, the fifth reason to use a hardware firewall is apathy. Software firewalls tend to throw a lot of popups at the user, warning the user that this or that is trying to access the Internet, or come in, or whatever. Most users are likely to do one of two things: either allow everything or deny everything. The result is either a PC on which nothing works, or whose firewall is full of so many holes there might as well not be one. It’s much better to have a hardware firewall that just does its job. If you’re worried about unauthorized applications hitting the Internet, that’s the job of antivirus and antispyware software, not the firewall.

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