Saturday, November 11, 2017

Settling in for winter

Although there are still plenty of leaves left on the trees, the weather for the last few days has been decidedly wintry. Yesterday, when heading out to the farmers' market for some local apples and cranberries (because it's just silly to make Thanksgiving cranberry sauce from Wisconsin-grown cranberries when the plant is native to New Jersey), I actually set aside my lightweight fall coat in favor of the bulky winter one—and all the parts of me it didn't cover were still freezing. And even though we've already fired up the heating system for the winter, I also had to haul out my wearable blanket a couple of days last week to stay warm while working.

This change in the weather signaled that it was time for us to take care of a few seasonal chores. We'd already taken care of stashing away the window air conditioner and changing our sheets from their summer percale to warmer flannel, signaling that the warm weather was definitively over for the year; now it was time for those tasks that mark the transition from fall into winter. First, Brian went out into the garden and harvested all the remaining tomatoes and peppers: several more of the big Pineapples, a few Black Princes (which are actually Green Princes at the moment), a smattering of little Sun Golds, and about four green Jimmy Nardello frying peppers. All the ones that have started to "blush," even slightly, got set out on the kitchen counter, where they are now ripening up nicely; the completely green ones got stowed in a newspaper-lined box in the basement, together with an apple to accelerate the ripening process. This hasn't always worked so well in the past, but there's not much we can do with the green tomatoes otherwise (and it won't hurt the apple), so we have nothing to lose by trying.

Then, today, Brian went out to deal with the job of stowing away our rain barrel for the winter. Yesterday morning, he'd opened up the spigot at the bottom to let the water empty out, which it did, but very slowly; when he got home from work, there was still water dripping from the spout. But by morning, the drip had stopped, and he just had to open it up to get out the remaining water near the bottom. In fact, as soon as he moved the barrel, it became apparent that he wasn't going to get the remaining water out without opening it up, because some of it had turned into a block of ice that we could hear clanking around in there.

So he undid the screws at the top and removed the lid, revealing a few chunks of ice, a bit of liquid water...and a layer of dark green algae smeared all over the inside of the barrel. Fortunately, it turned out that this stuff peeled off pretty easily, so Brian was able to remove most of it with his hands. He discarded it, and the ice, in a little bed to one side of the yard where we've planted this year's crop of garlic and shallots; with any luck, it will serve as fertilizer. Then he reassembled the barrel and stowed it in the shed. He did happen to notice one problem when he reattached the lid; the black rubber pipe attached to the back, which drains the overflow from the barrel away from the house, was starting to split in places. Trying to remove it from the spout just exacerbated the problem, so he left it in place for now. When we return the barrel to service next spring, we'll see if the damage proves severe enough to cause a leak and replace the part if necessary.

Then all that remained was to return the downspout to its wintertime configuration. He took off the piece that routes water from the downspout into the barrel and replaced it with a longer piece that extends the pipe down to the ground and directs it outward, across the barrel's concrete resting pad, and away from the house. That should keep the foundation safe from water damage, whether winter brings us rain or snow.

As for installing the storm windows in our screen doors, that turned out not to be necessary, since he'd never actually removed them to replace them with screens this spring. We don't tend to leave the doors open for ventilation anyway, since we have plenty of windows, so it wouldn't really have made much difference. We still have plenty of ice melt left over from last year, and our snow shovels remain in good condition, along with the car's tires and windshield wipers. And we've both had our flu shots already.

So now the only task left on our winter checklist is to buy a big bag of birdseed and set up our backyard buffet for the local cardinals and sparrows. (Not the squirrels, though. They may have managed to plunder our plum tree and pilfer our eggplants, but so far they absolutely cannot figure out how to hack our bird feeder. It's this kind, so if you're looking for a feeder that can truly thwart the furry menaces, I can recommend it.)

As soon as that's done, we can count ourselves ready for winter—which will leave us free to enjoy the last few lingering, golden days of fall.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Walking the line with technology

A few months ago, the New York Times Sunday Review ran a piece called, "Save Your Sanity. Downgrade Your Life." The author, Pamela Paul, frames her decision to deliberately go without, or even give up, various high-tech devices as part of her quest for a simpler and more meaningful life. A few examples:
  • Trading in the "frantic whir" of her electric toothbrush for an older, manual version
  • Sticking to a "stubbornly DVD-based" Netflix account rather than switching to downloads on demand
  • Limiting smartphone use in specific ways (no devices in the bedroom; leaving her phone in another room when she's with the kids; not giving the kids their own phones)
  • Cutting out not just cable TV, but network TV as well
  • Eschewing all personal phone calls and e-mails, preferring to "catch up with a good friend or a family member...[when] we actually see each other"
  • Skipping Spotify in favor of "the radio and ye olde compact discs"
  • Avoiding e-book readers and tablet computers
Paul argues that choices like these help her minimize "techno-stress—the psychological and physical impact of spending countless hours staring at a screen." She highlights the dangers of constant connectedness, such as online harassment and cellphones cutting into face-time, such as the family dinner hour, and sees "creeping backward toward the 20th century" as her way to resist the relentless march toward a faceless digital society. This is a goal I can certainly sympathize with. But I can't help wondering whether Paul's knee-jerk rejection of all new technologies is really the best way to achieve it.

One of my favorite remarks about the simple life comes from Ursula LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas": "Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive." It makes perfect sense for Paul to eliminate or limit the types of technology that are clearly destructive: the constant clamor of Facebook, for instance, or the siren call of the smartphone screen at the dinner table. And it may even be worthwhile, at least for her, to eliminate some of the "neither necessary nor destructive" forms of tech like her electric toothbrush. But is she throwing out the baby with the bathwater? In her eagerness to eliminate all forms of "unnecessary" tech, is she deliberately making her life more complex and less fulfilling?

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I'm no slave to technology. I've written numerous times about my slowness to adopt various gadgets and services, from smartphones to social media. But I've also written quite a bit about the types of technology I do find worthwhile, like our tablet computer (which gives us access to a wide selection of e-books from the eLibrary) and my online bill payment service. I see no contradiction in this; to me, it's simply a question of deciding which forms of technology are "neither necessary nor harmful." I could certainly live without online bill payment and pay my bills the old-fashioned way, writing out a check and sticking it an envelope with a stamp and putting it in a mailbox—but it's slower and more cumbersome, it costs me money for the stamps, and it wastes paper. In this case, it's the high-tech system that truly simplifies my life.

This is why I have problems with so many of Paul's tech-related choices. I like having my entire music collection at my fingertips on iTunes; I can select any song I want with the click of a mouse and easily put together themed playlists for different occasions. I can't see how giving that up in favor of "the radio and ye olde-fashioned CDs"—which would force me to listen to whatever happens to be on at the moment, including advertisements, or else fumble with a huge collection of physical disks—would make me a better or happier person. Likewise, while I don't currently have Netflix, it seems to me that if I did, there would be no advantage in a "stubbornly DVD-based" subscription that would force me to make my selections ahead of time, wait to receive them, and then have to mail them back—possibly even unwatched, because by the time they reached me I no longer had the time or the inclination to watch them. If you can't watch what you want, when you want, then what's the advantage of having the subscription at all?

Worse still, I wonder if Paul may actually be hurting her relationships with friends and family through her single-minded determination not to let technology "interfere" with them. I have a lot of friends and family members who are scattered across the country; if I insisted on "wait[ing] until we actually see each other" to catch up with them, I wouldn't speak to them more than once or twice a year. Not to mention that I would have trouble arranging to see them in the first place, since it's awfully difficult to make plans to visit someone who lives in another state—or even in another town—without using either the phone or e-mail. (I guess we could use old-school snail mail, but in the time it would take a series of letters to go back and forth between us, we might end up missing the one available weekend when all of us happened to be free.)

To me, it seems clear that if you really want to "simplify" your life, blindly rejecting all forms of technology isn't the way to do it. It makes much more sense to evaluate each new device or service on a case-by-case basis and ask: Would having this make my life better or worse, easier or harder, more or less fulfilling? If the answer is clearly negative, it obviously sense to eschew the new technology; if it's clearly positive, it makes sense to at least look at the cost and decide whether the benefits are enough to justify it. And if you're not sure, there's nothing wrong with holding out until you have a clearer idea of both the perks and the drawbacks.

It's also worth noting that the answer to this question can change over time. When I wrote this article on technology and frugality back in 2010, I said I "wasn't tempted by the new e-book readers," which seemed to have no clear advantage over printed books. But a lot has changed in the seven years since. Today, there are free e-reader apps for tablet computers, so it's no longer necessary to spend $100 or more on a dedicated device that can do nothing but display books; there's also a much bigger selection of e-books available for free or cheap through sites like the eLibrary. Nowadays, reading books in digital format gives us a lot more to choose from, and it lets us start enjoying our new reads right away instead of waiting until the library is open.

Of course, if the book we want doesn't happen to be available in digital form, we still have the option of going to the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar library to check it out. Because that's the other nice thing about new technology that Paul seems to be ignoring: simply having it doesn't mean you actually have to use it. There's no rule against communicating with your friends by e-mail and in person, or playing both computer games and old-fashioned board games. A new technology is a tool, not an assignment.

If your smartphone, or your Facebook subscription, or any other type of technology in your life is causing you stress or sucking up unreasonable amounts of time, then sure, it makes sense to dump it—or at least put limits on it. What doesn't make sense is to throw out things that are making your life better, easier, happier, because you've decided that technology, as a category, is harmful. There's plenty of room in LeGuin's "middle category...of the necessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc."—for the things that we could live without, but we shouldn't have to.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Late Harvest

As the 2017 gardening season heads into its final weeks, I've been taking stock of how all our crops did this year compared to previous years. The results appear very mixed. Our basil, which in past years was so prolific that we couldn't even figure out how to store it all, has given us only the equivalent of a couple of bunches. Last year we got massive amounts of cucumbers; this year, most of the cucumber seeds we planted never germinated, and we ended up harvesting only a handful of cukes from the few vines that survived. Even the zucchini plants gave us only a few good-sized fruits before yielding to borer damage. (We thought we'd managed to thwart the borers by burying the stems in dirt, but apparently all we did was delay the inevitable.)

On the other hand, our pepper plants have done pretty well; the new Gilboa variety, a sweet bell, was disappointing, but the Carmen and Jimmy Nardello frying peppers have both produced about nine good-sized peppers and are still going. Ditto for the tomatoes; the Black Prince and Mr. Fumarole were disappointing, but the new Pineapple variety has been hugely productive, and the Sun Golds were as abundant as ever—and there are still a few of those out on the vines as well. (We'll have to bring them all in for box ripening before the first frost hits, but according to the weather report, it's likely to be late this year—possibly not until after Thanksgiving.)

And for the piece de resistance, yesterday Brian brought in the rest of our butternut squash crop off the now-withered vines: a total of 11 squash, not counting the two we've already eaten. This is probably the best squash crop we've had since the year a rogue vine sprang out of our compost bin and took over the entire side yard. If we consume them at the rate of two squash per month, we can make them last until spring. (We probably can't spare one to use in place of pumpkin for a Thanksgiving pie, but we still have plenty of home-grown rhubarb to use for the other one.)

Of course, at the rate of two squash per month, that doesn't leave us any for tonight's dinner, but that's okay; we happen to have several ripe tomatoes that need using up, as well as an eggplant we picked up on Friday at the farmers' market. So we'll be celebrating the Late Harvest with a dinner of Baingan Bharta—made from this recipe—and top it off with some tea and cookies as we enjoy a round of role-playing games with friends. How cozy is that as a way to spend a chilly fall evening?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

What do to when IKEA lets you down

Regular readers of this blog know that Brian and I are both big fans of IKEA. We've bought all kinds of goodies there—patio furniture, towels, foodstuffs, rechargeable batteries, kitchen gadgets, and holiday gifts. We've hacked IKEA furniture to fit over our space heaters and to make a sitting/standing desk for Brian. We've even celebrated our anniversary there, preferring an afternoon of bouncing on POANG chairs, exploring the model apartment layouts, browsing the collection of kitchen tools and kids' toys, and eating Swedish delicacies to such traditional, pricey entertainments as dining and dancing.

But lately, I've started to feel like IKEA has been letting us down. It started last year, when we noticed that its selection of LED light bulbs wasn't that impressive. The bulbs weren't really any cheaper than the ones at Home Depot, and they didn't have any that were particularly bright. Then, on our last anniversary trip there, we found that several of the things on our shopping list weren't available. My beloved MELLANROST decaf coffee, which I'd been planning to stock up on had been supplanted by a new line of Fair Trade coffee called PÅTÅR,which doesn't come in a decaffeinated version. And worse still, when we went looking for a refill brush for our old LILLHOLMEN toilet brush holder, we discovered that both the holder and the LOSSNEN refills that fit it were no longer available. Instead, they had a new brush insert, called HEJAREN, which was sized for its newer toilet brush holders and probably wouldn't fit our old one. This was a major bummer, because the whole reason we'd bought the LILLHOLMEN in the first place was because it was so much more ecofrugal to replace the brush with a cheap refill when it wore out, rather than being forced to discard brush and handle together. If the refills were no longer available, the whole piece was now useless—even though the screw-on handle and holder were still perfectly good.

However, we thought there was a chance we could make the LILLHOLMEN work with the new HEJAREN inserts, so we decided to take a $3 risk and buy a couple. After a bit of tinkering, Brian was able to get the new insert screwed into place, and it was just short enough to fit into the base—but it wasn't exactly secure. Every time I tried to brush the toilet bowl with it, the slightest amount of pressure caused the brush to bend and threaten to snap. And eventually, on maybe the third or fourth use, that's exactly what it did, breaking off right at the point where the insert attached to the handle.


To add insult to injury, another IKEA tool that we used all the time in our bathroom, our little shower squeegee, chose the same week to break. I just went to wipe the shower walls with it as usual, and it snapped right off at the handle. I suppose I can't complain too much about this one, since it only cost us $2 to begin with and we'd been using it for several years, but it did feel like all our IKEA products were failing us at once.

Our first thought was to try to repair the damaged items, since that's usually (though not always) more ecofrugal than buying new ones. Brian tried fixing the squeegee with epoxy, fitting it around the join and molding it into all the cracks, but to no avail; the first time I tried to use it, it snapped right in the same place. As for the toilet brush, we could probably have glued the broken end of the insert back on, but we quickly realized there wasn't much point, as it still wouldn't fit the handle. It would still be subject to the same stress every time we used it, so it would almost certainly break again.

So then we headed out to Bed Bath & Beyond to try and find replacements for the two damaged items. And there, we got a quick, sharp reminder of just why IKEA, despite its shortcomings, is still our favorite place to shop for small items like these. The store had a fairly large assortment of shower squeegees, but none for less than $10, when the perfectly functional IKEA one that we'd been using for years had cost only $2. (Even with inflation, a similar item there—made with recycled plastic, no less—costs the same today.) As for the toilet brushes, Bed Bath & Beyond was charging $15 and up for a perfectly plain, utilitarian model such as you could buy at IKEA for under a dollar. At those prices, we could spend the $8.50 in tolls for a trip up to IKEA and spend the same amount (and we'd be able to get a new toilet brush that would be refillable, so it would cost less in the long run).

So we walked out of Bed Bath & Beyond pretty much convinced that there was no reason ever to go back; nothing there, as far as we can tell, is ever going to be a good deal, even with the inevitable 20% off coupon that arrives regularly in our mail. But on the other hand, making a trip up to IKEA for a cheaper alternative is a much bigger undertaking, and we wouldn't have time for it until the next weekend at least. Letting water build up on our shower walls for a whole week didn't seem like a good option.

In the end, we compromised. We picked up a reasonably priced squeegee at Target for $3.50, and Brian took another crack at repairing the old toilet brush using Sugru, a nifty product that's like a cross between Superglue and modeling clay. We can't be sure how well the repaired brush will hold, and even if it does, it will no longer be refillable—but at least we'll be able to use our existing brush a little longer, which will give us time to shop for a more reasonable replacement.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Money Crashers: Cheap Computer Games – Best Free & Affordable Options

As a complement to my Money Crashers article on the joys of tabletop gaming, I've also done one on how to enjoy electronic games on a budget. I've checked lists at gaming publications to find the top-rated games in different categories - war games, fantasy games, MMORPGs - that you can play for free (although some of them are only trial versions, and others charge for in-app purchases).

I've also added a section on my favorite type of computer game, old-fashioned text adventures (like Zork). There's a huge number of these available for free online, they don't require a sophisticated computer setup, and the best ones are, in my opinion, even more compelling than the best graphical games. Sure, I know computer graphics are more realistic than ever, and I know we're on the verge of a revolution in virtual reality that will make it possible to experience the game world even more fully—but I still maintain that there are some things a well-written story can do that no visual experience can ever match. In an IF (interactive fiction) game, you can experience not only sights and sounds, but also smells, tastes, and more importantly still, thoughts and feelings. How can graphics ever do that?

If you've never tried it before, I urge you to give just one of these text adventures a try and see for yourself. Andrew Plotkin's The Dreamhold is a good one for new players, but any of the games in this "starter pack" list could be a good choice.

And to see the rest of the game choices, check out the full article: Cheap Computer Games – Best Free & Affordable Options

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Money Crashers: “Free” Stuff

In this 2013 post, I talked a bit about the psychology of the word "free," and how it can lure us into making decisions that aren't necessarily in our interest. In my latest Money Crashers post, I explore this idea in more detail. I talk about how the use of the word "free" affects consumer behavior and give several examples of "free" offers—free shipping, free trials, free gifts with purchase—that end up costing you money in different ways. Then I wrap it up with a few pointers on how to avoid falling into the "free" trap.

As a side note, you may find the title of this piece—How to Avoid Bait & Switch Advertising Scams Offering “Free” Stuff—a little confusing, since the article isn't really about "scams" and is only loosely related to "bait and switch." My original proposed title was "When 'Free' is Too Expensive," but my editor explained that "there really wasn't any search traffic opportunities" for this topic. So instead, he decided to give it a title about "how to avoid bait and switch scams," a topic that attracted "plenty" of search traffic. Ironically, this means the article itself now is a bait and switch scam, because it's trying to lure in people looking for articles on a completely different topic. But at least I managed to talk him into tacking on a reference to the word "free" in the title, so readers won't be completely baffled.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Recipes of the Month: Wilted Lettuce and Roasted Veggies with Quinoa

This month, Brian and I haven't tried any brand-new vegetable recipes yet, but we have made two new variants on recipes we'd done before. So I figured I'd just share these two variants, and it would add up to the equivalent of one complete Recipe of the Month.

The first one came about because last week we bought a bunch of green leaf lettuce at the farmers' market, and when we tasted it, we found it was unusually tough and somewhat bitter. It wasn't very good as a salad, so Brian came up with the idea of trying it in a different form: wilted lettuce, which he remembered having as a kid. He thought his mom had given him the recipe for it, but when he went through his recipe file, he couldn't find it, so instead he just prepared with the same dressing we use for dandelion greens: chopped, cooked bacon with the drippings, red onion, cider vinegar, and brown sugar. However, instead of just pouring this over the greens the way he does for dandelions, he actually put the torn lettuce leaves into the pan and let them heat until they looked wilted, but not soggy. And the result was...not bad. Maybe not quite as good as the same recipe with dandelion greens, but it certainly made this tough lettuce more palatable. I'd certainly consider using it again if we find ourselves with a head of lettuce, or any other kind of greens, that's too stringy or too bitter to eat raw.

The second recipe was also kind of an accident. At the time we bought the tough head of lettuce, we also picked up a couple of zucchini, intending to grill them. This is a dish we've made several times before; what Brian typically does is to slice the zucchini into narrow spears and toss them with a mixture of olive oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic powder, then grill them until they're tender. We usually make these alongside free-range turkey franks from the Amish market, since the long and narrow zucchini spears can be tucked into a roll either along with or instead of the hot dog, depending on how you prefer to eat them.

However, a combination of rainy weather and busy schedules conspired to keep Brian from being able to grill throughout the week. And over the course of that week, we also harvested quite a lot of tomatoes. Our new Pineapple tomato is continuing to produce big, plump fruits, and the Black Prince and Mr. Fumarole (which would be a great name for an alternative band) are producing smaller but steady yields. So I'd gone hunting for tomato recipes and discovered one in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for Grilled Tomatoes with Basil, which basically is just what it sounds like: cut the tomatoes into thick slices, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle on salt and pepper, grill them until they start to caramelize, and serve them with chopped basil.

So my idea was that, as soon as the weather allowed, we could grill these tomatoes along with the zucchini, and serve it all up "on a bed of quinoa or something." (I chose quinoa more or less at random because it seemed like the kind of thing a chef probably would pair with grilled veggies; rice or pasta would probably work also, but quinoa has more protein, so it makes for a more complete meal.) And by this time, farmers' market Friday had rolled around again and we'd grabbed a couple of eggplant, so Brian decided to slice one of those and throw it on the grill as well. He used a modified version of our usual recipe for the zucchini, omitting the sesame oil, which he thought wouldn't go well with the tomato; the tomato and eggplant he just sliced and grilled plain.


The results of this experiment were a bit mixed. The zucchini spears cooked up to their usual tenderness, and the eggplant came out firm and nicely browned, but the tomatoes—two of our big Pineapples—sort of fell apart. Bittman says five minutes on the grill should get the tomato slices "soft but not mushy," but these tomatoes were fairly soft and juicy to start with, so they ended up without much structural integrity. Brian transferred them to a bowl, and we dished them out as a sort of sauce to accompany the other veggies. We rounded out the meal with quinoa, cooked in our favorite Penzey's veggie stock to boost the flavor, and a bit of pesto out of our freezer that Brian added to the assortment on a whim.

I tried various combinations of these ingredients and found that the zucchini, eggplant, and quinoa all went together very nicely. Adding some soft tomato to the mix was okay too, but didn't really do anything to enhance it. As for the pesto, I didn't think it worked that well with the other veggies, but Brian quite liked it with the quinoa. Since we didn't finish it all, he decided to re-freeze the rest of it and plan to make quinoa alla pesto at some later point, so perhaps I'll cover that in a future Recipe of the Month post.

While this "recipe" wasn't a complete success, the parts of it that worked—the zucchini, eggplant, and quinoa—made a very good dish by themselves, and I would recommend the combination to anyone who feels like throwing some veggies on the grill. We'll probably be making some version of this dish again, but I think we'll skip the tomatoes. There are plenty of other good things to do with fresh tomatoes and plenty of other good things to cook on the grill, so there's really no need to put the two things together.