Saturday, December 9, 2017

Normal behavior is crazy

Yesterday, Brian and I were out in the yard, dealing with the long-delayed task of raking up this fall's leaves. We distributed most of them across our various planting beds—the rhubarb, the asparagus, the bush cherries, and the new flowerbed in the front—where they will provide a layer of moisture-preserving mulch and insulation from the cold, which we hope will help the plants get an earlier start in spring. The leftover leaves that the beds couldn't accommodate got scooped into the compost bin, along with the dried-out remains of last year's wildflowers and asparagus, to break down into free, organic fertilizer that will give next year's beds a nutrient boost without any harmful chemicals.

At some point during this process, it occurred to me—as it occasionally does while going about my ecofrugal life—that what we were doing was not normal.

What a normal person would do is use a leaf blower to corral all those leaves, scoop them into leaf bags, and leave them at the curb to be hauled off to the landfill. Then, having saved so much time and energy by substituting a noisy, fuel-burning, carbon-emitting engine for their own muscle power, they would hop in their fuel-burning, carbon-emitting car and go off to an expensive gym to get some exercise. And on the way home, they'd probably stop at the home center to pick up a few bags of mulch for the flower beds, and possibly some fertilizer for next year's garden.

Moreover, it would simply never occur to them that it was possible to do anything else. If they happened, while heading out in the car, to spot us in our yard raking our own leaves—saving money and gas, and getting some free, healthy exercise to boot—they would probably smile pityingly (or perhaps smugly) on those poor folks who "couldn't afford" a leaf blower to do the job for them. If we tried to explain that we were raking our own leaves because we wanted to, they'd think we were crazy.

But what's really crazy here? Our ecofrugal lifestyle—or the "normal" way of doing things? Are we crazy for doing a simple job with our own hands instead of an expensive, gas-guzzling machine, or is it crazy that we live in a society where that's not considered normal?

Once I had this epiphany—that normal makes no sense—I started seeing more examples everywhere. For instance, when I spotted the stack of holiday gifts in our guest room, all wrapped in reusable gift bags and reused wrapping paper, I realized that, if I were normal, I'd just go out and buy new wrapping paper every year and send it all to the landfill after a single use. (According to this Marketplace story, Americans spend more than $7 billion a year on wrapping paper—$21 for every man, woman, and child in the country—and most of it can't even be recycled.)

I noticed it yet again later in the day, when we stopped off at a Starbucks after doing some holiday shopping and pulled out a deck of cards to play cribbage, instead of each sitting down and staring at a screen like everyone else in the place. (Of course, I realize that some frugal folks would argue stopping at Starbucks at all, and spending $4 on a cup of coffee—even if it's a peppermint mocha—is itself crazy. But at least Starbucks is an eco-friendly business that I'm happy to support, and a cup of coffee from there is no more harmful to the earth than one brewed at home—with the exception of the disposable cup, but come on, it's a special holiday cup that doubles as a coloring book. That's a kind of crazy I'm willing to live with.)

The fact is, a lot of things we ecofrugal folks do are going to come across as weird to society in general. Heck, even an article about frugality on Money Crashers went so far as to attack "the crazy things some people do" to save money, like cutting Post-It notes in half (rather than wasting a whole square to write a single word) or doing the same thing with dryer sheets (thereby spending less money, wasting less material, and halving their exposure to the questionable chemicals these sheets contain). The author, who describes himself as a frugal person, nonetheless says anyone who has "ever thought of doing stuff like that" needs to "take a chill pill" and quit "living like you're an early primate."

This kind of judgmental sneering can sometimes lead us to question our ecofrugal choices and wonder if we really are being unreasonable—perhaps even crazy—for trying to save money and help the environment, instead of living a wasteful, "normal" lifestyle. At times like this, it helps to take a step back and objectively compare what you want to do with what the rest of society is doing, and ask yourself which one makes more sense. Then you can throw your head back and shout along with Suicidal Tendencies, "I'm not crazy! You're the one that's crazy!"

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I need to get outside and start shoveling the year's first snow off our sidewalks. And if any of our "normal" neighbors show up at the same time with their loud, heavy, expensive snow blowers, we'll have fun seeing if they can actually get the job done any faster.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Cheap tools for role-playing games

Tonight, Brian and I are having some friends over for role-playing games (RPGs for short). Since most visitors to this blog probably don't play this sort of game, I'll start out with a quick explanation: role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), are a type of game in which all the players tell a story together. Each player assumes the role of a particular character, and all the characters go through a series of adventures together—which, depending on the game, could involve battling goblins, tracking down criminals, fending off alien invaders, or dealing with palace intrigue. The only player who doesn't have a specific role is the game master, or GM, who instead plays the rest of the world, telling the players what they see and what other people they meet as they move through it.

Personally, I think RPGs are about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. But I realize that to the uninitiated, they can seem a little intimidating. Especially with the more complex game systems, such as D&D, there just seem to be so many different things to keep track of—sheets with your characters' abilities, spells for magic-using characters, dice, pens, maps, and enough rules to fill three large books (with an ever-growing number of extra books full of additional, optional rules). And if you tune in one of the increasingly popular "liveplay" shows in which professional entertainers broadcast their RPG sessions online (such as Critical Role, a personal obsession of ours), the elaborate, gorgeous game maps, miniatures, and other paraphernalia could easily give you the impression that this must be a very expensive hobby.

But here's the thing: it doesn't have to be. Yes, you have to shell out money for the basic rulebooks (though, as I noted in my Money Crashers article on affordable tabletop games, there are quite a few systems for which you can pick up at least a starter set of the rules for little or nothing. (Even for D&D, one of the more expensive systems out there, you can access a free set of basic rules online.) And many games require a set of special polyhedral dice, which you can pick up for around six bucks at sites such as NewEgg. Aside from that, virtually everything you need to play a tabletop RPG can be made from materials you probably have lying around your house.

In this post, I'll share several examples of inexpensive tools for your home RPG. All of these are tools Brian has been using in the D&D campaign he's been GM'ing at our house. A couple of them come from ideas he found online and borrowed or adapted for our game; others are entirely his own invention.

Tool #1: The Picture-Frame Battle Map
Many if not most RPGs involve some amount of combat. During a battle, it can get tricky to keep track of exactly where all the players and their enemies are, so it's useful to have a map on which you can place miniatures representing the PCs (player characters) and NPCs (non-player characters run by the GM). Maps are also useful to help the players visualize the terrain as they work their way through a fortress they're trying to take by stealth or the subterranean lair of a dragon (and to let the GM know exactly when the PCs are about to set off one of the many traps with which such settings are invariably dotted).

There are lots of ways to create a map for the players. On Critical Role, battles tend to take place on beautiful, three-dimensional maps crafted by Dwarven Forge, which look absolutely amazing and can cost hundreds of dollars. However, most home gamers have to content themselves with lower-tech solutions, such as hand-drawn paper maps, cardboard dungeon tiles that you can arrange to form various natural and unnatural settings, and dry-erase boards on which you can mark out the rough shape of the room and the positions of PCs and NPCs with a marker.

The battle map Brian uses is an elegant design of his own. He printed out a grid of large squares (using an image he found online by searching for "grid paper") and framed it in an inexpensive 24"x36" picture frame we had lying around. (You can get one like it for about 10 bucks at Target.) He uses a dry-erase marker to draw out his maps on the plastic surface of the frame. The gridlines provide a built-in scale—typically, one inch to five feet—so we can tell how big and how far apart everything our characters see is. And at the end of each encounter, it can simply be wiped clean with a rag.

Tool #2: Print-Your-Own Minis 
Once you've got your battle map, you need something to put on it to represent your characters and the creatures you're fighting. (You could just mark your positions with a marker, but that means an awful lot of erasing and redrawing during each battle, and with a setup like ours, you'd risk erasing part of the wall by accident.) You can purchase specially designed figurines, commonly known as "minis," to portray just about any type of person or creature—but these can get expensive, and after you've been playing for a while, your ever-growing collection will start to take up quite a lot of room.

Brian, searching for a cheaper solution, decided to adapt an idea he'd seen online: minis printed on paper and held in little clip-on stands. To make the stands, he took several ordinary binder clips of varying sizes (the kind you can pick up for around $3.50 a box at Staples) and removed the wire part. He then asked me to comb the Internet for images we could pick up and use (without permission, but after all, it's only a home game) to represent each of our characters. For instance, I chose this adorable little cartoon to represent my gnomish wizard, Gnome Ann (named after this XKCD cartoon), and this willowy beauty for our elven druid. Brian also found some sample images he could use for monsters we might need to fight.

To print these out, he used a program called Inkscape (a free knockoff of Adobe Illustrator) to lay out sheets with the various images. To make two-sided minis, he used two copies of each image—one right-side-up, one upside-down—so that the printed piece can be cut out and folded. Here's a sample sheet showing some character minis (labeled with the characters' names) and some monsters of medium, large, and huge size. After printing the sheet, he cuts out each mini, folds it, glues it shut with a glue stick, and "laminates" it by covering it with clear packing tape. (This works better for the smaller minis than for the big ones.) These little pieces of stiffened paper can be slipped into and out of the clip bases as needed. With the clips to hold them, they'll stand up on their own and can be moved about the battle map easily.

Tool #3: The DIY GM Screen
One difficulty for the GM is keeping the secret details of an adventure, such as where a trap is hidden or which friendly NPC is planning to betray the party, hidden from the players. Many GMs get around this problem by using a GM screen, which conceals everything the GM wishes to keep secret. There are all kinds of GM screens available online, from this $25 model with vinyl pockets that can hold maps or rules sheets you refer to often to this handcrafted hardwood model that can store everything a GM could possibly need—rule books, dice, even a tablet—and costs about as much as a ticket to Hawaii. And online videos like this one show you how to build your own GM screen with reference sheets built in.

However, if all you need your screen to do is, well, screen, then you can easily make one out of corrugated cardboard for nothing. Brian constructed his by taking apart an Amazon shipping box, cutting the cardboard down to an appropriate size, and folding it in several places so that it can stand upright and wrap neatly around his spot at the end of the table, keeping all his stuff hidden. (Cat not included.)

He decorated it by cutting crenellations into the top and sketching in a grid to resemble the stonework of a castle wall, but you don't even have to do this much if you don't want to. An unadorned sheet of cardboard will serve just as well to keep all your GM business private.

Tool #4: Turn Order Cards
Now, you may notice in the above pictures that there are several small cards arranged along the top edges of the GM screen. These are to solve another problem that comes up in running battle scenes: keeping track of whose turn it is. In many systems, players determine their turn order by rolling a die, and the GM usually has to write down all the numbers with the associated names—along with separate numbers for the players' adversaries—to make sure everyone gets their turn. But in a large battle, it can be hard to keep track of all those numbers, and even the most experienced GMs sometimes skip over someone by accident.

Brian's solution is these handy turn order cards. He can't actually claim credit for this idea, since he picked it up from another gamer whose page he saw online—but unfortunately, he can't remember where. It's too bad, because this idea is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity. All you need is a folded index card with the name of each PC, plus cards for each foe the PCs are facing. Then, once you've determined the turn order for the battle, you arrange all the cards in that order in a row along the top edge of the GM screen. Brian marks his cards on both sides so that both the players and the GM can read them. Since the same set of cards reads from left to right for the players and right to left for the GM, he added little arrows on each side to show which direction the order of play is proceeding in.

These cards come in handy in several ways. First of all, the GM can see at a glance who's up next in the turn order, so no one gets skipped. Second, the players can easily see when their turn is coming up, so they can start planning ahead what they intend to do. That way, when the GM points to one and says, "Gnome Ann, you're up; what do you want to do?" they don't just sit there going, "Uh, wait, what?" And finally, the players can tell which other players' turns are coming up after theirs, so if they want to do something to help another character, such as casting a healing spell, they don't have to pepper the GM with questions like, "OK, wait, who goes after me?"

Tool #5: Player Ability Cards
It's not just the GM who has a lot to keep track of during a game session. Each player has an assortment of abilities that can be used only once in a while—some that only work once a day, others that return after a short rest. Normally, the players keep track of these by marking them off on their character sheets when used, then erasing the markings at the start of each new in-game day. But in the heat of battle, it's easy to forget to do this—and even when you remember, all that writing and erasing tends to make a mess of your character sheet.

Brian's innovation was to come up with little index cards for each player with these special abilities marked. For instance, our barbarian, Hafdan, gets to use his rage ability twice a day, giving him bonuses to his strength and agility. To keep track of these, he has two cards marked "Rage," and each time he uses the ability, his player hands the corresponding card over to the GM. When he's out of cards, he's out of rage.

These cards can also be used for wizards and other spell-casting characters to keep track of the spells they've used. Here you see cards for Gnome Ann, showing her Level 1 and Level 2 spell slots. As she casts these spells, I hand the card in to Brian, and I can see at a glance how many spells I have left to use. I also have a card for Ann's "bardic inspiration," which allows me to give any PC the ability to roll an extra die as a bonus. I hand in the card when she uses this ability, and Brian gives the corresponding player a card marked "inspiration," letting them know that extra die is there when they want it. (He has separate inspiration cards for each player, since it's possible for more than one person to have inspiration, but each person can only have one at a time.)

All these RPG tools are both inexpensive and easy to make. To make everything you see here, you would need only:
  • 1 large picture frame ($10)
  • 1 set of dry-erase markers (about $2.50 at Target)
  • 1 box of binder clips (about $3.50)
  • 1 pack of ordinary printer paper (about $4) and an indeterminate amount of colored ink
  • 1 roll of clear packing tape (about $2)
  • 1 package of 3-by-5 index cards (about $5.50) and a felt-tip marker (about $2)
  • 1 cardboard box (free with your order of anything, from anywhere)
And there you have it—everything you need to run your own D&D campaign, or any other RPG system of your choice, for under $30. And if you already have some or all these materials lying around your house, as we did, the total is even less.

So, bottom line: you can decide not to play RPGs because they're too weird, or they just don't look like fun to you (though I'd say don't knock it until you've tried it). Or you can decide not to play because you don't know how, or because you don't have anyone to play with (which is the situation we were in for a while). But if you're not playing because you think it looks too expensive, you have no excuse anymore.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A new thrifty tradition

Last year, a little before Thanksgiving, my aunt sent around an e-mail to the family asking what everyone wanted for Hanukkah/Christmas. For herself, she requested gift cards to Macy's and Ann Taylor, since she had recently lost some weight and needed new clothes. I was nonplussed by this idea, since I'd just finished my article on sustainable clothing, which talked how today's "fast fashion" industry harms both the environment and the workers who create the garments. And I also knew, from a CNN article I'd read while working on another piece, that thrift shops have far more merchandise than they can sell. According to the article, roughly 90% of all the clothes donated to thrift shops eventually end up in the landfill. (This was the factoid that inspired my 2016 Thrift Week series on local thrift shops.)

So I proposed an alternative to my aunt: Over Thanksgiving weekend, I would take her to a local consignment shop (called Greene Street Consignment, though it's actually on Nassau Street) and buy her any item of her choice. Not only was she receptive to this idea, she enjoyed the trip so much that she bought herself three new dresses (ranging from a formal black number to a casual one in bright orange) in addition to the one I got her. She even went so far as to suggest we make this thrift-shop trip an annual event.

This year, when Thanksgiving rolled around, my aunt said that not only would she like to make the trip to the consignment shop again, my uncle would like to get in on it as well. So I proposed hitting a second thrift shop, called Nearly New, which has a larger selection of casual clothing. I thought this store would offer more options for the gents in the party, and possibly some for my sister's kids as well. (Greene Street has a limited selection of menswear, but nothing for children.) However, my aunt said she was "partial to" Greene Street, since she'd had such good luck there last year, so I suggested hitting them both.

So our little outing to Princeton turned out to be a much bigger outing, involving me and Brian, my sister, her kids, my uncle and aunt, and my (male) cousin, who popped in for the first thrift shop trip and then headed home. Unfortunately, I hadn't reckoned on just how busy the thrift stores were going to be on Black Friday. (Perhaps, subconsciously, I'd been hoping that the really big crowds wouldn't show up until Small Business Saturday.) Nearly New didn't seem overly crowded, but the few shoppers in the store were very enthusiastic, taking dozens of items into the fitting rooms—so we ended up waiting around half an hour just for my aunt to try on her items.

However, once she finally managed to get into a fitting room, she found several things she liked, including a comfy pair of shoes, a tailored blouse, a nightgown, and a crazy black sweater with feather trim around the neckline, which ended up being my holiday gift to her. Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my camera on the trip, so I didn't get a picture of it.

Luckily, I can give you a picture of what she bought for me. No, this isn't something I would normally wear, but let me explain: Brian and I will soon be starting a game of "Spirit of 77," which is a role-playing game with a 1970s theme. (You play over-the-top characters straight out of '70s films and TV shows, from "Shaft" to "The Dukes of Hazzard.") I thought it would be fun to dress in flamboyant '70s-style garb for this campaign, but I didn't have anything suitable in my closet. So I kept my eyes peeled at the thrift shop and managed to find a tunic in a vivid, flamboyant print, which I can pair with my widest-legged black trousers. To round out the outfit, I picked up a little knitted vest with crazy tufts that resemble fur (but aren't). Just $9 for both pieces, and I will be all ready to rock my new, funky look for our first game session.

We had a few other hits at the first thrift shop as well—a pair of pants for my uncle and a pink pashmina for my sister—before heading off to the second one. We had a little less luck there, as my uncle looked for a tuxedo shirt without success, and Brian tried on a green Henley shirt that proved to be too tight—but my aunt found a fabulous dress for only $42 to wear to a black-tie New Year's party she has coming up. So that part of the trip was a success as well.

All in all, I'd say this thrift shop excursion is shaping up to be an enjoyable—and ecofrugal—part of our family's Thanksgiving traditions. It's a bit disappointing that it has to cut into our time for hanging out and playing games, but then again, you can't really do that all weekend. Devoting a couple of hours to thrift-shopping on Friday afternoon makes for a nice break, after which we can get back to Boggle and Apples to Apples.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Savory Spinach Pancakes

A week or so ago, while researching a new article on dorm-room cooking for college students, I happened upon this recipe for spinach pancakes from Snack Girl. It struck me as a good one to try for several reasons:
  1. It looked pretty healthful, with plenty of veggies and whole grain and not too much of anything it's better to avoid.
  2. It was reasonably quick and easy to make. Thawing and draining the spinach added one extra step, but after that it would be no more difficult than any other kind of pancakes.
  3. There was nothing in it that we didn't like.
  4. It didn't call for any ingredients we don't normally have around the house.
  5. Finally, it was a veggie-centric recipe, which meant that at the very least, I could get a Recipe of the Month Post out of it.
The only difficulty was figuring out what to serve with it. Pancakes normally go with some kind of sweet syrup, but that didn't seem suitable for a savory pancake recipe like this. The only other type of savory pancake I could think of was latkes, a.k.a. potato pancakes, which are normally served with applesauce or sour cream. Since I don't care for sour cream, and since we had plenty of apples in the fridge, which Brian has mastered the art of turning into applesauce in the pressure cooker, we decided to go with that.

So Brian whipped up a batch of these, which proved to be plenty for the two of us. Although Snack Girl says her recipe makes only "7 small cakes," Brian was able to get more than twice that number out of a single batch of batter, so I assume his cakes were quite a bit smaller than hers. They looked more appetizing than the picture on her site, as well—small, golden-brown cakes with just a hint of green color from the spinach.

As for the taste, they were pretty good. Not extraordinary, but not at all bad either. One thing we noticed was that the flavor of the cumin was particularly pronounced, which made the cakes vaguely reminiscent of falafel. Perhaps a tahini sauce would actually have been the best accompaniment for them, but they went reasonably well with the applesauce. We also found that the flavor of spinach was not particularly noticeable. In fact, if I hadn't been able to see it, I would hardly have known it was there at all. This led me to suspect that if you left out the cumin and scallions, these would actually work just fine as a traditional breakfast pancake with syrup. So perhaps some time, we'll try Snack Girl's alternative idea to "add some raisins and nuts for a sweeter pancake with more texture" and see how that goes.

But even with no modifications, this recipe looks like a very useful addition to our repertoire. Since we normally have spinach in the freezer and scallions growing either in the garden or on the windowsill, we can always pull it out on those nights when we the veggie drawer is empty and we don't know what to cook. That's enough to make it a successful Recipe of the Month as far as I'm concerned.

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.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The perils of refilling printer cartridges

In the past, I've indulged in a little bragging about how much money we saved by refilling the ink cartridges on our printer, rather than buying new ones. A great big bottle of black ink, I pointed out, cost less than a single black ink cartridge, and we were able to get so many refills out of it that it actually outlasted the printer. And it kept all those plastic cartridges out of the landfill, as well, making it an ecofrugal no-brainer.

Well, pride apparently goeth before a fall. Because as it turns out, this thrifty habit that we plumed ourselves on has actually backfired on us with our new printer—possibly costing us more money in the long run than we would have spent just buying new cartridges in the first place.

The problems first started last spring, when the printer suddenly started rejecting our refilled cartridges. We were puzzled, since we'd had it for over two years and had no problems refilling it until then, so we did some research and determined that apparently, this printer has an age limit on the cartridges it will accept. Since the original equipment cartridge was over two years old, the printer considered it unusable. So we decided to invest $14 in this chip resetter, which can basically trick the printer into thinking it has a brand-new cartridge. We tried this on the black ink cartridge and it worked, so we figured that was $14 well spent; it was still less than the cost of one new cartridge, and it should allow us to go on refilling our cartridges ad infinitum.

Thus, when the colored ink showed signs of running dry last month, we didn't hesitate to refill that too. This printer, as I mentioned back when we bought it, has three separate reservoirs for colored ink, so you can refill them individually as needed—but in this case, all three were low, so Brian did them all at once. The cyan and magenta inks posed no problem, but when he tried to refill the yellow ink, he saw through the little window in the ink reservoir that the refill ink he was using (from a set we'd bought years ago, back when we had the old HP printer) was reacting with the dregs of the Brother ink that was left in the cartridge, leaving behind a flaky precipitate. So he hastily emptied out the whole cartridge and rinsed it to remove all the precipitate before topping it back up again with the refill ink.

Well, okay, we figured, that was a bit of a nuisance, but at least we'd cleaned all the old ink out of the cartridge, so from here on out, we should have no further problems with the refills. Alas, what we completely forgot about was the ink already in the lines. This week, when I printed out a document in color for the first time since the refill, we found that we weren't getting any yellow ink. Brian tried running the cleaning cycle several times to no avail, so I did a quick search and found this video on cleaning the nozzles—and it was at that point that Brian realized all that precipitate he'd so carefully cleaned out of the cartridge itself had probably formed in the lines as well as soon as we started putting the yellow refill ink through them. In hindsight, he realized, he probably would have been better off just pulling out the yellow tank the minute he discovered the problem and buying a yellow refill from Brother.

But of course, it was too late to undo what we'd already done, so the best we could do was try to get those lines cleaned out. So we spent another $9 on this cleaning kit, complete with cleaning solution, a rubber tube to feed it into the nozzle, and a syringe to inject it. And today, Brian hauled the printer down to his workshop and got to work with the kit, trying to clear the lines. Since we'd been having a little trouble with the black ink as well, he tried it on that first, and it worked just as shown in the video, running right through the lines and pulling out the dried residue. However, on the clogged yellow line, it didn't go so smoothly. He had to apply more pressure to force the fluid into the lines, and when he tried to draw it back out, he wasn't able to clear them fully. So as of now, only the black ink is working. He plans to work on the yellow some more in the next few days, but he doesn't know whether he'll succeed in clearing it or not. If he can't, our only options will be to replace the printer or ditch the colored cartridges and use it only in black and white.

The moral of this story? If you plan to refill your printer cartridges, make sure you're using an ink that's compatible with your particular printer. If we'd sprung for a $26 Brother-specific refill kit at the time we bought the chip resetter, that would still have been cheaper than a new set of color cartridges, and a lot cheaper than having to replace the whole $100 printer.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

An ecofrugal homemade cocoa mix

Since I work from home, it's easy for me to fix myself an afternoon snack every day (usually a bowl of popcorn). For Brian, however, noshing on the job poses more of a problem. Most days he's fine between lunch and dinner, but occasionally his blood sugar takes a dive and he needs a little something to get him through the afternoon. Unfortunately, he's found that he can't keep candy or any other kind of goodies in his desk drawer, because he can't resist munching on them, and then they're not there when he really needs them. So for a while, he had to rely on vending-machine snacks at around 60 cents a pop.

But a couple of years ago, we hit on a solution. I'd been given a gift of some fancy hot chocolate mix for Christmas, and while I liked it, I found I wasn't going through it very fast. It wasn't that much better than my regular homemade cocoa, and it wasn't any easier to make, so I kept saving it for a special occasion that never came. So I offered the mix to Brian to take to work as an emergency blood-sugar booster. This turned out to be just the ticket: it was easy enough to brew up a cup if he needed one, but that extra bit of work was enough to keep him from dipping into it at other times.

So, for the past couple of years, whenever he ran out his supply of cocoa mix, I'd pick up another container for him. We tried the chocolate-mint hot cocoa from Trader Joe's (okay, but not his favorite) and, more recently, the organic hot cocoa mix from Equal Exchange, which was sold at our local Ten Thousand Villages store. It was a bit pricey, but since he didn't go through it very fast, it seemed like a reasonable splurge.

Recently, however, our Ten Thousand Villages store closed down (waaah), leaving us looking around for a new brand to try. Unfortunately, the offerings at the local supermarket were pretty limited. Basically, we could choose either a fancy hot chocolate mix that came only in individual packets, which we deemed both too pricey and too wasteful, or Swiss Miss in a canister, which would probably serve the purpose, but didn't seem like much of a treat.

At this point, Brian decided to take matters into his own hands and try mixing up a hot cocoa mix from scratch. He checked out a variety of cocoa mix recipes on the Web, and they all seemed to have the same basic ingredients—dry milk, sugar, cocoa powder, and sometimes corn starch as a stabilizer. But most of them were missing one key ingredient: vanilla. The only ones he could find that included it called for "vanilla powder," which is an ingredient we've never seen in stores and weren't about to send away for just for this purpose.

Fortunately, my husband is a trained chemist. He was able to come up with a protocol (that's what scientists call a recipe, apparently) for turning our homemade vanilla extract into a form that could be used in a dry mix. He's still tinkering with the proportions, but here's his current protocol:
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 c sugar
3/4 c powdered milk
3/8 c cocoa powder
1 Tbsp corn starch
Put the sugar in a bowl and sprinkle the vanilla onto it. Allow to dry for about 2 hours. Place the vanilla sugar and the rest of the ingredients in a food processor (NOTE: Brian used our Freecycled Magic Bullet) and grind to a fine powder.
You can then store this and use it just like a commercial hot cocoa mix, tweaking the proportions to suit your taste. Brian prefers to make it into what he calls "the cocoa equivalent of espresso," adding two heaping teaspoons to around half a mugful of hot water, but the same amount for a full mug would probably give you a standard-strength mixture.

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that the ingredients for a batch of this come to about $2.25, using organic cocoa (purchased in bulk from Dean's Beans), organic sugar (from Costco), and our homemade vanilla extract. That works out to about 10 cents per serving. By contrast, the Starbucks hot cocoa mix from Costco would cost around 32 cents per serving, and the snacks from the office vending machine around 60 cents. Combine this bargain price with the organic ingredients and the reusable packaging, and you've got an ecofrugal afternoon snack that any cubicle dweller—well, at least one who isn't a vegan or lactose-intolerant—can love.

Money Crashers: Repair Cafés & Fix-It Groups

As regular readers of this blog will know, whenever anything breaks around our house, our first instinct is always to look for a way to fix it. Over the years, we've repaired a book that lost its cover, patched ripped jeans, created a new stand for a broken desk fan, restrung our old Roman shades, and done numerous repairs to Brian's bike. In most cases, this is an ecofrugal no-brainer, since a DIY repair is both much cheaper than buying a replacement and much greener than throwing an old item into the landfill and buying a whole new one when only one part is broken.

However, sometimes we find we can't fix things on our own, and that's when the repair or replace dilemma rears its ugly head. Is it worth paying someone to fix it, or would it be a better value in the long run to just replace it?

For some people, it turns out, there's a third option. In my latest Money Crashers post, I discuss the new and growing trend of Repair Cafes: regular gatherings where neighbors come together to pool their fix-it skills. So, for instance, this month you could bring in your bicycle and get help from a local fixer to repair the brakes, and next month you could show up to help another neighbor clean the clogged print heads on their printer. Just like Freecycle, these exchanges don't have to be tit-for-tat; everyone helps out where they can or gets help as needed, and no one keeps score. And also like Freeycle, everything is free of charge (though most Repair Cafes will accept small donations to help keep them running).

In the article, I explain how Repair Cafes work, what kinds of things you can get fixed there, how to find one in your area, and how to start one of your own if you can't find one. Read it all here: How Repair Cafés & Fix-It Groups Can Save You Money and Avoid Waste

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Harvest Home

According to the calendar—and this cute Google Doodle—yesterday marked the start of fall. But just like last year, the weather remains stubbornly summery. According to the weather report, we can expect highs in the 80s and 90s at least through Wednesday; tomorrow, the heat index is expected to peak close to 100. Celebrating the autumn harvest in shorts and sandals, with a ceiling fan turning overhead, feels a bit inappopriate.

But our garden, at least, is not waiting for cooler weather to start delivering up its fall bounty. Here you see what we've gathered just in the past few days:
  • Five big Pineapple tomatoes. This is a new variety we tried this year, and I'd say it's a keeper. It takes a little while to start producing, but once the tomatoes show up, they just keep coming—hefty, orange-red globes with a firm texture and a pleasant, distinctly fruity flavor. We've tried them in salsa and various pasta dishes, and they seem to work well with everything.
  • One Black Prince and two Mr. Fumarole tomatoes. These varieties have been far less impressive. The Mr. Fumarole is a paste variety we tried this year to replace the disappointing Amish Paste variety, but it hasn't really been any more productive. Last year, in total, we harvested about a dozen good-sized Amish Pastes; this year to date, we've gathered only six smallish Mr. Fumaroles. The Black Princes have done a little better, yielding about ten fruits so far, with a smoky and complex flavor—but since the Pineapples also taste great and are both larger and more prolific, I'd just as soon plant more of those. (By the way, if it looks like these tomatoes aren't ripe yet, you're sort of right; in the past year or two, we've taken to picking our tomatoes at "first blush"—the very first hint of reddening on the end of the tomato—rather than letting them ripen fully on the vine. They ripen just fine indoors, and we don't lose nearly as many to splitting after a heavy rain.)
  • About a cup and a half of our old standby, the Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, which have given us several pounds to date and show no sign of stopping. So far, this is the only early tomato we've been able to grow with any success; other cold-tolerant varieties we've tried, such as Glacier and Moskvich, have given us next to nothing. The small size of the Sun Golds makes them a little hard to work with, but their sweet, mild flavor and incredible productivity mean they'll always have a place in our garden.
  • Two Waltham butternut squash, picked today off a vine that appears to be already dead, or at least dying. All the squash vines are gradually starting to wither, so at some point we'll just have to pick all the squash and store them for the winter, but for now we just grabbed the two that seemed most time-sensitive.
One additional crop that you can't see in the photo is our raspberries, which have been producing at such a rate that we have to go out and gather them nearly every day—braving clouds of mosquitoes, which for some reason tend to congregate in our side yard—just to keep up. Even picking them every other day, we tend to find that a fair number of them have gone from "not ripe enough to pick" to "too squishy to eat." It doesn't help that, even with the new raspberry trellis, the canes are thick and tangled enough that harvesting the berries is really a two-person job, requiring one person to extract each cane and hold it up while the other person gathers the berries thus exposed. Since Brian and I can't do it together every day, I often end up going out by myself, and a lot of berries inevitably get missed—only to be rediscovered later when they're half-fermented and sloughing off the vine. But even with all the ones that we have to discard, we're bringing in a good cup or so of berries every day, and there are still plenty of unripe ones out there on the canes. At this rate, we'll most likely go on harvesting them right up until the first hard frost.

So even if the weather remains unseasonably hot, we have plenty of fall produce to celebrate. We have a butternut squash lasagna in the oven right now, and perhaps we'll indulge in an apple-raspberry crisp for dessert to welcome in the autumn properly—even if a little prematurely.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Money Crashers: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges

As the old joke goes, the best way to succeed in life is to choose your parents wisely. Brian and I are a case in point. We were both lucky enough to have parents who could afford to put us through college, so we didn't emerge into the real world carrying a huge load of student debt like so many of our generation. And since we don't have kids of our own, the ever-higher cost of college tuition isn't a problem we've had to worry about since then.

However, I know that many others aren't as fortunate. There are plenty of folks in my age group who are now facing the daunting prospect of dealing with sky-high college costs for the second time with their kids—sometimes while they're still working on paying off their own student loans. So for them, I've written a Money Crashers article that explores an unusual and intriguing solution to the problem of college costs: tuition-free colleges.

Schools like this are rare, and they're not easy to get into. Some of them take only top-level students; others are limited to low-income students from specific areas of the country. Some of them focus specifically on training students for a particular career, such as music, the ministry, or naval architecture. And most of them require students to work in exchange for their free tuition, either while they're at school or by committing to some form of service (for instance, in the military) after they graduate.

However, if you or your offspring are lucky enough to meet the strict requirements for one of these schools, you have a chance of hitting the jackpot: a college education at no cost. (Okay, most of these schools aren't 100 percent free; while there's no tuition cost, they do charge a fee for room and board. But in many cases, you can pay for that with a scholarship or some form of work-study, as well.)

In this article, I describe 13 colleges across the U.S. where you can—with a bit of luck—earn your degree for free. For each one, I outline the requirements to get in, areas of study, and features of campus life. I also discuss the free tuition movement in a growing number of states, which aims to offer at least two years at a community college at no charge to in-state students.

Read about it here: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges: How to Get a Degree for Free

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Yard-Sale Index

It's the weekend of the annual town-wide yard sale in Highland Park, and Brian and I spent most of yesterday out hunting for interesting finds. Here's a quick summary of the results in list form, à la Harper's Index.
Hours spent shopping: 6

Number of sales visited: Over 50

Miles walked: About 6

Total amount spent: $18.50

Number of items acquired: 13

Number of those that will be holiday gifts: 3 or 4

Biggest-ticket item: A tie between a $5 Roku box and a $5 set of classic Alec Guinness films on DVD. (The set, which includes "The Lavender Hill Mob," "The Captain's Paradise," "The Man in the White Suit," "The Ladykillers," and "Kind Hearts and Coronets," costs $35 new at Best Buy.)

Cheapest item: A tie among three items we acquired for the low, low price of completely free, including two road maps (which we actually do use regularly, since we're late adopters who have yet to take the plunge on a smartphone), four pens (even though I now have a couple of refillable roller-ball pens for everyday use, it's handy to have extras for such uses as logging gas mileage in the car and jotting notes during role-playing games), and a spare computer keyboard

Most useful purchase: A new neck (the part that attaches the handlebars to the frame) for Brian's bike, which currently has a stripped-out neck that makes it impossible to adjust the handlebars, for $1

Most disappointing purchase: The Roku. We bought this as an experiment because our old Media Spud, which has served us faithfully for over seven years, has started having trouble keeping up with the demands of streaming our favorite show, Critical Role, via Twitch—even at the lowest resolution. We'd been considering a Roku to replace it, so when we spotted this one, we figured it was worth risking $5 to see whether it could work for us. Unfortunately, the player turned out upon testing to be so old that it's not capable of streaming either Twitch or YouTube—the two sites that we rely on for most of our shows. However, Brian says he learned a fair amount about how the system works from tinkering with it, such as the fact that the bottom-of-the-line Roku Express should be able to meet our needs for only $25.

Item we were most disappointed not to find: A telephone to replace the one in our kitchen, which wasn't really designed to hang on the wall and has a tendency to drop its receiver off the cradle if it's not put back carefully—once breaking the cats' food dish in the process

Most unexpected acquisition: A flier from a Green Party candidate for Assembly, Sean Stratton, who was using the sales as an opportunity to canvas voters.

Most interesting item we saw for sale: a 1953 MG TD, fair to good condition, black, for $15,000. (We initially saw it parked on the seller's lawn with all the rest of the items for sale, but I caught a picture of it later after it had been moved to a parking spot on a nearby street—possibly by the buyer.)

Our level of satisfaction with the results: Too soon to say, as we still have the opportunity to glean more goodies from the piles of unsold merchandise that sure to be left out with tomorrow's trash.