Monday, May 28, 2012

Groundhog Fence 2.0

Well, actually, it's more like Groundhog Fence 1.1, since we didn't replace the old fence, merely added on to it.

Some of you may recall that two years ago, after putting up a fence to keep our resident groundhog out of our garden, we discovered that he was actually a she, and her two little baby groundhogs were small enough to squeeze through the gaps in the garden fence. Fortunately, before long they grew to a reasonable size, but not before munching our zucchini seedlings right up. Last year we kept a sharp eye out, but no more baby groundhogs showed up and we only saw adult ones occasionally, so we figured maybe they'd moved out. But nope—this past Friday, just as we were about to leave for the weekend, we spotted two little furballs (accompanied by a mama furball) munching on weeds in the yard, and after watching them surreptitiously for a few minutes, sure enough, we saw one of them squeeze right through the fence into the garden. And of course, since we had to leave in an hour or so, there was no time to do anything about it.

However, upon returning today to find the garden not too badly ravaged in our absence (a couple of pea plants had been munched down, and one of the zucchini leaves torn up a bit, but everything else seemed intact), we decided it was time to stop them while we still could. So we motored off to the local big box store and picked up a couple of rolls of chicken wire with a 1-inch mesh. We figure any critter small enough to squeeze through that probably isn't going to be out on its own.

Our Groundhog Fence 1.0 was a three-foot tall construction of rectangular wire mesh, with a one-foot "skirt" protruding out all around the bottom to keep those clever little rascals from digging right under it. So the first step in constructing Groundhog Fence 2.0 was to go around and remove the rocks we'd put in place to hold down the skirt. (And they'd just gotten to the point where they were almost entirely hidden by dirt and vegetation, too.) Then, with me holding the roll and unfurling it as needed, Brian proceeded along the fence, putting up an outer layer of chicken wire one and a half feet high, with a six-inch skirt along the bottom. We figure that ought to be tall enough to keep out the babies until they've grown too big to squeeze through the larger mesh. We affixed the new outer layer to the original fence with snipped-off lengths of wire, and we put the rocks back in place as we went along to hold it down. (On the side nearest the groundhog hole, we reinforced the perimeter with a couple of additional bricks.) The photo doesn't have the best resolution, but if you click to enlarge it, you should be able to see the two distinct layers.

As it turns out, we were wise to brave the blazing sun and deal with this promptly, rather than putting it off until tomorrow as we originally thought we might. No sooner had we finished the job (and washed off the sunscreen with which we'd slathered ourselves—why is it that the "natural" kind is so particularly gooey and gross?) than we looked out the window and saw not two, but four little baby groundhogs foraging in the yard under the attentive eye of Mama Groundhog. So it looks like we dodged a bullet there.

Just try and get at our pepper plants now, you little marmots!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My 10 Least Frugal Decisions

It occurred to me, as I reread my most recent post, that a lot of what I write about on this blog could come across as just bragging about how frugal and/or green we are. That isn't my intent, of course; I just want to sing the praises of the ecofrugal lifestyle, and the examples taken from my own life are often the ones I have most ready to hand. But I do realize that I can be at risk of drifting into tooting-my-own-horn territory.

So just to show that I'm only human, this post is going to be all about the least frugal things I can remember doing in my life. I'll explain what each non-frugal choice was, why I chose it at the time, and whether I would make the same choice again. In chronological order, my least frugal choices have been:

1. Getting an expensive education. This one's a little complicated, because it wasn't my own money that I was throwing around, but my parents'. And naturally, this means that the decision itself was, to some extent, theirs as well. If they had said candidly to me that money was indeed an object and that the family budget wouldn't stretch to cover the tuition at the pricey private college of my choice, I most likely would have opted for the one that offered me a scholarship, and I would most likely have managed to get a perfectly decent education there. But my parents didn't do this; they urged me to pick the school I'd be happiest with and not to consider the costs. For them, saving up the money to put me and my sister through school was the chief object of their own frugal lifestyle, and it's thanks to their years of thrift while I was growing up that I was able to spend four years at Haverford and graduate without the millstone of student debt that hung around the necks of so many of my contemporaries. And since the intervening years have showed that the money they spent on my education, and my sister's after me, has not left them at all financially burdened in their golden years, I would make this decision again with no regrets. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

2. Choosing my college major without regard to earning potential. Here, again, I was influenced my my folks' advice. They encouraged me to pursue what interested me most, on the theory that (a) your four years in college are a unique and irreplaceable experience, and you should spend them on what you most enjoy, and (b) when you do get out of school, it's better to be qualified for a low-paying job doing something you love than a high-paying job that has nothing else to recommend it. So that's how I ended up majoring in the terribly lucrative field of English literature. :-J Would I do it again? Well, maybe. I did have classes in other subjects that I also found interesting, such as poli sci and Constitutional law, and pursuing one of those fields might have set me on a career path that could be intellectually and financially rewarding at the same time. But to be honest, much as I enjoyed those particular courses, I don't think any subject ever really evoked the same passion for me as the English language and its literature. So I would probably make this un-frugal choice again—but I would temper it by taking more steps during my college years to gain useful work experience that could help me find a job related to my chosen field, rather than just temping during the summers.

3. Making my first car a new one. There was never a real question about whether I would get a car after college, since I was living with my parents (thanks again, Mom and Dad!) and there's no public transportation to speak of where they live. However, I would probably have opted for a no-frills beater that I could pay for out of my modest savings if not for the generosity of my grandmother, who offered to buy me a car as a graduation gift. (I mean, wow.) As it turned out, she actually bought me most of a car as a gift, since there was a $10,000 limit on how much she could give me without having to pay gift tax, so I ended up borrowing the rest from my folks—the only car loan I've ever had in my life. Could I have, instead, bought a reliable used car with the cash? Probably, but I think Grandma would have been unhappy with that decision, since her intent was to buy me a new one. And as it turned out, the new car I bought (my beloved Geo Prizm) served me well for 10 years until I finally sold it because I was then working from home (see #9 below) and could no longer justify paying the insurance on a second car that was almost never driven. If I had it to do over, I might try at least looking for a late-model used car that would have been within the $10,000 limit and would still allow Grandma to feel like she'd given me an almost-new car—but I can't really say I regret owning my Little Red. (Thanks, Grandma, wherever you are.)

4. Living in Princeton for seven years. Now we're starting to get into the real extravagances. The town where I grew up was, as I said, not accessible by public transportation, and there wasn't much of anything to do within walking distance, either. If you wanted to go out and have fun, you could either drive down to the mall, or you could go to Princeton, where there were a wide variety of shops and eateries, a movie theater, and the lovely Princeton campus (with all its ongoing events, from football games to a cappella sings), all within walking distance. So from my earliest childhood, my dream was to one day live right in Princeton (or another town like it) and not have to get in my car to go have fun. And since, due to lack of advance career planning on my part (see #2 above) I ended up moving back in with my folks and eventually (after six months) finding a job in their area, it was natural for me to gravitate toward Princeton as the place I wanted to settle. It took me another six months of searching to find a (shared) apartment there that I could afford on my meager starting salary, and I almost certainly could have left home sooner if I'd been willing to settle for living in an apartment complex somewhere in the suburban wilderness—but I didn't really see the point of getting out faster if the place I was getting into wasn't where I wanted to be. So I ended up waiting patiently until I was able to find a reasonably priced apartment, which I followed up over the years with a reasonably priced house-share (good price, but crazy roommates) and finally, a reasonably priced little one-bedroom apartment of my very own (technically an "efficiency," since the basement wasn't supposed to count as living space, but that never stopped me from using it as such). It's certainly true that I could have spent less of my income on housing, and added a lot more to my savings, if I had spent those seven years living in the middle of nowhere and relying on my cute little new car to get me around. But they wouldn't have been seven happy years—and ultimately, what good is having more money if it doesn't make you happy? So nope, no regrets there.

5. Not keeping myself on a tight budget during my single years. Don't get me wrong, I always lived within my income (no mean feat when you're trying to live in Princeton on a starting salary). I wasn't what you'd call extravagant; I couldn't afford to be. I didn't buy designer clothes or eat out on a regular basis. But I also didn't really keep a leash on my spending when it came to small indulgences: cafe mochas at the local coffeehouses, the occasional restaurant lunch, books, CDs and tapes (remember tapes?), or pieces of clothing and jewelry that I didn't really need (though I still have some of them, so maybe they were pretty wise purchases). I did practically all my shopping at the Whole Earth Center, buying bread at $4 a loaf and cheese at $5 a pound, without really weighing the costs and benefits of the organic goodies as compared to conventional versions. And when I became involved with a guy who was, well, let's just say not as careful with his money as I was, there were more dinners out as well, and concerts, and movies. If I had it to do over again, I think I'd still allow myself some of these expenses, but I'd have put more limits on them, making a proper budget and allowing myself a certain amount for groceries, for restaurant meals, clothing, music and books and so on—and a certain amount that I had to set aside in savings before anything else. If I'd done that, I imagine I could have ended my single years with quite a bit more in the bank than I did.

6. Taking a trip to Europe. This one was toward the end of my relationship with the aforementioned inappropriate guy. He had originally planned a trip to Scotland with his best friend, and when his best friend couldn't go, he accepted me as a substitute (that should have been a warning, right?). This was the most expensive trip I've ever taken with my own money—in fact, I think it was the largest single expense I've ever had in my life, aside from houses, cars, and computers (and some of the computers were cheaper). Scotland was lovely and we saw lots of interesting places, but given that he dumped me pretty much immediately after we got back, I can't really think of it as money well spent.

7. Commuting to work by train. During the years that I was living in my own little apartment (see #4 above), I got in the habit of going to work on the "Dinky"—a little one-car light-rail train that connects  Princeton with Princeton Junction, from which you can get to the rest of the world. This certainly wasn't a frugal decision, given that I already owned my little car (see #3 above) and the gas for my short daily commute would have cost considerably less than the $2.50 per day it cost at the time for the Dinky. My rationale for it was that a twenty-minute walk followed by a five-minute train ride (and a five-minute walk at the end) was more enjoyable than a twenty-minute car ride across Route 1, it was better for the environment, and it helped me work a little exercise into my daily routine. All of which was certainly true—but was it enough to justify the cost? Well...probably not. Most likely, what I should have done was to reserve the train commute as a treat for those particularly nice days when it was a pity to be cooped up in a car, and get my daily walk in after work instead. (I could have sold the car instead, I suppose, but I still needed it on rainy days, and to get to my parents' house and other places beyond reach of mass transit.) However, once I moved up to the New Brunswick area with my then-boyfriend (see #8 below), I think the benefits of the train commute became great enough to outweigh the costs, compared with the much longer commute I would have had to make by car in the much more unpleasant traffic on Route 1. (At that point, it would have made more sense to sell my car instead, since we had a second one in the household to get us to all those other places. I did eventually come to this conclusion, but not until I'd left the office life altogether—see #9 below.)

8. Getting involved in a long-distance relationship. When I first met the man who is now my husband, he lived on the other side of the country. We didn't start "seeing" each other immediately, as I was then involved with the aforementioned inappropriate guy, but when our friendship did blossom into romance, we still weren't so much "seeing" each other as spending a lot of time on the phone. The only way we could get any actual time together was to hop on a plane, so tickets to and from California soon became one of the major items in my budget and his. Given the way the relationship worked out in the end, I obviously can't regret embarking on it—but I do still wish I'd had the sense to break up with Mr. Inappropriate sooner and become involved with Mr. Appropriate straight away. If we'd begun seeing each other before he left grad school, not only could we have had more years together, but he might have been able to do his post-doc somewhere on the East Coast, and the years of our courtship wouldn't have been as costly.

9. Quitting my full-time job. Shortly after Mr. Appropriate and I became engaged, I got the news that the company where I'd worked since college was going to be packing up and moving from its train-accessible digs in Princeton Junction to a new location in Hightstown. This meant that commuting by train would no longer be an option, and the commute by car would be even longer and nastier than it had been before—and the new office itself had some additional drawbacks, like a stricter dress code and no kitchen area. This was the last in a string of small vexations that I'd begun having with the job ever since the company, which started out as an independent development house, had been sold to a big publishing giant. Pretty much the first move our new owners made was to sack 20 percent of the employees—and I remember that at the time I almost regretted surviving this round of layoffs, since I thought I might be happier as a freelancer anyway. Still, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to leave when I did if the announcement about the move to Hightstown hadn't come right on the heels of my own engagement. Knowing that I'd soon be married to Brian, and able to get heath insurance through his employer, removed the last serious barrier to taking the plunge. In the eight years since, the freelance life has proved to have its ups and downs; my earnings are uneven, usually seeming to alternate between fat years and lean ones, and of course whatever income I do make takes an extra hit from self-employment tax. But there are many rewards as well: the ability to work exactly what hours I want, to go to a doctor's appointment in the middle of the day without needing to notify anyone beforehand, to take vacation days whenever I want, and to work in my pajamas if I feel like it. (I might be doing it right now, for all you know—who's to say? :-)) And since Brian's salary alone is enough to pay the bills (just about), all my freelance income is pretty much gravy anyway. So as far as the freelance life goes, regrets I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention.

10. Keeping a pet. Technically, the thousand bucks a year (roughly) that we spend on food, supplies and medical care for our cat is just money thrown down the drain, since we gain no practical benefits from keeping her. On the contrary, she's just one more complication in our lives: we have to tend to her every day, and we can't go away for a vacation without finding someone to look after her. But without our kitty, who would keep me company around the house while I'm working at home alone all day? Who would keep us from sleeping late in the morning by meowing outside the bedroom door until we get up? Who would welcome us home after a weekend away with first a hiss to indicate her displeasure at behind left alone and then a series of head-butts and purrs to show that's she's willing to forgive us? Nope, you just can't put a price on that. In terms of value for money, having a cat is a total no-brainer for us. (Now, having a dog, on the other hand, that's a trickier question—which is why we're still on the fence about it after five years in this house.)

So there you have it folks: proof that I sometimes do un-frugal things like anyone else—and moreover, that in many cases, I actually think the un-frugal choice is the right one to make. After all, that's what frugality is really for: not wasting money on the things that don't matter to you so that you'll always have it to spend on the things that do. Which, in my case, include cats, trains, relationships, and a rewarding career—but not European vacations with inappropriate men.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I beat the smart kids!

Earlier this week, I was flipping through a couple of old issues of Real Simple magazine that I got from a free trial back in 2010. One article that caught my eye was the "Moneywise" column, which dealt with kitchen goods. Editors talked with an assortment of experts—a chef, a nutritionist, a food writer—to find out "the lowest prices you can pay for these common pantry items without sacrificing quality." I read it over and realized, with a touch of smugness, that I could think of a way to beat their bottom price on nearly every item on the list. Here's the full list, with their best price, my best price, and how I got it:

1. cereal
  • Real Simple price: $2.50 for a large box. They recommend "sticking with the cheapest options for O's and puffed rice," which are "just as healthy as pricier brands."
  • My price: $1.89. That's how much a 20-ounce box of raisin bran costs at the Aldi. (Their plain bran flakes used to be even less per pound, but they've gone up.)
2. loaf of bread
  • Real Simple price: $2.90. They say it's worth spending extra for "a loaf made of whole grains, with no trans fats or high-fructose corn syrup."
  • My price: $1.30. That's my rough estimate of how much it would cost to make a homemade one-pound loaf of 100 percent whole wheat bread using the recipe that came with our bread machine, using bulk-purchased yeast from the Whole Earth Center and the cheapest whole-wheat flour available at our local store. In addition to having whole grains, no trans fats, and no high-fructose corn syrup, this loaf is made with organic sugar and a free-range egg.
3. vanilla extract
  • Real Simple price: $4.70 for 2 ounces. They assume this is the lowest price it's possible to get for "the pure stuff."
  • My price: 50 cents per ounce. That's my rough estimate of how much it costs to make "the pure stuff" at home, using an organic vanilla bean from the Whole Earth Center and the cheapest vodka available at the local Rite Aid. (But if I didn't have time for that, I could also buy it off the shelf at Trader Joe's, spending $3.99 for 4 ounces—less than half the price they paid per ounce.)
4. dried pasta
  • Real Simple price: $1.60 for 16 ounces. This is their best price for "a recognizable brand," since they claim cheaper brands are "prone to overcooking."
  • My price: 77 cents a pound. Although I actually think that store brands are just as good as name brands, and the only way pasta will overcook is if you, you know, cook it too long, I can generally get a name brand for this price. I just stock up whenever there's a good sale (less than a dollar a pound). This price is the one I stocked up at most recently.
5. nonstick pan
  • Real Simple price: $50. They say this will get you "a thicker pan with a durable nonstick surface."
  • My price: $21. This is the cost at Amazon.com of a 12-inch cast-iron skillet from Lodge Logic, which is rated the best cast-iron pan in the ConsumerSearch report on skillets. (I worked on this report in 2010, and I found that Teflon and its name-brand equivalents—including the "earth friendly" ones—has no real advantage over cast iron. It's cheaper to buy, resists sticking just as well when properly seasoned, and can last for decades. The cast-iron skillets we use at home belonged to Brian's grandmother.)
6. chef's knife
  • Real Simple price: $40. They say this will get you a decent knife made of high-carbon stainless steel with a sturdy handle.
  • My price: $25. This is Amazon.com's price for the 8-inch chef's knife in the Victorinox Swiss Classic line, which was rated the best overall (not just the best value, but the best of the best) in the ConsumerSearch report on kitchen knives.
7. hand mixer
  • Real Simple price: $30. They say for this seldom-used tool, it's fine to go with a basic brand.
  • My price: $36. This was one of the few categories in which I couldn't beat the Real Simple editors. In the ConsumerSearch report on mixers, the most reliable budget-priced hand mixer is a 5-speed Cuisinart with an estimated price of $40. I found that you can get it slightly cheaper at Amazon.com if you buy it in black. However, according to the report, there actually is such a thing as a hand mixer that's too cheap—a $20 Black & Decker model is described as very loud and prone to splattering. So if the Real Simple price is meant to be for the cheapest hand mixer you can find, then I can still beat them on price—or I can beat them on quality while only spending $6 more.
8. pasta sauce
  • Real Simple price: $3.20 for a 24-ounce jar. They recommend looking for a short ingredient list that starts with tomatoes rather than tomato paste.
  • My price: $1.40, my estimated price for a batch of "Fresh Tomato Sauce" using Mark Bittman's recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. It's made from canned tomatoes, onion, olive oil, salt and pepper, and nothing else. (Parmesan and fresh herbs are optional.)
9. orange juice
  • Real Simple price: $3.30 for 64 ounces. This is for "100 percent pure, not from concentrate."
  • My price: $1.99 for 64 ounces. We usually find the frozen concentrate is just fine, but if they insist on the pure stuff, this is what it costs on sale—and it's almost always on sale somewhere.
10. paper towels
  • Real Simple price: $7.30 for 6 rolls. They say this is an area where it's fine to "cut corners," since store brands are usually just as good as name brands.
  • My price: $0. Rags work better than either store-brand or name-brand paper towels, they're reusable, and they're free.
11. flour and sugar
  • Real Simple price: $2.80 for 5 pounds and $3.80 for 5 pounds, respectively. They recommend buying store brands, since differences among brands are virtually nondetectable.
  • My price: $1.99 for 5 pounds and $2.80 for 2 pounds (on sale). Yes, I'm spending significantly more for sugar than they are, but that's because this is one of the few products I always buy organic, regardless of cost. (Sugar is one of the most environmentally destructive crops, and organically grown sugar is...well, it's not as bad.)
12. tortilla chips
  • Real Simple price: $3 for a 9-ounce bag. They recommend going with a high-quality brand that has no ingredients other than corn, oil, and salt.
  • My price: $2 for a whole bunch. I never buy tortilla chips, but I sometimes buy corn tortillas, and the leftovers always get crisped up in the toaster oven, since they don't store well in the fridge or freezer. These homemade chips don't keep as well as the store-bought ones, but they're lower in fat and just as tasty when fresh.
13. olive oil
  • Real Simple price: $9 for 33.8 ounces. This is for "a flavorful extra-virgin."
  • My price: I don't care for the flavor of extra-virgin olive oil, myself, so I tend to buy the cheap stuff, which costs as little as $10 for 3 liters on sale. For "a flavorful extra-virgin," I can meet but not beat their price by buying from the bulk containers at the Whole Earth Center.
14. white rice
  • Real Simple price: $1.60 for 2 pounds, which they claim is "the least expensive package" of long-grain white rice. This works out to 80 cents a pound.
  • My price: $4.99 for 10 pounds at the Aldi—50 cents a pound. (Sale prices might be better, but white rice doesn't seem to go on sale very often. We had to pay full price last time we bought it, and that was after spending a couple of months looking out for a sale.)
15. coffee
  • Real Simple price: $7 for 16 ounces, bought from the bulk bins at the grocery store.
  • My price: $55 for 5 pounds. This was the second one on which I couldn't beat Real Simple's price—but my price is for organic, Fair Trade beans. This is the cost, including shipping, for five pounds of my favorite decaffeinated beans from Dean's Beans.
16. plain yogurt
  • Real Simple price: $2.50 for 32 ounces. This is the price for what they call "the most cost-effective option," meaning the cheapest you can find that tastes decent
  • My price: $3.79 for 32 ounces. I seldom buy yogurt, but I happened to need some recently for a recipe, and the best price my grocery store could offer was $3.19 for a quart of plain yogurt—and the organic Stonyfield Farms brand was only 60 cents more, so I went with that. So this was the third one on which the Real Simple editors beat me.
17. Dutch oven
  • Real Simple price: $50. This is for a "fairly inexpensive" 6-quart pot of enameled cast iron with a tight-fitting lid.
  • My price: $54. The 6-quart Lodge Logic Dutch oven, rated the best budget pick in the ConsumerSearch report on Dutch ovens, is $54 at Amazon.com (if you choose a standard color like red or blue). However, you can get a 5-quart Lodge Dutch oven in plain cast iron—no enamel coating—for only $30.
18. Cheddar cheese
  • Real Simple price: $2.50 for 8 ounces. At this price, they say, you can expect "a creamy consistency and a sharp, nutty taste."
  • My price: $1.50 for 8 ounces. While I can't vouch for the nuttiness of the flavor, I do routinely stock up on sale-priced Cheddar from known brands, such as Cabot, at this price. So after my short run of losses to the Real Simple editors, I finished the article with a win.
Final score: Real Simple 5, Amy 14 (counting flour and sugar as separate items). And that's with 20 months' worth of inflation factored in.

Can anyone beat my prices on the entries I didn't win—or even the ones I did? If so, please. tell me how!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Greatest Hits

Blogger.com appears to have introduced some new features. I can now keep track of how many page views my blog gets in total (1,234 in the last month, which is more than I expected), see which other sites have driven traffic to mine (mostly Google), and even see where in the world my readers are located. (Most of my hits in the past month have come from the United States, but the second-largest share came from Russia—how weird is that? I mean, they don't even use the same alphabet.)

One of the most intriguing features for me was the ability to see how many views each individual entry has received. I just spent a half hour or so browsing through the list to see which entries have been the most popular, and I decided that you all might be interested to see them too (and possibly take a look at them if you missed them the first time around). So here they are, my Top Ten Hits:

#1, with 108 hits: Killer Tofu, which discusses what appear to be some crazy conspiracy theories related to soy products and then goes on to talk about how tofu measures up to other protein sources from an ecofrugal point of view.
#2, with 101 hits: Frugality versus simplicity, which explores the pros and cons of "the simple life" and contrasts it with the ecofrugal life.
#3, with 75 hits: Lowe's en espanol, a complaint about the fact that the English-language version of Lowe's sale flier features higher-priced products than the Spanish-language version. 
#4, with 73 hits: The Paradox of Efficiency, in which I dispute John Tierney's argument that higher energy-efficiency standards actually result in greater total energy use.
#5, with 67 hits: Make it do or do without, a couple of examples from my own life of cases in which an old, patched-up item is actually better than anything that could be purchased new.
#6, with 65 hits: The Resource Equation, which lays out the principle that an ecofrugal decision must balance money against other available resources, including time, materials, and effort.
#7, with 63 hits: Repair or replace?, my first attempt to come up with a useful all-purpose formula for figuring out when it's better to fix up an old item and when it's better to buy a new one. (I explored this question further in Repair or replace, part 2; Repair or replace, part 3; and Repair or replace revisited.)
#8, with 61 hits: Furniture mods, which shows off a couple of projects in which we altered old pieces of furniture to make them fit our space.
#10, with 53 hits (tie): Save Highland Park...from what?, a recent post in which I gripe about local NIMBYs trying to stop "high-density development" on the basis of what I consider to be entirely specious arguments.
#10, with 53 hits (tie): Tinkering, another post about various little projects that Brian and I (well, okay, Brian) did around the house with what we had available.

I'm not sure just what it is about these ten posts in particular that made them more popular than others, but if anyone figures it out, let me know, and I'll try to write more along the same lines.