Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Looking for cover

I don't know how many people have been following the debate carried on between me and my friend Nif in the comments on the "Beautiful weeds" post, but the gist of it was something like this: I claimed that dandelions and purple deadnettles (Lamium purpureum) weren't really weeds in my yard, because I didn't object to their presence. Nif argued that I should object to their presence, because they were invasive and messed up local ecosystems. I argued in turn that even if these were aggressive non-native plants, it was less destructive to let them grow than to try to eliminate them (which might require toxic chemicals) and then replace them with plants that had to be cultivated (which might require lots of water and fertilizer). At that point, the discussion kind of petered out.

Now, naturally, Nif and I would agree that the best option of all would be a native plant that flourishes without assistance in the environment of my yard. But unfortunately, there don't seem to be any plants that fit that description. To illustrate, consider the problem I've been going through trying to find a ground cover for my front yard.

My front yard, as you can see in the photo, is a little sort of boxed-in patch of grass raised up from the sidewalk. That means that in order to mow it, you have to go out back, get the mower out of the shed, haul it up a short flight of stairs into the driveway, haul it up two more stairs onto the front path, and then heft it up over the short wall that encloses the yard. Even with a lightweight little push mower like we've got, that's a nuisance. So I've been looking for some time for a simple, low-maintenance ground cover that could replace the grass. Such a ground cover would have to meet the following requirements:

1. not too tall (say, 8 inches or shorter)
2. tolerates full sun
3. can grow in clay soil
4. can handle occasional light foot traffic (we're not going to be playing soccer on it or anything, just going out from time to time to do some work on the other parts of the yard)

There are almost no plants that meet these fairly modest criteria. I've only found four: silveredge goutweed or bishop's weed, barren strawberry, moneywort or creeping jenny, and blue-star creeper. All four of these are described as invasive in at least one source I've consulted.

So in other words, either I put a potentially invasive plant down in my yard, or I'm stuck with water-guzzling, high-maintenance turfgrass. Bah!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Save money, damage your credit score

This week's Dollar Stretcher newsletter sent me a link to a site that I found, well, puzzling. It's an article from that claims credit card issuers are actually tracking your purchases and analyzing them for signs of financial stress. If they catch you spending on items they consider high-risk, such as gambling or marriage counseling, they may respond by slashing your credit limit or increasing your interest rate. The page features an interactive graphic showing how various purchases allegedly help or harm your creditworthiness.

Some of the items in the graphic made sense, sort of. Alcoholic beverages, for instance. I can see how running up a big bar tab might be a sign of irresponsibility (although it could just mean that you bought a round or two for a large group of friends). And I guess I can see how frequenting pawnshops could be a sign of financial stress, although it seems to me that selling would be a much bigger red flag than buying. But some of the others were just baffling to me. For example, the article claims that buying a premium brand of birdseed is a sign that cardholders will "focus the same sense of responsibility to their credit score as they do to the birds in their yard," while buying a generic brand of bathroom cleaner is a warning sign because "Cardholders who purchase generic items instead of pricier, name-brand products exhibit greater risk of missing payments." Huh? You mean someone who chooses generic products, which are often identical to or even superior to name brands, is more likely to miss a payment than someone who wastes money on the costly name brands? And someone who buys expensive "premium" products, whether or not they are actually better, is being financially responsible?

In some cases, I can't figure out how the credit card issuer is even supposed to know that you bought these items. Sure, if you go for a massage, the charge on your card will read "True-Line Massage" or whatever (though it does seem a bit absurd to consider a licensed massage therapist the same thing as a seedy "massage parlor" that might be just a cover for less legal forms of physical contact). But how is your card issuer supposed to know whether the $20 you spent at Target was for premium birdseed (supposedly good), a generic cleaner (supposedly bad), or felt pads for your chair legs (supposedly good, because it means you're "extra-protective of [your] belongings")? The whole thing strikes me as bogus, especially since the article didn't actually quote anyone in the credit card industry about these alleged purchase-tracking procedures or provide any other evidence that they actually exist. In fact, there's no way to be sure that the folks at didn't just make the whole thing up, though it's hard to see what their motive would be for doing that (unless they think they'll get more business if they keep us cardholders nervous and paranoid). But if the banks really are using formulas that penalize frugal shoppers for buying from "merchants specializing in secondhand and generic items," then all I can say is, they're being idiots.

Of course, given the banking industry's track record in recent years, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Packaging problem

One of the points I like to make about ecofrugality is that in most cases, the "eco" and the "frugal" are co-aligned, rather than conflicting, goals. For example, let's consider orange juice. The orange juice I grew up with was a frozen concentrate that came in a can, which you mixed with three parts water to get juice. (I can't remember when I learned that you could also extract it from actual oranges.) I'm sure that my mom bought the frozen concentrate because it was cheaper than the stuff in a carton. However, as a budding environmentalist during my teen years, I came to realize that it was "greener" as well, since a 16-ounce frozen can takes less energy to ship than a 64-ounce refrigerated carton and produces less waste to throw away. So, when I entered adulthood, I continued to buy my OJ in the freezer section and felt eco-smug about it.

More recently, however, my eco and frugal sides have come into conflict. In the past year or so, I've spotted a lot of sales on orange juice that have dropped the price of the refrigerated half-gallon cartons below the price of an equivalent volume made from concentrate. At first, it was just an occasional change: we'd stock up on Tropicana or Minute Maid when it happened to be cheap and then go back to the store-brand frozen concentrate when our special purchase ran out. But lately, juice seems to go on sale so often that we always have several cartons of it in the fridge, and before we've finished drinking up what we bought at the last sale, a new one pops up. So without intending it, we've become regular consumers of refrigerated juice, and every time I rinse another one of those cartons out and put it in the trash, I can't help sighing over the waste. (At first I was saving the empty cartons for potting seedlings, but honestly, there's a limit to how many of those things you can use.)

So now I'm starting to ask myself: is it reasonable to keep buying the cheapest juice, or should I choose the frozen stuff because of its eco-benefits? Should I compromise by making the refrigerated juice pay an extra premium to overcome its ecological drawbacks, and if so, how much? With organic products, I have a handy rule of thumb: if the price of the organic product is no more than 1.6 times the price of the conventional equivalent, I'll buy it. But what would be a good equivalent rule for choosing between frozen juice and refrigerated cartons? I'm really not sure how much extra money the ecological benefits should be worth to me. And I can't help suspecting that worrying about it at all means I'm getting a little bit obsessive. Maybe I should just put the whole juice issue into the category of "sweating the small stuff" and try to come up with something more useful to fret about.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Try it free!

This has been a great week for free stuff. On Wednesday, I answered a listing on Freecycle for a Magic Bullet blender/mixer. This is one of those "As Seen on TV" gizmos with a zillion different attachments, which of course, I'd never have bought for "only $49.99." But when I found one for free within a mile of my house, I figured there was nothing to lose by indulging my curiosity.

We've only used it a couple of times, but I must admit, it does seem to have some definite advantages over a full-sized blender. For one, there's less cleanup. It comes with a bunch of interchangeable parts—two different blades, several different cups, and some lids—and whatever you're mixing up can be stored right in the same container, so all you need to clean is the blade. Also, because there are several different cups, you can use one that's the right size for the amount you're processing. This makes the job quicker because you don't need to stop and scrape down the sides to keep it all going. We haven't really put the thing through its paces yet (the book it comes with suggests ways to use it for everything from cocktails to chicken salad, and we haven't even tried the juicer attachment), but so far we're pretty pleased with it. We're not planning to get rid of our old blender and mini food processor just yet, but we'll probably store them away and let this little gadget take their place.

Then, today, we had the opportunity to score some free veggies. Brian's boss was going out of town for the weekend and offered him her CSA share for the week, since she wouldn't be around to pick it up. So we are now the proud owners of a head of cabbage, several heads of broccoli, a bunch of small red onions, and more greens than you can shake a stick at. A bunch of arugula, a bunch of dandelion greens, and something like six heads of lettuce. This confirms what I've always kind of suspected about joining a CSA: yes, you can get a lot of delicious, fresh food this way, but the problem is, there's too much of it. Or rather, too much of one thing all at once. Even if we eat salad for every single meal—which I'm not all that keen to do—we still may not manage to get through this lot before it goes bad. (We can freeze some of the broccoli if we have to, but I don't know of any way to preserve lettuce.)

So here's what I've learned out of this week's adventures: you can't make assumptions about what's frugal and what isn't. At first glance, a CSA share appears to be an ecofrugal win-win: supporting local farmers and getting fresh produce at well below the retail price. But if half of that beautiful local produce is going to end up in the compost bin, then both food and money are going to waste—exactly the opposite of frugality. And contrariwise, it seems obvious that anything sold through infomericals is bound to be a waste of money—a useless gadget that serves no purpose except to part you from your hard-earned cash. Yet our little Magic Bullet looks like it may actually be able to do the job of two other kitchen tools, and do it both faster and more neatly. So when it comes to making ecofrugal choices, you have to rely on solid facts. If you get a chance to try something out for free, as we did this week, that's the best way to figure out whether it works for you. If not, the next best thing is to look at the experiences of other people whose situation is similar to yours. I hope this account of mine will be useful to some of you.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Long live the book

I've been having an e-mail conversation with a colleague about what one of my clients referred to as "changes" in the publishing field. My colleague commented wryly that "going through some changes" was about the mildest way she'd ever heard it put; the way one of the higher-ups at her company phrased it was, "The book is dead." I disputed this idea, pointing out that people often predict the death of an old technology when a new one shows up on the scene (e.g., TV versus radio), but it doesn't always work out that way. However, my curiosity was piqued, so I typed the phrase "the book is dead" into Google to see what the voices of the Internet had to say on this subject.

Somewhere on the first page of hits, I turned up an article called, "The book is dead. Long live the book." It's an examination of the limitations of the book form, and quite interesting in its own right, but what really caught my interest were the comments. It's long been my observation that even on sites where the content itself is thoughtful, well written, and properly punctuated (e.g., the blogs associated with the New York Times), many, if not most, of the comments tend to be sloppily written. So I was truly impressed to find that the readers of this site, almost without exception, had actually organized their thoughts and written out focused, coherent arguments—in complete sentences, no less. One comment that particularly struck me came from a reader with the handle "Suebob":
I can buy a used book at a garage sale for 25 cents. I can throw it in my purse. I can spill coffee on it. I can take it into the bathtub, read it in bed, take it camping, on an airplane. I can pass it on to friends easily. I can bookmark pages and go back to them in one second. I can scribble notes on the pages. Highlight.

The book may take me 10 hours to read. Where else can I get so much value for 2.5 cents an hour?
This got me thinking: in ecofrugal terms, how does the book compare to electronic texts?

As Suebob notes, a secondhand book can give a lot of value in terms of hours of entertainment per dollar spent. But then again, if you're already paying a fixed monthly fee for Internet access, everything you read online is essentially free—or at least already paid for. On the other hand, you do need a source of electricity to read anything in an electronic form. But how does the environmental cost of that electricity compare to the cost of the trees harvested, mulched, and milled to produce the paper for a printed book? (Cartoonist Signe Wilkinson raised this same issue in a cartoon about the iPad.) I don't think I have enough information to answer that question; there are just too many variables. For example, is the book being read at night by electric light? If so, are the bulbs CFLs or incandescents? What if the publisher used recycled paper? What about the power used to produce that paper? What about the gas used by the trucks that delivered the books to the bookstore? There's no way to account for everything.

Pretty much the only factor in the ecofrugal equation that we can nail down is the cost of the text itself. And even that can be tricky. For example, if you buy yourself a Kindle, how do you factor that expense into the cost of the books you read on it? Do you work out how much you spent over the course of a year on the Kindle and e-books for it, and then compare that with the cost of buying the same books at a store? But would you have bought them in hardcover or paperback? What if you'd taken some of them out of the library instead?

For me, the bottom line is that the bottom line is too hard to calculate. So when it comes to reading, I tend to make my decisions based on more emotional factors. And for visceral pleasure, the book-as-book tends to win for me, hands down. As Suebob says, the physical advantages of a book—carrying it anywhere, reading it in bed, marking the pages—are unmatched by any electronic format out there (at least at present). Case in point: back when Brian and I were on our Jeeves-and-Wooster kick a year or so ago, I took the first few volumes out of the library and read them aloud to him. When we'd exhausted the library's supply, I turned to Project Gutenberg and found several more titles online, so I tried reading them aloud in the same way. We got through them, but it was awkward. If I wanted to read to him while he was doing something else, such as cooking, I had to haul his laptop into the kitchen, pull up the book on the screen, and scroll through the document as I read, trying not to lose my place when I paged down and taking care all the time to avoid spilling anything on the keyboard. It just wasn't the same.

And as Buzzmachine reader Steve Thomas pointed out, print has its advantages for less enjoyable books as well:
I will add, in the defence of books, that there’s one advantage over ebooks — when they turn out to be crap, you can throw them at the wall. Very satisfying.
You can even do worse to them than that, as a recent XKCD cartoon points out.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I take it back

OK, I take it back. Groundhogs aren't cute. Especially little baby groundhogs. Little baby groundhogs who are small enough to squeeze through the gaps in the garden fence. Grrr. I guess I know what happened to my seedlings.

Brian actually had his hands on the little bugger, but he let it go. Next time he's going to try to pop it in a bucket so we can haul it down to the park, where it can munch on grass to its furry little heart's content and leave our tomato plants alone.

I'm gonna get that wascawwy gwoundhog.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Score another for Freecycle

I used to think that it was possible to find everything but the kitchen sink on Freecycle. Turns out I was wrong: you can find the kitchen sink, too.

Our old sink was a heavy enameled-steel affair with so many scratches and dings that it never got really clean, no matter how hard I scrubbed it. So when we found a stainless-steel sink on Freecycle last week, exactly the same size as ours and with the faucet still attached, we jumped at the chance to pick it up. We got it installed Tuesday night, and that whole corner of the kitchen now looks far more respectable.

Just so you can see what a difference it made, here's a picture of the old sink, now sitting out on the curb waiting for the trash collectors. I didn't even bother to list it on Freecycle because I couldn't imagine anyone wanting it.