Friday, July 21, 2017

Money Crashers: 7 Ways to Stop Spam Email, Unwanted Messages & Robocalls

It's now been about a year and half since I offered my proposal to fight spam in the comments sections of online articles by allowing authors to selectively block comments from people based on their user profiles. So far, I have no evidence that Disqus has taken up this idea; as Alexanda Petri observed in a 2014 article on Christmas Creep, "It is almost as though writing about things on the Internet had no impact on them whatsoever."

But I can, at least, do something to help you with the more commonplace type of spam - the kind that regularly invades your inbox, displacing important messages about work and social engagements with offers to refinance your house, claim your foreign lottery winnings, or increase your penis size (regardless of whether you actually possess a house, a lottery ticket, or a penis).

My latest Money Crashers article is all about how to fight the scourge of spam. Although there's probably no force on earth that can stop every spam message from getting through, you can slow the flood down to a trickle by learning to recognize it (and ignore it) when you see it, taking steps to keep your e-mail address private, and training your spam filters to do their job better. You can also fight back directly by reporting spammers to the FTC (they can't stop them all, but they can penalize the worst offenders) and protecting your computer so they can't hijack it and put it to use in their nefarious schemes. As a bonus, I offer some tips on how to block unwanted texts and robocalls, too.

Here's the article: 7 Ways to Stop Spam Email, Unwanted Messages & Robocalls

Sunday, July 16, 2017

DIY pallet compost bin

When Brian built our first compost bin, about eight years ago, he used wooden shipping pallets salvaged from behind a building on Rutgers campus. In addition to being free, these were pretty easy to work with: he simply nailed three of them together to make a box with one open side, then attached the fourth one with hinges to make a door that could swing upwards to expose the pile for turning. This simple design served us well for several years, but over the last year or two, it became apparent that the thin, untreated wood of the pallets was gradually crumbling away into compost itself. By this spring, the bin was noticeably crooked, as the rotting timbers of the pallets could no longer hold their shape. Clearly, we were going to need to build a new bin.


Unfortunately, we couldn't simply rig up another simple box like the first one, because we couldn't get hold of the materials. Or, to be more exact, we could have found some, but we couldn't have gotten them home. Our new car, a Honda Fit, can hold practically anything, but it turns out that full-sized shipping pallets are the one thing you just can't squeeze in through either the rear doors or the back hatch. Maybe if we had removed absolutely everything else, we could have managed one, but picking them up wherever we happened to spot them just wasn't feasible.

So, instead, over the course of last year, Brian scavenged several smaller pallets, mostly from the curbside, which the car could more easily accommodate. Then this month, over the long Fourth of July weekend, he started sorting through these and the pile of still-usable two-by-fours left over from our old garden bed frames, trying to work out how best to put them all together into a new bin roughly the same size as our old one. Of the various pallets he'd brought home, he identified four that he thought were sturdy enough to use—but unfortunately, they were all of different shapes and sizes, so simply nailing them together into a box wasn't going to be an option.

However, after a little measuring, he discovered that the four usable pallets all had one dimension in common: each of them was exactly 40 inches long on either its long or short side. So he decided that this would be the height of the the new bin, and he'd use the two-by-fours to eke out the odd-sized pallets to create sides of equal length. Figuring out just how to fit the the pallets together was a little bit tricky; their smaller size would make the bin narrower than our old one, so access to the pile would be a little bit restricted. However, after a little fiddling, Brian finally contrived a design that would allow one whole corner of the bin to swing open, creating a nice wide opening for turning the pile or scooping out the finished compost.

The basic structure of the box was simple enough to build. He just attached three of the pallets together—using the same stainless-steel deck screws we used for the new garden bed frames, instead of nails, to give it more stability.


The hinged extension, however, was much more complicated. He started by building a frame of two-by-fours with one long side and three shorter crosspieces, sort of like an extended letter E.


Then he added on several longer pieces connected to the crosspieces with 3.5-inch carriage bolts, each with a washer and a nut on it, so that they could swivel. This made a sort of giant wooden hinge, which would allow the corner of the new bin to swing open.


Then, he started reinforcing both sides of this hinge with some more long pieces. Attached parallel to each other, about an inch apart, these created an open, slatted structure similar to the pallets we'd already used. He used just two pieces for the short side of the hinge....



...and about six for the longer side. He couldn't add crosspieces all the way to the edge, because that would have prevented it from swinging open...


...so instead he reinforced it with two long pieces on the inside.



Once this odd swinging door was complete, he was able to attach it to the fixed, three-sided structure he'd made with the pallets. The shorter end of the hinge was clamped to the long side of the bin and screwed into place, extending the pallet to make an even longer fixed side.


The longer side of the hinge, which now formed the front of the bin, could swing open freely.


Then, to complete the short side of the bin, Brian took one more of the small pallets and clamped it to this new swinging door at a 90-degree angle.


Screwing this last piece into place was probably the most awkward part of the job, as he actually had to climb inside the bin and crouch down to attach the screws at the right angle.


Here you can see how it all finally fits together. The  three fixed sides of the bin are at the left, and on the right is the door assembly...


...which swings open to give access to the bin. In this picture, it can only open partway, as it's blocked by the pile of compost that had to be emptied out of the old bin. However, with the compost transferred back inside the bin where it belongs, it can swing open nearly to full extension, giving us a nice, wide opening.


The one thing he still isn't sure about is how to keep this swinging door closed. Right now, the bin is only about half full, but as it fills up, the pressure of the contents will likely push the sides outward and force the door open if it's not secured somehow. For now, he's just got a bungee cord latched around the slats; if that proves too awkward to use, we'll have to come up with some more permanent sort of closure.


Here's a final shot of the completed bin from above, with the contents back inside. As you can see, it stands out several inches from the side stoop, because we had to leave enough of a gap to accommodate a drainage pipe that runs through the back of the stoop. Eventually, Brian plans to add a little platform to the back to cover this gap so that waste scraps can't fall in between the bin and the stoop by accident. But for now, it's perfectly usable.


Maybe it's not exactly elegant, but to our eyes, this hodge-podge design seems oddly appropriate for its function. Every time we pass by it, we think, "Now that's a compost bin."

Sunday, July 9, 2017

How we built our raspberry trellis (with some thoughts on good fortune)

When Brian and I (well, mostly Brian) decided that from now on, we were going to grow our raspberries by the two-crop method, rather than the simpler single-crop method, we knew that some sort of trellis to support the now-denser thicket of canes was going to be a must. Unfortunately, neither of us had the faintest idea how to build one. Our trusty Weekend Garden Guide offered a general description of what a simple trellis for berries should look like—a line of posts along each side of the row, with lines strung between them to hold up the canes—but it was woefully short on such details as what kind of wire to use, where to buy it, or how to attach it. We tried searching for more explicit instructions online, but articles like this one, with such cheerfully vague steps as "wrap wire around the stakes" (securing it how, pray tell?) left us none the wiser. The closest thing we found to a detailed outline was this article at Dave's Garden, and its instructions for securing the lines would only work with wooden posts—not the rot-resistant metal ones we intended to use.

So basically, we just walked into a couple of home centers and started poking through the merchandise, trying to find:
  1. A pair of sturdy metal poles about 8 feet long, so we could sink them deep into the ground for stability and still leave them tall enough to reach the top of the raspberry plants;
  2. A suitably heavy, weather-resistant wire that would hold up the weight of the canes; and
  3. Some assortment of hardware that could hold it all in place.
Here's what we eventually ended up with.


The poles aren't visible in this picture, but the closest size we could come up with was 7 feet, which we thought would do if we sank them to a depth of 2 feet. We also got:
  • 50 feet of vinyl coated cable, 3/32 inch thick. Since our two posts would be set 20 feet apart, we thought this would give us enough to string two lengths of wire, one low and one high, with a little to spare.
  • Four "eye bolts," with matching nuts, to secure to the posts and loop the cable through—one for each end of each wire.
  • Eight "wire rope clips" to hold the wire loops in place. That's two for each end of each wire, since I guess Brian wasn't confident a single clip would be strong enough to hold them snug—and at only 68 cents apiece, I wasn't about to argue over it with him.
  • Two 1/4-inch by 7 1/2-inch turnbuckles, to be used for tensioning the wires (one for each cable).
The whole lot cost us just under $50, and we were away home to see if we could figure out how to put it all together.

The first step, setting up the poles, was straightforward enough, if not exactly easy. Brian set the end of the pole on the ground at one front corner of the raspberry bed, placed a wooden block on top, and pounded it repeatedly with a rubber mallet, sinking it millimeter by millimeter into the ground.


By the time he was done with the first pole, it had sunk in about the intended two feet, leaving five feet above ground—just enough to reach to the tops of the tallest raspberry canes.


Unfortunately, the ground at the other end of the bed proved harder, so Brian wasn't able to sink the second post as deeply. After a steady 15 to 20 minutes of pounding, he managed to get it in to a depth of about 17 inches before concluding that was as far as it was going to go. (Also, before he could even start working on the post, he had to trim back an unruly bush that was in the way, producing quite a large assortment of trimmings in the process.)


Next, we had to secure the eye bolts to the posts. Each post had a series of holes through it at regular intervals, so we had to choose the right hole for each bolt to string the wires at the appropriate height. We initially put one bolt in the second hole from the top—we couldn't put it in the very top, because the post had deformed just enough that we couldn't manage to fit the bolt through—and one in the second from the bottom. Later, we adjusted the height of the lower wire a little based on the heights of the canes.


Then, we opened up the big container of cable, located one end, and looped it through the lower of the two eye bolts. We fed the end through one of the rope clips and tightened the nuts to clamp it down, then repeated with a second clip a little farther along. This redundancy ensured that even if one of the clips should come loose, the wire would still be held in place.


Once we had that end secure, we started spooling out the cable all along the front of the bed to measure off the length we needed. Then we prepared to cut it so we could secure it at the far end. Ironically, this proved to be the most difficult part of the entire job. We had assumed that our tin snips would be able to cut through the cable, but after squeezing down on them with all his might, Brian was forced to admit that they just weren't up to the job.


He eventually ended up going back into the house and getting a hacksaw so he could saw through the cable. I didn't take a photo of this part of the process because Brian begged me not to, apparently fearing that his dad (a consummate handyman) would mock him mercilessly for not having the right tool. But it probably wouldn't have been worth shelling out $30 for a pair of wire shears just for this one job. (Though, looking into it just now, I came across one article by a guy who says "I inevitably wind up using my Dremel when I need to make a clean cut" through steel cable—a trick that might have saved us some hassle if we'd thought of it.)

Once he managed to hack his way through the cable, he was able to attach it to the post—but instead of feeding it directly through the eye bolt, he first hooked one of the turnbuckles onto the eye and looped the cable over that. Putting the turnbuckles at the far end of the bed was my suggestion, since the brambles aren't at thick at that end of the bed, so there would be less risk of scratching ourselves whenever we had to reach in and tinker with the turnbuckles. Once the wire was looped around the turnbuckle, two more wire rope clips secured it in place.



As we raised this lower cable into place and where we had and pulled it taut, it started lifting up the very bottoms of the raspberry canes and pulling them upright, just as intended. Well, most of them, at least. We noticed as we went that several of the canes weren't actually inside the bed; they were apparently rogue suckers that had sprung up outside it, which we hadn't been able to make out before within the massive thicket that the raspberry patch had become. So we knew that, even once the trellis was complete, we'd have a bit of work to do tidying up the patch before everything was properly contained.

By this time, the light was starting to fade, but we soldiered on, repeating the process of hooking up the cable to the upper set of eye bolts. Once we had both cables in place, however, we could see that a lot of the raspberry canes were spilling out through the gap between the two, so we decided to raise the lower cable to narrow the gap. Fortunately this was just a matter of unscrewing and moving the eye bolts, so it didn't take too long, and by the time night fell, we had the trellis fully raised with all the canes contained (except the few stray suckers outside the bed, which we pulled out as we cleaned up afterwards).


We've now had our trellis in place for about two weeks, and I can confirm that it definitely makes harvesting the berries easier. It doesn't eliminate all the difficulties; the canes are still pretty close together, so you sometimes have to reach in through the thicket or push some of them out of the way to reach the tempting ruby fruits hanging just out of reach. And even with the canes held nearly upright, the foliage is dense enough that you sometimes have to bend down to spot the berries lower on the canes. But overall, having the canes raised up and contained in a smaller area makes it much easier both to see the berries and to reach them for picking.

All of which brings me to the revelation I had a couple of weeks ago. Every so often in our ecofrugal life, I have this sudden flash of appreciation for just how rich and abundant that life is. Back in 2010, for instance, I mused on what an amazing luxury it is to be able to take a hot shower every morning, when you consider how few people could even manage a hot bath just a hundred years ago. And in 2013, I was struck by how fortunate we are to have fresh-baked bread every week, and fresh flowers on our table—even if we have to bake the bread and cut the flowers ourselves.

This time around, I was heading into the house with a bowlful of fresh raspberries I'd just picked for my lunch, and I was struck once again by the thought, "How incredibly lucky am I to have fresh berries there for the picking, right outside my door? What did we ever do to deserve this kind of bounty?"

Only this time, I realized immediately that I knew the answer to that question perfectly well: what we had done was to plant and tend the raspberry canes. With our own hands, we dug the bed; with our own hands, we planted them all in one chilly spring day; with our own hands, we mulched them and watered them and trimmed them and gave them a fresh dressing of compost every spring; and with our own hands, we built this new trellis to support them. And whenever we want to eat some, we go out and pick them with our own hands as well, braving the scratches for the sake of the berries. We earned this blessing.

And that, I think, sums up the ecofrugal life in a nutshell. It's a life full of blessings that have been earned. Home-baked bread, home-cooked meals, home-grown produce, hand-picked flowers; an abundance of clothing and furniture and books acquired by carefully picking through the offerings at yard sales and thrift stores. And I don't feel I appreciate these blessings any the less for knowing that I've worked for them, instead of having them gifted to me by some gracious and unseen Providence; on the contrary, I think being able to recognize in them the loving labor of my own hands makes me appreciate them all the more.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Price Check: Outdoor furniture for (a lot) less

I was planning to write this week's post about how we created a trellis for our raspberry canes, and how well it's been working out for us. I still plan to post about that eventually, but it will have to wait a little longer, because right now I have another bee I need to shoo out of my bonnet. It's yet another example of something that really annoys me: so-called bargains that are really anything but.

This example comes from the New Brunswick Star-Ledger insert that comes with our weekly coupon circulars. It's just a single sheet filled mostly with ads, along with a few short articles taken from the paid edition of the paper. This week, the feature article is one picked up from the Washington Post on choosing stylish outdoor furniture for your "backyard oasis." It includes several suggestions from a hoity-toity designer for different items, including sofas, rugs, shade umbrellas, and lanterns. There are two picks in each category, one marked "splurge" and a similar-looking one marked "save," to show how you can create a stylish space no matter what your budget is.

So what's the problem with this? All the "save" pieces are priced between $129 and $1,774. That's significantly less than the "splurge" pieces, but it's not what I consider budget-friendly.

So I promptly hit the IKEA website and a couple of others, looking for comparable pieces at real bargain prices. Here's how my finds stack up against the designer's picks:

Outdoor Sofa
"Splurge": Cliffside teak sofa with white cushions from Seren & Lily, $2,498
"Save": Regatta sofa with white Sunbrella cushions from Crate & Barrel, $1,794 (currently marked down to $1,618)
Really save: KLöVEN/KUNGSö loveseat in white from IKEA, $260. Bonus: the frame is made from sustainably harvested eucalyptus wood, not endangered teak.

Shade Umbrella
"Splurge": Tuuci Ocean Master hexagonal Aluma-Teak umbrella in natural with Java finish, from Restoration Hardware, $2,150 (currently marked down to $1,612)
"Save": Vista umbrella by Porta Forma, rectangular in natural, from Frontgate, $1,115 (currently marked down to $669)
Really save: LÅNGHOLMEN umbrella from IKEA, $148.99

Outdoor Rug
"Splurge": 8-by-11-foot Catamaran stripe indoor/outdoor rug in black and ivory, from Dash & Albert, $574
"Save": 8-by-8-foot Trans Ocean Sorrento rugby stripe area rug in black from The Mine, $297.50 (currently marked down to $267.75). Note that this is significantly smaller than the "Splurge" rug; the same rug in a comparable 8'3"-by-11'6" size would cost $441.
Really save: 8-by-10 foot Safavieh Mati flatweave rug in black and white from Target, $221.99 (currently marked down to $177.59). Note that this same rug is also available at Overstock.com for $175.99.

Outdoor Chair
"Splurge": 1966 lounge chair by Richard Schultz for Knoll in white with white mesh and strap, from Knoll, $1,427
"Save": Kingsley-Bate Tivoli club chair in cream from authenTEAK, $820 (currently marked down to $738). Note that the article appears to have the "splurge" and "save" picks mixed up, but I checked the prices and the Tivoli chair is cheaper.
Really save: LACKO outdoor armchair in gray from IKEA, $45. (If you object that this chair isn't white like the others, the VÅDDö outdoor chair in white is only $25, but it doesn't have arms.)

Outdoor Candle Lantern
"Splurge": Teak stainless rope lantern from homenature, $350
"Save": Wood-and-rope lantern, tall, from West Elm, $129
Really save: Burgess indoor or outdoor wood lantern from Pebble Lane Living (via Amazon Marketplace), $49.99. If you don't mind a smaller wooden lantern without the rope, you could get the Zings & Thingz weathered wood lantern from Wayfair for $19.99; if you don't particularly need it to be wood, you can get the BORRBY lantern in black from IKEA for just $7.99.

The juxtaposition of the "splurge" and "save" picks in the article is an example of the anchoring bias (covered in my article on cognitive biases for Money Crashers). Basically, when the first price you see for an outdoor umbrella is $2,150, an umbrella priced at a mere $1,115 suddenly looks like a really good deal. But if you saw the $1,115 umbrella on its own, your reaction would more likely be, "Over a grand for an umbrella?"

So I hope the addition of my picks, which are not just cheaper but much cheaper, helps counter the anchoring bias for you and shows what a stylish room on a reasonable budget can look like.