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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.