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Online vs. in-store Thu, Dec 13, 2012
I spent a few weeks recently buying things solely online as opposed to in-store, whether because certain things were only available online or because I was getting better deals.  But either way, I didn't set foot in a physical store for a decent amount of time.  And when I finally did, I was reminded again how much I hate shopping in physical stores.  Once you get past all the stupid people, and you're actually able to find what you're looking for, there's still no guarantee they'll have it in stock.  Also, there's no way to know if you're getting a good price, and there's no way to know if you're buying a good product.  Basically, in order to be a smart in-store shopper, you have to do your homework online.  Might as well just shop from home.

Wood stove Wed, Dec 05, 2012
We got a wood-burning stove installed in our house a few weeks ago, and it might be the best home improvement we've ever done.  For a few years now, we've been talking about getting some sort of secondary (or primary if it's good enough) heat source to supplement our reliable but fairly weak electric baseboard heaters.  Electric heat isn't terrible; it provides a decent amount of warmth, and the cost averages out during the course of the year to be relatively affordable.  But on really cold days, an electric heater simply doesn't put out enough heat to raise the temperature in the room above a comfortable temperature. 

We looked into a pellet stove, and then later a propane stove, but these options had a few drawbacks:  Pellet stoves are somewhat dirty and require a certain amount of mechanical maintenance, and propane stoves require a fair amount of installation work and fuel delivery.  Also, both stoves typically require electricity to run some portion of the operation, whether the pellet feeder mechanism or the propane regulator and fan.  Due to our recent 13-day electrical blackout, any heat source that required electricity was off the table. 

That left a wood stove, which I've been opposed to for the following reasons:  (1) I grew up with one, so I know that they require a lot of work and wood transportation, (2) they make your house smell like smoke, and (3) they require a chimney and other things that can't simply be stuck onto an existing house.  In response to those objections:  (1) It's not that bad, (2) not if you do it right, and (3) yes it can.  I called a local installer who came out and did everything, from carrying the several-hundred-pound stove into the house, to attaching the metal chimney to the house.  After several uses and sitting around the house in shorts while it's cold outside, it's obvious this stove was a good idea. 

That leaves the issue of fuel.  Wood stoves burn wood, and wood is a renewable resource.  Also, wood is free, if you know where to find it.  Maybe it's a function of the recent hurricane, but I haven't had any trouble finding wood from downed trees.  It takes a little effort to cart it home and chop it up, but I'm totally willing to spend the time and muscle power to do something that makes my indoor life more comfortable.  There's a direct line between work expended and comfort enjoyed. 

One final note:  Cavemen used fire for heat.  It strikes me as odd that in our modern world, we've come up with all these convoluted methods of heating our homes, usually involving the burning of coal to boil water to spin a turbine to create electricity to run through a metal wire whose secondary function is to give off heat.  As a caveman might say, "Fire good."

Amazon purchase algorithm Wed, Dec 05, 2012
I realized recently that I unintentionally use a sort of mental algorithm when I'm buying something on Amazon:  If the price of the item is over a certain amount, and it has a certain average review, and it has a certain number of reviews, and I need it or really want it, I'll buy it.  Or in math terms: 
BUY = (price) + (average review) + (number of reviews) + (need)
I don't really keep firm numbers in mind; it's more of a feel.  A couple examples:  I bought a desktop thermometer for about $8 (cheap), rated 4.1 out of 5 (very good), with 148 reviews (that's a lot), and I sort of needed it.  So its BUY value was very high despite my relatively low need for it.  Another time I bought a chainsaw for about $100 (not that cheap), rated 3.6 out of 5 (not great), with 36 reviews (not terrible), and I needed it pronto.  Its BUY value was fairly low, but I still ended up buying it because of my relative need. 

What's interesting is that I've reached this algorithm almost evolutionarily, from years of buying things off Amazon and reading customer reviews.  I've already figured out a way to sort through reviews in a meaningful way, but I guess I didn't realize how formulaic my mind was.  I trust my algorithm to the point where I would buy almost anything for under $20 with an average review above 4.5 and at least 25 reviews.

Surviving a blackout Thu, Nov 15, 2012
We just recently got power back after living without electricity for 13 days as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  It was uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it was doable.  Here are some ways we covered the essentials: 
  1. Heat.  Space heaters hooked up to a generator can only do so much, both because they don't produce a lot of heat, and also because generators use gasoline inefficiently, which became an issue when everyone and their mother tried to power their homes with generators and subsequently created a state-wide gas shortage (the storm also disrupted processing plants and supply lines, which didn't help).  A propane-fueled space heater came in handy, but the real solution is to have a completely non-electric heat source such as a wood stove.  Too many other heating systems either still require an easily-disrupted fuel supply like natural gas or require electricity to regulate their fuel source.  A wood stove is the clear winner.
  2. Water.  Our well pump is powered by electricity, so once we used up the water in the pipes, we needed a backup source.  Our hot water heater is also electric, so showers were essentially out of the question.  Our water needs consisted of drinking, light cooking, light washing, and flushing toilets.  You can only let it mellow for so long.  The solution is to be a water scavenger, filling up bottles and jugs wherever you go.  We would fill up at work, at stores, and people's houses.  There's plenty of water to go around; it's really more of a logistics issue.
  3. Food.  Our outdoor propane grill really saved the day.  You can fry things on cast iron cookware, boil water in pots, and warm up leftovers on foil.  The other tool with a million uses was a Jetboil, which is simply a small metal stove that quickly boils water.  This coupled with a French press coffee maker made life worth living.
  4. Sleep.  Things got interesting the night I realized I could see my breath while sitting on the couch.  But a nice heavy down-alternative comforter on our bed kept us warm, even when our house got down into the 40s.  And even for Wendy, who's endothermic existence suggests she has no internal heat source.  I don't have any solid data for this, but I might've actually slept better than normal in the cold and without electricity.  Something to do with biorhythms perhaps.
  5. Electricity.  Our generator produced plenty of electricity, but we didn't run it for more than a few hours per day.  So to charge up our electronics and whatnot, we brought charger cables everywhere and charged our phones in the car while we drove places.
  6. Comfort.  This is something that's easy to overlook when it's difficult to get your primary needs met.  But in my limited experience, I've found that small things can go a long way to bringing comfort to an otherwise uncomfortable experience.  This consisted of a variety of things, from taking a shower at the gym, to cooking steak on the grill accompanied by a big glass of wine, to having a big cup of dark coffee in the morning.
It wasn't at all fun to live without power for so long, but it was made bearable by workplaces that were warm and electrified, local schools and businesses that provided showers, and friends that provided warm meals and the NFL Network.

Hierarchy of modern conveniences Wed, Nov 07, 2012
Living without electricity, heat, and running water for a little while has taught me that there's a hierarchy of modern conveniences:  (1) heat, (2) plumbing, (3) hot water, (4) electricity.  This list is decidedly winter-centric, since that's when we tend to lose power, and also because winter can kill you, while summer can really only kill you if you're old.

Electricity is nice, but sitting in a cold house with the lights on (assuming you're unable to heat with electricity) is uncomfortable or unbearable.  Plumbing is nice, but if you can't take a hot shower, it's inconvenient.  At least if you have heat, you can sit around in a warm house, use bottled water to flush your toilets and wash your hands, and use flashlights to read books or watch movies on battery-powered devices.  In a cold environment, I can live with just heat; I doubt I could live with just plumbing, or just electricity (though typically if you have electricity you can have all the rest).

Premium prices Thu, Oct 25, 2012
From a profile on the founder of Red Bull:
A Red Bull is about two bucks a can, you know, which is four or five times what you pay for a Coca Cola in a grocery store. And I asked him, I said, what gave you the brass to put a premium price on it out of the gate?

And he looked back at me all deadpan and he said, how would people know it was a premium product if it didn't have a premium price?
Reminds me of a profile on the founder of Grey Goose:
Here were all these vodkas, in the $15-to-$17 range, vying to be the premium brand (with Absolut mostly winning). Frank just sidestepped the fray altogether and charged an unheard-of $30 a bottle.
In conclusion, businesses base their prices not on manufacturing costs or some other measure of reality, but simply on what they can convince people to pay.

Alcohol amplification Mon, Oct 22, 2012
For me, alcohol is a secondary element.  I typically don't do things for the primary purpose of drinking, e.g. "I want to have a drink and go do X."  It's more of a "I want to go do X and maybe have a drink." 

I've also noticed that alcohol tends to take a normally typical situation and amplify it.  Social situations, family gatherings, card games?  Meh.  Social situations, family gatherings, card games plus alcohol?  Yay! 

This isn't true for all scenarios.  Hiking is good, but hiking plus alcohol isn't good.  Watching football is good, but watching football and drinking puts me to sleep.

Getting to truth (1) Thu, Oct 04, 2012
I was at my friend's house the other day watching football, and his wife asked a question about when a certain team had a bye week.  He made an interesting point:  "I don't understand why anybody asks questions anymore, when the answer to every question is:  Google it."

That thought crossed my mind as I was watching the presidential debates.  One candidate claimed something like, "I plan to cut taxes by X."  Then the other candidate replied with, "No, you plan to raise taxes by Y."  The first candidate replied with a rebuttal, and this continued for a few volleys, and then some more of the same but with different topics.  I couldn't help but think the following: 
  1. Whatever the truth of the matter is, it certainly exists.
  2. These two dummies likely won't get to it.
  3. I'll just check PolitiFact or FactCheck.
It would've been interesting to see two rational, reasonable, intelligent people come together, write a few things down on a chalkboard or something, and simply identify and communicate the truth.  It's one thing if it's a difference in opinion or policy, such as, "I plan to lower taxes, while he plans to cut spending."  But when it's simply about a fact, let's talk about it like it's a fact.

A decade ago Wed, Sep 26, 2012
I've reached that age where important events in my life happened a non-trivial amount of time ago.  I used to be able to say, "A decade ago, I was young and stupid and still growing into my skin."  Now I have to say, "A decade ago, I was ... holy crap I was in college."  I've been a legal adult for over a decade now.

Skydiving 2 (1) Mon, Sep 24, 2012
I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane the other day, thus completing my second skydiving experience.  I was "strapped to a man, strapped to a parachute," as they put it.  The plane was a Cessna 205 or 206, which is a six-seater plane with a lawnmower engine, but in this case there was only one seat for the pilot.  Everything else was stripped out, which made it interesting to see how frighteningly primitive it is to coax a large object to fly.  A "funny" pre-flight comment by one of the instructors was that we needed to keep the majority of our body weight in line with the wings, because apparently otherwise this thing would fall out of the sky.

Wendy volunteered to jump first, so I sat and watched as she and her instructor inched toward the open door of the rickety metal box 10,000 feet in the air.  The plane itself was pretty loud, but the open door made it almost deafening.  My instructor and I inched toward the door, and he started positioning himself to jump.  What might not be obvious is that it's surprisingly difficult to (a) be physically attached to another fully-grown human, (b) maneuver on your knees while physically attached to another fully-grown human, and (c) maneuver on your knees in a rickety metal box 10,000 feet in the air while physically attached to another fully-grown human.  For some reason this part often gets overlooked, and I can't stress enough how improperly the joints in ankles and knees are designed to accommodate this task.

The doorway of the plane had a metal lip along the bottom.  As my instructor started leaning out of the plane (with me attached), "we" utilized this metal lip to grind my outer right ankle bone and forcibly remove my shoe.  Things get a little hazy at this point, what with the wind and the noise and the achievement of terminal velocity, but I remember tumbling through the sky and thinking, "Crap, I just lost a shoe."  I figured it would hit me in the face in a few seconds, or land on somebody's house, leading to one lucky homeowner's best story of all time.  I temporarily put that thought aside so I could enjoy what I would consider the biggest thrill a person can legally experience.  Once my instructor deployed the parachute and things calmed down a bit, I informed him of my predicament, but he wasn't concerned.  People who jump out of planes for a living have slightly different priorities than a regular person.

As we made our final descent toward the landing zone, I spotted Wendy and pointed to my shoeless foot, which she laughed at.  The landing procedure is sort of a gametime decision, so at the last second, my instructor told me to land standing as opposed to sliding on my butt.  This didn't feel great especially while physically attached to another fully-grown human, but it wasn't terrible.  Everyone laughed as they found out I arrived with one less shoe, but no one seemed concerned about the terminal effects of a solid object dropped from a plane.  Sometimes ignorance of physics is a good thing.

As it turns out, my shoe returned to me.  We were signing our release forms and whatnot, and the pilot came over to me and handed me my shoe, which ended up staying in the plane the whole time.  As he put it, "I looked in the back of the plane and saw a shoe and thought, Who the hell left a shoe?"  I did.  But I got it back, along with a nice ankle bruise.

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