Thursday, December 31, 2020

The 11-dollar hundred-dollar space heater


Another man's treasure. That's what this is.

The electric heater, not the cat.

You're looking at the discontinued Kozy World Shilo Electric Stove Fireplace, which online goes for anywhere from $60 used, to $144 (but out of stock), to as much as $377.16 at a site called Discount Cleaning Products... Similar heaters at big-box stores range $80–$150.

We got it for free, because someone was throwing it out. A house down the street was being renovated and sold. As the sale closing date approached, a lot of stuff appeared on the curb each week on trash day. Among the stuff was this heater. Len carried it home to see if it still worked. 

It sort of worked. 

It needed a fresh light bulb and had a familiar rattle Len knew how to fix from working on other electric space heaters. So, Len opened it up, cleaned it up, replaced the light bulb and voilĂ ! It works. 

After using it a few times, the flame generator stopped spinning. (That's the reflective, uh, wand, that catches light like a disco ball to generate the look of dancing flames against the back wall of the heater.) Len opened it up again to work on the timing motor. Ultimately, he made a trip to American Science and Surplus and bought two new timing motors, each a different RPM, because we weren't sure exactly how fast the original had been spinning.

This errand, not counting the nominal gas to the get there, cost a grand total of $11.

Now we have the cat's new favorite napping spot and an extra timing motor for some future project.

The moral of the story, kids, is that a broken hundred-dollar appliance often just needs a new five-dollar part.


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Waste, waste, to bring Him laud


Tips for an eco-friendly holiday abound. In November, the Popular Science e-newsletter told me how to plan a waste-free Thanksgiving. Next will be a Green New Year. I'm thinking of Christmas right now, because that's what I'm celebrating, but it could be any holiday, any time of year. Our practices could be more sustainable.

How many single-use decorations and wrappings will be in your trash bin? Or how about the outdoor decorations that abandon your yard with one big gust of wind? Will you retrieve them from the neighbor's bushes down the block or shrug it off as litter you couldn't help? How much packaging are you throwing out with each daily Amazon delivery? How much uneaten food?

There's a sound argument that the little things, like reusing a paper gift bag, won't save the planet. I'd posit instead that, while those little things on their own don't make a big enough dent, our subtle changes in habits do start to change our attitudes. And, a change in attitude will change our approach to both little and big things. 

It works in both positive and negative ways. Consider the age-old advice that you can set yourself on the path to success throughout the rest of the day with just the small sense of accomplishment you get from making your bed in the morning. The implied opposite is that when you stop caring about little maintenance things, you'll stop caring about big ones, too, and eventually reach the "it's already a huge mess, so what's the point?" point. 

Bleh! Choose to care about some small things! Make the effort!

Let's clarify -- I'm not telling you to sweat the small stuff and suffer great anxiety worrying about little things. I'm asking you to care about some little things. Worry and care do not go hand in hand. Caring is a positive energy that you can use to take action, however small. Worry is a fear-based, negative energy that often stands in the way of productivity. Example: Worrying about an elderly relative and calling her five times a day will not necessarily prevent her from slipping and falling at home and may only slightly relieve your anxiety about that. Stopping by to drop off a meal and help her get some things from a high shelf is a productive act of care.

But I'm not an anxiety counselor, so let's get back to having a green holiday with a quick digest of the little ways we can take care to minimize our celebrations' environmental impact. 

There are so many considerations to sustainability. Food waste, energy waste, air pollution, water pollution, adding to landfills, contaminating recycling batches... Many of which come with the tacit waste of time and money -- either your own or that of whoever's cleaning up after you. 

Planning is the key word in avoiding almost any kind of waste. Plan your route to save gas. Plan your list to save time (and money) in the store. Plan your online shopping to get as many items in as few shipments as possible, to minimize your delivery transit and packaging footprint. Plan your meals to avoid wasting any food.

Reusable is another key consideration. It's obvious that sturdy, reusable decorations are better than the flimsy, one-use kind that you'll just throw away and buy again. Reusable packaging is another no-brainer, such as the everlasting and ever-trendy mason jar, or something as simple as a rectangle of fabric, like beeswax-soaked food wraps or colorfully patterned furoshiki. Look them up.

Another major holiday item that's reusable? Your food. Actually eat your leftovers!

There is one single-use decoration that is more sustainable than its reusable counterpart. Real Christmas trees. They're grown for the purpose of being cut, are continually replenished, and handily convert carbon dioxide into oxygen in the meantime. That is, if your tree was farmed locally. If you're trucking in a specialty fir from across the country, you missed the point.

But, say you have pine allergies or just prefer a fake Christmas tree. Several sources estimate you'd need to keep it for at least 10 years before its carbon footprint equals that of one real tree. We have indeed used our big artificial tree for more than a decade, and I'm fairly certain my grandma's tree is at least twice that old. Take care of your fake tree!

You may have noticed the recurring theme of waste management. It's as important big-picture (i.e. national environmental policy) as it is in your own home. So here's the point I really want to drive home.

You do not have to eschew a wonderfully extravagant holiday for austere minimilism in order to celebrate sustainably. (Minimilists may argue with me, but I'm for diversity of lifestyle within environmental reason.)

You can still serve an expensive roast, a beautiful platter of vegetables and decadent desserts, but think quality over quantity. How much food do you really need for the number of people you're hosting? Maybe locally, sustainably sourced meat becomes more affordable when you realize you only need half as many pounds of it as you're inclined to buy. Alternatively, if you make a huge turkey because you like plenty of leftovers, evaluate how many days' of those leftovers you're truly willing to endure before you automatically buy the biggest one you can find.

Decorate your house with a million lights if that brightens your holiday, but use the ones you already own first. Yes, spend just a little time to find and replace the two bulbs that are causing the whole strand to go out. If you "need" to buy more, go for the new LED lights, which draw less energy. 

Bake a bunch of cookies if you like, but again, first consider how many you (and your family, friends, dog walkers, mail carriers, passersby) will really eat, and make that many instead of a zillion just because. And, try to do it efficiently, so your oven is not left heating for unnecessarily long (or frequent) periods.

Reduce what you buy and use, whenever you can. Reuse what you already have, even repairing or repurposing as needed. And, when you must throw it out, take care to separate and recycle what you can.

It comes back to those key words. Plan to reduce your waste. Manage the waste you cannot avoid generating. 


Thursday, December 17, 2020

Square knot dog toy


Somehow we got on a square kick. Anyway. 

Like my easy arm-warmers, this a no-sew project.

There's an artisan fair we like to visit every November (except this November) at Heritage Prairie Farm. One year there, I saw a woman selling -- and making, as she sat in her booth -- these cool dog rope toys. She was tying strips of fabric in knots, resulting in a nicely solid but also kinda stretchy tug toy. 

Just like this writer, my first thought was, "I could make that." And, for the next 24 months I thought about what a great Christmas gift it would be for the dogs in my life. Finally, this year, I did it. I made the square rope described on Create Laugh Grow (the writer referenced above), which turns out skinnier than the dog toys I saw at the artisan fair, but I think the basic concept is the same, with variables like fabric type and width giving you different sizes and textures of rope.

I found Create Laugh Grow's instructions very helpful, but I still didn't make the square rope correctly the first time. A closer read revealed that the instructions were perfect; I just didn't read far enough down the page to get the crucial clarification. because I misunderstood the important trick of keeping each of the four strands always on its own side.  

Using four different colors is one way to keep track (and results in neat stripes). So, let's pretend you have red, lavender, teal, and brown strips of fabric. For the two vertical strips, being folded top down or bottom up, let's say the red strip is always on the right, and the lavender strip is always on the left (top down, bottom up), and for the two horizontal strips you're weaving left and right, teal always on top and brown always on bottom. 

Now, if you want a round rope, with your different colored strips making a spiral pattern, just do what I mistakenly did the first time: No matter what strip is on top, fold it down to the right, always from the top down to the right. Whenver folding a strip up from the bottom, to the left. Weaving from right to left, always on the bottom. From left to right, on top. 

So here are those instructions, with my notes.

  1. Cut 4 lengths of fleece fabric. About 2" wide and 45" long is ideal for a medium-sized dog. NOTE: 45 inches seems long, but all the knot-tying compresses the fabric significantly. My 35 inches of fleece made a rope about 8 inches long with barely enough leftover to tie the end knot. I also tried this with old jeans, which make a nice, solid rope but lose more length because they don't have the stretchiness of fleece. Already making the rope shorter is the limit of the jeans themselves -- unless you're very tall, you won't get 45 inches from your old pants legs.
  2. Tie a regular overhand knot at one end, leaving a few inches of fabric as a tail. Pull the knot tight.
  3. Tie your square knots:
    1. Open your 4 strips into a plus sign shape.
    2. Fold the top strip towards the bottom, a little to one side, always the same side as you progress. NOTE: I misunderstood this step to mean whenever folding the top strip down, it should always go down to the right. Not so! It means this particular strip, whether folding it down from the top or up from the bottom, should always stay on the right. The other vertical strip, whether folding up or down, always stays on the left. 
    3. Fold the bottom strip towards the top, a little to the other side, always the same side as you progress. NOTE: Same as the vertical strips.
    4. Fold the right strip towards the left. Pass over the first strip, then under the second.
    5. Fold the left strip toward the right. Pass over the first strip, then under the second.
  4. Pull all of the strips nice and tight.
  5. When you've got about 5 inches left, tie off the end with another overhand knot and pull tightly. NOTE: If you're using old jeans or other scap fabric that does not stretch like fleece, you need more than 5 inches to tie this end knot. At least, I did.
  6. Trim off tails to make them even. Snip the tails into a fringe if you like.
Two last notes on using jeans instead of fleece:
  1. If your old jeans are too ratty and wearing thin, they might tear when you pull the strip tight to knot. Obviously, such fabric will not work so well for a semi-sturdy dog toy.
  2. The jeans made a thicker rope (larger in diameter) than the fleece. That same lack of stretchiness also equals less ability to compress into a small knot.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Gingerbread Foursquare: Completed



There she is.

Yes, there is a small electric light bulb inside, along with melted gummies over the window holes for that warm, aged-glass glow.

Len gets the majority of the construction credit. We worked together to get the main four walls up, but he assembled almost every other piece that didn't require more than two hands and even, somehow, some sections that did require more than two hands. And he glazed all the windows, built the chocolate block foundation, mixed the cookie-crumb concrete for the driveway and back patio. I sculpted the dinky, not-to-scale car out of fruit Tootsie Rolls and added frills such as peppermint patio furniture and our sunflower garden.

What would we do differently next  year?

Let's start with the roof. Most gingerbread house kits follow the standard pattern of two rectangular walls and two walls with triangular peaks -- why? So the two pieces of roof can easily sit atop them. The two triangular walls support the peak of the roof where the two pieces meet.

Notice, however, the roof of a foursquare-style house... The roof is nearly a pyramid four pieces that peak in the very center and slope down toward all four sides. The walls themselves do not follow -- nor support -- the slant of the roof. If you want the roof to have the traditional overhang (i.e., stick out past the walls a little), it has to be self-supporting. 

We found it impossible to assemble the roof on the house and instead assembled it separately, allowed the icing to harden, and then lifted it onto the house... where it would separate under its own weight. So the roof needs a platform. Imagine a gingerbread frame -- a rectangle just slightly larger than the footprint of the house's four walls, with a rectangle cut-out in its center, just slightly smaller than the footprint of the house's four walls. (I'd show you a picture of what we did, but we cobbled it together with the last scraps of our cookie dough, and it looks like a lump attic floor with a gaping collapsed hole in the center. Next year, I will measure and cut out and nice, neat rectuangular frame to support the roof.) You assemble the roof on the frame and then the frame sits evenly atop the four walls.

Why a frame with a cut-out center and not just a solid rectangular piece? Why, so it doesn't obstruct the light inside from shining through all of the house's windows, of course.

So that's another thing we'd do differently to the roof next year. I'd cut out rectangles over which the dormers will be built, just like I did in the wall for the bay window -- so the light can shine through them.

Next, some general gingerbread tips I really did know but didn't heed -- and will next time. 

Bake the large pieces together and the small pieces togther and never a mix of the two on the same pan. Why? They bake at different paces. We have some rather crispy small pieces with some lighter-colored large pieces because we put them together on the same pan -- and no, you can't just remove the smaller pieces early and let the larger pieces continue baking. The cookies must cool (and therefore, harden) on the pan before you can move them.

Pay attention to how thick/thin you roll out your dough before cutting the shapes, and try to roll every batch to the same thickness every time. We have some rather thick pieces that are quite sturdy but probably unnecessarily so, and some rather thin, delicate pieces that I was terrified of snapping during assembly.

If your cut-out gingerbread pieces spread in unexpected directions as they bake or for any other reason need a trim or to be cut apart, do it immediately upon taking them out of the oven! While it's still warm, the gingerbread is just soft enough to cut. As it cools, it hardens (because it's construction gingerbread!), and trimming, while not impossible, becomes a more tedious and risky task.

Have some items on hand for structural support as needed. This is mostly for larger, heavier pieces during the beginning construction stages when the house is not yet self-supporting and/or the royal icing hasn't hardened enough to hold a piece in place. In my last post, you saw some plastic cups (candy packaging) acting as a column under a section of wall to hold it level while the icing dried. Boxed cake mix also makes a sturdy, straight, and tall support to stand against a wall and hold it plumb. It's good to have these random supports within reach, or else one of you is left holding the piece in place while the other one scrambles around the kitchen looking for something to use as a support (and that's assuming there are more than one of you working on the gingerbread creation).

Carefully consider the order of assembly and decoration. Or else you may find yourself squeezing precariously into awkward nooks just to add one little (but important!) detail.

And then, some lessons specific to this gingerbread house, most of which can be summed up by the adage, "Measure twice, cut once." In this case, it would be measure twice, stop and think about how the pieces fit together, measure again, cut once, bake once, avoid having to trim the cookie after it's baked.

There are pieces I'd make smaller next time, and others I'd make larger. The are some angles I'd adjust, either because I really just guessed this time or because baking affected the geometry enough to matter. Above, I mentioned several roof lessons learned.

But all in all, we're very happy with this gingerbread recipe from Serious Eats and this royal icing recipe from Spend With Pennies (which I chose because it uses egg whites instead of meringue powder, not because I have anything against meringue powder but rather just didn't have it and didn't want to go out). Our templates worked fairly well, so I have saved them for next year, with notes on adjusting measurments.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Gingerbread Foursquare: Construction begins


What started as creative enhancement of boxed gingerbread house kits -- graham cracker additions onto the house, extra candy for custom adornments, a few homemade gingerbread cookies to add people or trees to the "yard" -- has this year become a from-scratch architectural adventure.

That's right, more graph paper!

A guesstimated template of our own American Foursquare house, a sturdy-yet-tasty gingerbread recipe, and some lessons learned along the way for next time.

What better way to celebrate our new old house's 110th (probably) Christmas than by creating a gingerbread version of her?

Here we have some Hershey bars as the foundation blocks and some random plastic containers supporting the empty side of a wall where the bay window pieces will go.

This is a days-long project, because we're not under the showstopper clock in the Great British Baking Show tent, and we have other daily responsibilities. So, construction is underway, and I will post again with further progress (hopefully, the finished house) as well as more details, like those lessons learned.