Sunday, November 27, 2016

A successful tinkering check

In Dungeons and Dragons, there are two ways to repair something that's broken. You can use magic (such as the Mend spell), or you can make a "tinkering check," using your own knowledge and aptitude to try and cobble something together to make it work. You roll a die, then add a number that reflects your "tinkering skill," and if the total is above a certain number, you succeed in fixing your damaged thingamajig.

Of course, this is a lot easier to do in the game than in real life. In the real world, your success or failure doesn't depend on a die roll: you have to use your ingenuity to figure out a way to fix the thingamajig, and then put some actual effort into making it work. But, by the same token, when you succeed, it's a lot more satisfying than simply rolling well on a die. You know that you've fixed this thing by your own cleverness and the sweat of your brow, and that thanks to your efforts, you won't have to spend money on a new one.

Here's an example of how my husband, the Master Tinkerer, successfully tinkered a small item today. This little device from the drugstore is used for splitting pills, so you can take a smaller dose if that's all you need. Brian calls it my "pillotine." It has two parts: a base with a V-shaped plastic next that holds the pill securely in place, and a hinged lid with a blade attached. You raise the lid, tuck the pill into the V, and bring the lid down, THWACK—and if all goes well, the pill splits neatly in half.

I used this successfully for years, but recently I started taking a magnesium supplement that's a fairly large, fairly hard pill. Splitting several of those apparently put undue stress on the pillotine. One morning when I brought the lid down, instead of the pill giving way beneath the blade, the little plastic support in the base gave way beneath the pill. Turning it over, I found that it had cracked right below the place where the pill sits, and I wouldn't be able to use the gadget again until I found some way to shore it up.

I presented this problem to Brian, and he took the pillotine down to his la-BOR-atory to work on it. At first he considered just filling in the whole space below the damaged plastic part with a wedge of wood, but he realized that if he did that, any pressure applied to the pillotine lid would probably transfer through to the base and leave gouges in whatever surface it was sitting on. So instead, he started looking for something flatter he could glue to the existing plastic base. After rummaging through his collection of objects that appear, to the untrained eye, to be random useless junk, he found a small metal bracket about the right size to tuck into the base of the pillotine. He bent this into the appropriate shape with pliers, glued it to the plastic base with epoxy, and clamped the whole mess shut while it dried.

After several hours, we removed the clamp and gave the pillotine a test run. Rather than start out with one of the extra-tough magnesium supplements, I selected a different type of supplement, with a more elongated shape, which is usually a little easier to split. I lined it up in the V, brought down the blade, and THUNK! It split satisfyingly into two nice, equal pieces. We'll still have to test it once more on the tougher pills, but for now, it looks like it's as good as new—better, in fact, since its new metal base can hold up to more punishment than the original plastic one.

Now, to some people, this might seem like a lot of unnecessary trouble to go to over a gadget that only costs six bucks to replace. And sure, I'll admit that it would have been easier just to throw it out and buy a new one. But I think even for something as small as this, repairing it yourself is worth the effort, for three reasons:

  • It's less wasteful. Why send the pillotine to languish in some landfill, and buy a whole new one made from virgin materials, just because one tiny piece of it was broken? By repairing it, we were able to salvage all the perfectly useful parts—the plastic case, the hinged lid, and the metal blade—rather than spending money and natural resources on brand-new ones.
  • It's more satisfying. There's no skill involved in throwing an old gadget in the trash and buying a new one. But repairing it by the exercise of your wits and your hands is both an interesting creative challenge while you're doing it, and an achievement you can take pride in when you're done.
  • It keeps your tinkering skills in shape. By practicing regularly on little items like this, you can keep your wits and your hands in top condition. That way, when something big breaks that actually would cost big bucks to fix, you can feel more confident about repairing it yourself, because you've had plenty of practice. Or, to put it in Dungeons and Dragons terms: the more successful tinkering checks you make on small items like this, the higher your tinkering skill becomes, and the better your chances of succeeding at repairing the castle's catapult in time to do battle with the invading army of orcs. 
Admittedly, most of us don't have to battle armies of orcs in the real world all that often. But battling the high cost of living is a challenge we all share, and the more you sharpen your skills, the better equipped you are to deal with it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Money Crashers: 5 Ways to Save Money on Holiday Gifts

For years now, I've been grumping about the phenomenon of "Christmas creep": the way the "holiday season" keeps being stretched earlier and earlier, to the point that it completely swamps out Thanksgiving and is in danger of drowning Halloween as well. However, I've come to accept that when you work as a writer, you kind of have to start your holiday stories—or any other type of story that's seasonal—well ahead of time if you want to get them published before the holiday actually arrives. (And sometimes even that doesn't work, as with this article on green gifts that I wrote for Money Crashers last year, which didn't show up on the site until four days before Christmas.)

So, when I proposed another holiday shopping article for Money Crashers, I made a point of submitting it by the middle of November to make sure it got published on schedule. And it turns out, I succeeded perhaps a little too well: the article actually popped up yesterday, a little ahead of Thanksgiving. However, in this case, I guess it's actually appropriate, since part of the article is about how to save money by shopping sales—and like it or not, the best sales do tend to occur during Thanksgiving weekend. So if you're going to be prepared for them, you kind of have to start your planning before Thanksgiving Day.

So I hope you all will look on this article, not as a distraction from tomorrow's holiday, but as a little preview to help you prepare for the next one. It covers everything you need to know about holiday shopping on a budget, including:

  • How to figure out a price limit for holiday gifts
  • How to trim your gift list without causing hurt feelings
  • Holiday gift exchanges (such as "secret Santa") as an alternative to shopping for the whole family
  • When secondhand gifts are and aren't appropriate, and where to find good ones
  • How to make homemade gifts that will actually be appreciated
  • The relative merits of shopping in stores and online for holiday sales
  • How to shop sales strategically
  • How to save money when shipping presents to out-of-town friends 

Learn all about it here: 5 Ways to Save Money on Holiday Gifts for Your Friends & Family

You can also find some useful info in that older article on eco-friendly gifts. It was too late for last year's holiday season, but it can still be of service this year, with green gift ideas for everyone on your list: How to Buy or Make Green, Eco-Friendly Gifts for the Holidays

Monday, November 21, 2016

Money Crashers: What’s the Best Way to Travel During the Holidays?

Every year, Brian and I drive out to his parents' house for Christmas. It's a long trip—about 12 hours, including stops—so we usually leave before dawn to try and make it there by dinnertime. For the return trip, we leave a little later so we can have breakfast and say goodbye to everyone, so we don't get home until around 10pm after stopping for dinner along the road. That gives us maybe an hour to unpack the car and pet the cats and go through our week-long backlog of mail before going to bed.

Some folks might wonder why we bother making such a long trip by car. Wouldn't it be a lot faster to fly? Well, yes, it would—though not as much faster as you might think, since you also have to factor in travel time to and from the airport, as well as waiting time at the airport. But it would also be a lot more expensive: probably over a grand for the tickets, baggage fees, parking, and overpriced airport food. It would also be a lot less pleasant. In addition to spending the actual flight crammed into those narrow seats with a bunch of strangers, unable even to take a bathroom break until the seat belt sign went off, we'd have to deal with all the hassles of driving to the airport, parking, checking baggage, going through security, waiting around at the gate, claiming baggage, and worrying about missing our plane. (No matter how early we leave, we always worry about missing our plane.) Plus, we wouldn't be able to haul much baggage, so all the Christmas presents would have to be shipped ahead of time. Add that to the hefty carbon footprint of air travel, and it's easy to see why we consider a long trip in the car preferable to a short trip by plane.

From time to time, I've wished that we could make this trip by train instead. Trains are usually my favorite way to travel, especially for a medium-to-long-haul trip like this one, because they're a lot more comfortable than either cars or planes. You have enough room to stretch out in your seat; you can look out the window at the scenery; you can get up and walk around any time you like, get up and go get a snack, play cards, and all sorts of things you can't easily do on the road. But when I checked, just out of curiosity, to see how much it would cost to take a train to Indiana, I discovered that the only train that could get us there is an Amtrak that's routed all the way down to D.C. and back through Kentucky before finally making it to Indy 23 hours later. Yes, you read that right—23 hours, nearly twice as long as our trip by car. It definitely wasn't a viable option.

However, as the holidays approached this year, I got to thinking that just because driving works best for us, that doesn't necessarily mean it's best for others. So I decided to do a post for Money Crashers comparing different types of holiday travel. In exhaustive detail, I outline the pros and cons of flying, driving, and bus or train travel, comparing cost, time, convenience, safety, and carbon footprint. Along the way, I offer some general tips about how to make your trip cheaper, greener, and less stressful, no matter how you travel. And I wrap it all up with some general advice on how to calculate the costs and benefits for yourself and figure out which mode of travel is best for your holiday trip.

Here's the full article: What’s the Best Way to Travel During the Holidays? – Cost & Time Considerations. Here's wishing you and yours a pleasant trip.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The doorknob dilemma

Back in April, when Brian finished the new bifold doors in the office, I predicted that sprucing up the doors would inspire us to tackle a full makeover of that room. As it turns out, I was both right and wrong. I was right in observing that the other parts of the room—in particular, the main door—looked shabby by comparison with the spiffy new doors. And sure enough, not long after finishing the bifold project, Brian decided to take down that door and start the laborious process of sanding it down, refinishing it to match the bifolds, and rehanging it.

The newly refinished door was a vast improvement over the old one. But once it was in place, suddenly the other doors in the hallway started to look dingy by comparison. And so rather than tackle the rest of the office, we decided our next big project should be to refinish all the doors on the upper level. (Well, most of them, at least. The two doors in the guest room—the main door and the closet door—had already been refinished as part of the process of redoing that room back in 2014, so we could cross those off our list right away.)

One advantage of this as a project is that it didn't have to be done all at once. In fact, it pretty much couldn't be, because Brian only has enough room downstairs in the shop to work on one door at a time. So this project proceeded slowly, door by door, over the course of several months. After the office door, he moved on to the bathroom door, which was probably the next-worst-looking of the lot. This meant that we had to have a doorless bathroom for a period of a few days, but it wasn't a big problem; we just made sure to do it at a time when we knew we wouldn't be having any visitors. The only real difficulty was figuring out where in the small bathroom to store our towels, which normally hang on the back of the door, and Brian solved that by temporarily transferring the towel rack to the guest room door, which is just a couple of steps away. The towels could hang out there while drying, and when we needed to hop in the shower, we could just transfer them to the handy wall hooks we added next to the tub.

Once that was done, Brian tackled the two hall closet doors: the coat closet and the linen closet. Since these were both narrower than a room door, he was able to fit both of them onto his worktable at once, so he saved a bit of time by doing them simultaneously. By this time, he'd had enough practice to get the whole process down to a science, so he was able to refinish both doors in three days: one to take them down, haul them outside, sand them, and stain them; one to give them a single coat of finish, doing one side in the morning and one in the afternoon; and one more to give them a second coat and, once that was dry, rehang them.

The trickiest door to deal with was our bedroom door. Unlike the others, it couldn't simply be left off the doorway during refinishing, because our two cats are strictly forbidden to enter the bedroom. Even if it wouldn't have killed us to let them in for just a few days, it would have set a highly undesirable precedent. ("No, no, the bedroom is still off limits! Yes, I know we let you into it last week, but that was an exception!") At first we thought we could just transfer the office door to our bedroom—but when Brian tried that, he discovered that, although the two doors are the same size, their doorknobs apparently aren't installed at exactly the same height. They look the same to the naked eye, but there's a difference of about half an inch—enough to prevent the door from closing properly. Fortunately, we found that the door from the bedroom closet was a close enough match for the main bedroom door that we could actually get it to close (with a little bit of pulling). So Brian just took off the closet door and refinished that first, and then he installed it in place of the main bedroom door while refinishing that one.

So, as of this month, we officially have nice, new, freshly refinished doors in every single room of the house. But of course, there's a fly in the ointment. While the doors themselves look much better now, they're still sporting the same old mismatched collection of doorknobs they had when we first moved in. The office door has a round, shiny brass knob, the bathroom has a keyed one, and the other doors all have generic, builder-grade "bell" door knobs in various stages of wear. And just as the new office door made the old one look bad, the newly refinished doors are now highlighting just how cruddy their old knobs look.

Our makeover of the doors itself was about as ecofrugal as it could possibly be. Brian did all the work, and the only supplies he had to buy were a can of stain and a can of polyurethane (both water-based to minimize odor and VOCs). The entire project cost us probably less than $100. But unfortunately, we can't really work with the existing doorknobs the way we did with the doors. They don't match, they're in crappy shape, and they're a pretty ugly style to begin with. So if we want our shiny new doors to have knobs worthy of them, they'll have to be new knobs. The question is, what kind?

Design sites and blogs are always quick to point out that details like door knobs—the kinds of things that most people don't consciously notice—can actually have a tremendous impact on the overall feel of a room. When the Petersiks at Young House Love repainted all the doors in their new house, they devoted an entire post to the process of choosing new knobs to go with them, complete with a "mood board" showing 14 styles they considered (ranging in price from $16 to over $100 apiece). And I personally agree that it's important for little details like this to be in keeping with the overall architectural character of a house. (For example, the oil-rubbed bronze knobs the Petersiks eventually settled on, with a large rectangular plate behind them, look great on their house's white-painted, six-panel doors, but they'd look ridiculously out of place on our flat, dark wood doors.)

So I knew that, to replace the old knobs, I wanted something that would look like it belonged in a circa-1970 rambler like ours. But the problem is, when you try to search "1970s style doorknob," you get lots of sites that sell door knobs and basically none that talk about what kind of knobs were actually in use during this time. The only type of door knob shown in most pictures of houses from this era is the generic brass "bell" knob we have now, and this thread from Old House Web indicates that this was the standard type in houses of this era.

The only recommendation I could find for something a bit more distinctive was this Weslock door knob, which a door hardware site described as a "funky" style suitable for a '70s house. (You can also see it in this YouTube video on updating an old door, which is sort of the opposite of what I want to do.) I like the look of this knob, and I think it would fit in with our doors, but they cost around $22 apiece. Actually, the best price I've found is $21.50 for the "passage knob," with no lock, and $23 for the "privacy knob," which we'd need for the bathrooms and probably all the bedrooms too. So with three bedrooms, two baths, four upstairs closets, and two other rooms downstairs (the boiler room and the shop), we're looking at over $250 worth of hardware here—quite a bit more than we spent on the doors themselves.

So now I'm wondering: is it really worth the cost? Given that these are still basically just builder-grade doors, would we be better off just buying builder-grade knobs like these, which come in a contractor pack that costs $30 for four knobs? They're not as distinctive, but they're presentable, and we could do the whole house for under $100. This would keep the total cost of the project much more reasonable—but on the other hand, we could use the fact that we spent so little on the doors themselves to justify splurging a little on the knobs. So which makes more sense: keep it simple and cheap, or splurge on something special?

Of course, I could just follow my usual practice and put off making a decision at all, in the hopes that a better bargain will fall into my lap. The obvious downside of that is that we have to live with the crappy knobs in the meantime—but I could always just claim I'm waiting to deal with the knobs until after we've finished repainting all the door casings. Those are at least as crappy-looking as the knobs, so it's easy to make a case that getting them painted should be our first priority. Given how long it takes us to finish a decorating project around here, getting that done could easily take another six months, and who knows what new and marvelous sources of door hardware I might discover in that time?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Butternut Squash Pizza with Fresh Sage

This month's Recipe of the Month is another original creation of Brian's—sort of. We've harvested a good crop of butternut squash from the garden this year (about 10 squash so far, and a few more still on the vine), and we were thinking it would be nice to make something new with it besides our standard butternut squash soufflé and lasagna. Brian recalled, or at least thought he recalled, that at one point we'd made a butternut squash pizza with fresh sage that was pretty good, so he started hunting through our cookbook collection for the recipe. But after a good 20 minutes of hunting, he couldn't find it in any book on our shelf, nor in the substantial file we have of recipes clipped out of magazines. Either we'd lost it somehow, or he'd just imagined it.

By that time, though, he was really hung up on the idea of butternut squash pizza, and he couldn't just let it go. So, being Brian, he decided to make up a new version on the spot.

He already had a basic go-to recipe for pizza dough, so he started with that. Actually, he modified the standard recipe somewhat: normally, when he makes pizza these days, he uses half white and half whole wheat flour, as a concession to health. But the butternut squash pizza recipe he remembered, or thought he remembered, had a plain white crust, so he used only white flour in the dough. He also threw in an extra tablespoon of gluten to compensate for the fact that he was using all-purpose flour rather than bread flour. As it turns out, this resulted in a considerably puffier dough than he's used to, so when he spread it into the pizza pan, there was a lot of extra crust around the edges. He's not sure why it turned out that way, but since I always think the crust is the best part of the pizza anyway, it was a happy accident as far as I was concerned.

After flattening down the crust as best he could, he brushed it with olive oil and then started adding toppings: mozzarella cheese, fresh sage, sautéed red onion, and thin slices of butternut squash, arranged in a single layer with no overlap. Then he sprinkled on a little salt and baked the whole thing until the squash was soft and the crust was browned—probably about half an hour. And, since it had that big, puffy crust on it, he also steeped some extra sage leaves and salt in melted butter and served that on the side so we could dip the crust pieces in it.

Although the recipe didn't come out exactly as Brian envisioned it, I think it was delicious just as it was. The softened butternut just melted in the mouth, and its sweetness blended with the piquant sage and onion was like the taste of autumn itself. I didn't even mind the extra-heavy crust, since it gave us built-in breadsticks for dipping. The only thing I'd do differently next time is to use olive oil in the dipping sauce, rather than melted butter.

So, since I think this recipe is gourmet quality already, I'm listing it here just as Brian made it. However, if you think you'd prefer it with a more normal-sized crust, leaving out the gluten and cutting down the yeast to a teaspoon would probably take care of that.

  1. Dough: In a large bowl, combine 3/4 c. water and 2 tsp. yeast. Then add 3/4 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. sugar, 1 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil, 1 Tbsp. gluten (optional), and about 2 cups all-purpose flour (add more flour if the dough is too sticky). Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Then put it back in the bowl and let it rise at least 1 hour. If it needs to sit longer before you're ready to use it, you can punch it down halfway through.
  2. Toppings: Coarsely grate 1/2 pound mozzarella cheese (you can use shredded cheese from a package, but it won't be as good). Peel a chunk of butternut squash and slice it into thin, half-round pieces. Pick 15-16 fresh sage leaves and cut them up into smallish pieces. Slice 1/2 red onion thinly and sauté in olive oil until softened and slightly brown.
  3. Assembly: Turn out the dough onto your pizza pan, adding flour to the pan and your fingers if the dough is sticky, and spread it out into the pan, leaving a thick, raised crust around the edge. Paint the crust lightly with olive oil. Spread the mozzarella, sage, and onion evenly over the top. Lay out the butternut squash slices in a single layer until they completely cover the flat surface, leaving only the raised crust exposed. Bake the pizza at 400°F about half an hour, or until the squash is soft and the crust lightly browned.
  4. To serve: Cut up a few more sage leaves and add them to a small bowl of olive oil, with salt to taste. Serve this on the side for dipping the crust.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Thinking wrong about wealth

Today, in a desperate effort to avoid thinking about the upcoming election, I started looking again at some of the material I used for my article on the middle class in America. And this time, it struck me that the various ways of defining the middle class (and, by extension, the wealthy and the poor) were not just different, but in some ways contradictory.

Take us as an example. According to this article at CNN Money, the "most common" way of defining the middle class is based on income. There are various ways you can divvy up the U.S. population to figure out who's in the middle, but most of them agree that Brian and I are part of it. The article cites one common formula created by the Pew Research Center, which defines middle class as anywhere from two-thirds of the median income to twice the median for a given household size. And according to this calculator on the Pew website, a household of two people with our income falls smack dab in this middle range. So according to Pew, we're neither rich nor poor; we're solidly middle-income.

But, of course, there's a problem with defining wealth based on income alone. As CNN points out, your social class really has more to do with how much you spend than how much you make, because this "more accurately reflects your well-being." If your income varies widely from year to year (as mine does), you don't suddenly cease to be middle-class just because you're having an especially good or bad year.

So CNN also cites the formula created by Professor James X. Sullivan of Notre Dame, which measures class based on how much you spend on all your needs (food, housing, transportation, etc.) and wants (such as entertainment). It specifically excludes costs for health care and education, since those could be considered investments for the future rather than expenses in the present. Sullivan defines the middle class as those whose spending in these areas falls in the middle quintile for all U.S. households. For a family of four, that's $38,200 to $49,900.

Now, if you define middle class this way, it looks like Brian and I no longer make the cut. Our annual spending (not counting "investment" spending like health insurance and retirement contributions) is lower than the minimum for a middle-class family. Granted, our household has only two people, not four, but there's nothing in the article to suggest Sullivan actually makes any adjustment for this. So it looks like, as far as he's concerned, we're too poor—or at least, we're living too much like poor people—to qualify as middle-class. And we certainly couldn't be considered wealthy.

But there's a problem with this definition, too. Defining class based on spending, rather than income, makes it possible for a family to raise its position by borrowing money—living a middle-class lifestyle that's financed with debt. But a family that takes home $45,000 a year and then spends all of it and then some isn't really well off; it's steadily losing ground. It hardly makes sense to say they're better off than a family down the street that's bringing in $40,000 and spending only $30,000, gradually building up more wealth every year.

Based on that reasoning, it makes more sense to define class based on overall wealth—in other words, net worth. CNN cites a third formula, developed by Professor Edward Wolff of NYU that defines the middle class as all those households whose net worth falls into the middle three quintiles for the country as a whole—that is, anywhere between $0 and $401,000. And according to this definition, Brian and I still don't qualify for middle class—but for the opposite reason. Wolff's formula bumps Brian and me out of the middle class and into the ranks of the wealthy. So while Sullivan considers us too poor for the middle class, Wolff considers us too rich.

Now here's what's bothering me about all this. Most people looking at the CNN article would tend to assume that the various definitions of the middle class, the poor, and the wealthy generally apply to the same group of people. Sure, using spending rather than income may put a few more people into the middle group, while going by wealth may include less. But in general, those who make the most money are also those who spend the most and, over time, accumulate the most—right?

Well, no, not really. Because when you look at the numbers for me and Brian, it's plain to see that our net worth is higher than normal for our income, while our spending is lower than normal. And once you think about those three numbers together, it makes perfect sense that this would be the case. The whole reason we have more money than most of our peers in the same income group is because we don't spend as much. Spending less than your income naturally means you save more, and saving more naturally means you build up more wealth. This isn't a surprise result; it's exactly what you'd expect. Except that, if you were relying on the standard definitions of the middle-class and the wealthy, you wouldn't.

The real problem here is that each formula is looking at just one of these numbers—income, spending, or net worth—by itself. But in reality, these three numbers are linked—and not in a positive way. Yes, it's often the case that the more you earn, the faster your net worth grows. But the more you spend of what you earn, the slower your net worth grows. And a real understanding of wealth needs to account for this.

So I think the most important number to consider isn't income (how much you make), or expenses (how much you spend), or even net worth (how much you have already). Instead, it's a frugal person's favorite line in the budget: how much you save. By looking at this one number, you can tell instantly, at a glance, by how much you're getting ahead—or falling behind—each year. That's the number that people should really be comparing if they want to see how they're doing relative to their peers.

Now technically, this number doesn't measure how wealthy you are right now; instead, it measures how much wealthier you're growing. But here's the thing: I think for most people, that's what's they really care most about. As this article from the Christian Science Monitor points out, a classic definition of the middle class centers on "upward mobility coupled with a measure of financial stability": not just where you are, but where you're going. Simply put, people are more likely to feel well off when their financial position is getting better—regardless of where it is right now.

I'm not the first person to suggest this. Financial reporter Bob Sullivan, in "The Restless Project," argued that many Americans who look well-off on paper feel financially insecure because "they are working harder, and perhaps making more money than they'd ever dreamed, but yet falling behind anyway." And conversely, financial writer Donna Freedman declared back in 2007 that she was not just surviving but "thriving" on $12,000 a year, because she was building up her savings and even had enough to give to charity.

I don't have enough actual data to come up with a full-fledged formula for gauging your social class based on your savings rate. I can feel pretty confident in saying that anyone who's saving more than half of what they make every year—no matter how little that is—is doing well, and anyone who's saving nothing is not. There's a lot of middle ground in there, and I'm not sure at what point along that spectrum the average person would feel financially comfortable. But I do know this: it has to be somewhere in that range. Anyone who is saving nothing—no matter how much they make—is not going to feel financially secure, nor should they.

I'm not saying that savings is the only number that matters, and income and net worth are irrelevant. But it is definitely a number that matters—and as far as I can tell, it's the one number no one is looking at.