Thursday, August 21, 2014

How to fix a dimly-lit refrigerator

Answer:  As near as I can tell, there is currently no practical solution to this predicament.  Let me explain our attempted workarounds in the sections below so that you won't waste your own time trying the same approaches.

Do you find it a bit odd that everyone acknowledges this issue but no manufacturer has seen fit to correct it??
Yes, yes, I know what you're going to say - this falls squarely into the category of "first world problems".   
It's a first world problem but you might be surprised at how much food (and therefore money) I waste because I can't properly see what's in our fridge.  Our kitchen is in the center of our house and has no windows - it isn't very bright to start with, and light coming from our unusual kitchen skylight and our standard pot lights doesn't illuminate the fridge.
I think what happens is that manufacturers design the lighting without accounting for the food load.  In this example, there is no light whatsoever getting to most of the shelves in the fridge on the right.  
Here's the source of all this aggravation:
Each of us homeowners pays upwards of a thousand dollars for a refrigerator, but a lot of them only come with these crappy little bulbs.  Unfortunately, those obsolete bulbs make retrofitting very difficult, especially because they are so small, with correspondingly small sockets and low wattage.  
My first instinct in dealing with this problem was simply to wait until our 10-year-old refrigerator eventually died of natural causes, because surely a newer replacement model would be brighter??  But I recently went on a pre-purchase shopping trip to look at new fridges, and found that none of the models currently for sale would be bright enough for my dim-kitchen, severely-myopic needs.
Our fridge takes three of those 30-watt incandescent miniature atrocities.  Sigh.  
So upon discovering that new fridges are not significantly better than the one we've already got, we set about trying to resolve this.  We first looked at specialty bulbs.
Don't laugh, but I actually do use a flashlight to search our fridge!!  We could find no specialty bulb on the market that was measurably better than what we've already got.  This is a sampling of Amazon reviews for an LED fridge bulb model that sells for $15 apiece.  Given that I would need three, I could spend $45 on these things and still be no better off than I am right now.  
We initially thought we could achieve partial relief through adaptation of a compact fluorescent in the largest of the three bulb sockets.  
The CF bulb on top, is an "instant on" 14 watt, 900 lumen bulb (intermediate base), so it actually is compatible with the fridge.  You can see here that it looks brighter than the lower two 30 watt bulbs combined.   EXCEPT...
...CFs don't do well in the cold!!  The "instant on" feature did not save it from dimming out as soon as it got chilled.  It ended up being worse than the original incandescent.  
So here is the fridge light summary of failure:
  1. The incandescents are not bright enough
  2. The LED options marketed to replace the dim incandescents are not bright enough, and
  3. The CFs start out being bright enough, but cannot maintain their lumens at 38 degrees F (not while operated only intermittently, at least).  
So where does that leave those of us who are fumbling around in the dark?  Pretty much screwed until technology improves.  Once again, I've essentially written a place-holder post here, a post that I'll come back and update when a better product hits the market, when I discover a reasonable hack, or when someone drops me a comment or email relating a solution that finally will put me out of my half-blind misery.
How about a danged light bulb that is actually fit for purpose?  That would be enough to satisfy me.  

Monday, August 18, 2014

Dog park doldrums (Act 2)

We've been waiting patiently for further announcements on the possibility of a League City dog park (blog category here for a recap of developments to date).  After a great flurry of initial excitement about four months ago, there's been even more radio silence.
O dog park, dog park, wherefore art thou, dog park?!

This is an outline showing the proposed location on West Walker Street near the city municipal complex.  
In late June of 2014, I asked winged messenger from heaven Kristi Wyatt what the status was, and she informed me in an email of two developments:

  1. While the on-line survey did, indeed, show overwhelming support for a dog park, it was not a "scientific" poll and therefore LC followed up with a separate survey (why they did the on-line poll in the first place I did not ask).  To my knowledge, those results have not yet been released publicly.  
  2. Reportedly, further discussions about the dog park were due to take place "during the upcoming CIP process".  So sayeth the City Manager.  

I haven't pressed the issue to date for a reason that should be obvious to anyone who follows League City politics:  The dog park prospect was re-invigorated by Councilman Andy Mann, whose term is up this year.  For the past few months I have been assuming, duh, that there would be a positive announcement whose timing would show an uncanny correspondence to a re-election bid.  It would be a classic political abracadabra, a municipal misdirection (but a welcome one), a revelation orchestrated to suggest that City Council actually accomplishes more than incessant culture warring (most recently regarding immigrant children) that results in much squandered time and energy and occasionally in lost taxpayer money, too (what they wasted on the Jornaleros lawsuit alone could have paid for TWO new dog parks).  Not to mention that this behavior attracts national scrutiny of the wrong kind, discontent among minority residents (paywalled but this other piece is not paywalled), and no net benefit for any of us.
The New York Times quote of the day from July 17, 2014.  Dallas County effectively speaking to League City and Galveston County (and possibly others) via the NYT.  It was one of those "I thought I'd seen it all" moments for me.  
This dog park announcement scenario outlined above is what I had expected, BUT, as is so often the case in League City, things took a bizarre turn last week when Mann unexpectedly dropped his re-election bid (paywalled) in what appears to be yet another flurry of purely-political bullpoop (more on that in a subsequent post).
Andy Mann's political career, at least temporarily.

And no, this is not a "threat" that purportedly needs to be censured (paywalled link).  This is just satire.  More on that later, too.

And yes, I know that I'm mixing Shakespearean metaphors, which is in extremely bad taste.  But it's just a blog post, hastily done to boot.  It's not a work of literary art.  
So where does that leave those folks with dogged determination where the dog park is concerned?  At this point, I don't know.  We will know by close of business today who is actually running for which Council positions, so that will potentially help to constrain who we should be talking to.  If nobody steps forward to discuss the issue in an election context, I will file a FOIA request to obtain the results of the subsequent survey that League City conducted, because too much time is passing without any action on this issue.  Stay tuned for more.
Hint, hint.  If Council could kindly and momentarily tear itself away from all of the special interest political crap in which it engages, we might get some actual work done around here. Maybe.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A common weak link in home security

It's often the master bath window, or a similarly-configured window in another ground-floor bathroom of a home.
The increasingly-bizarre case of Houstonian Theresa Roemer's burglary illustrates this very well.  According to published reports, approximately $1 million worth of jewelry and consumer goods were stolen via the breakage of a window that, from looking at this photo, I estimate might have been worth about twenty bucks.

Image courtesy of this Houston Chronicle piece.  
Bathroom windows are very often the weakest link in the residential security chain for the following reasons:

  1. Most of them are fixed panes of glass and therefore they cannot be outfitted with alarm sensors designed for windows that can be opened.  
  2. Most suburban homeowners with standard-configuration lower-end security systems do not have glass break sensors, motion detectors, or security cameras installed in or near their master baths.  Those implements tend to be found in the main areas of the house such as in hallways, near entries, or in great rooms.  
  3. Even if there is a glass break sensor nearby, it is possible to penetrate typical bathroom window sheet glass without setting it off.   
  4. Most of these windows are single panes of glass and therefore easier to break through discretely than the coated double-paned energy-efficient windows typically found throughout the rest of the house. 
  5. As well as being single panes of glass, many tract home master bath windows are inexpensive and thin, making glass removal even more straightforward.
  6. Many tract home master bath windows are also large and situated close to the ground, allowing for efficient personnel ingress or egress.
  7. Master baths are typically located on the side or rear of the house, so they can be accessed without burglars being seen from the street.  

Typical greater Houston tract home master bath configuration, screengrabbed from a real estate listing chosen at random.  Behind those 2-inch blinds appears to be a thin sheet of plate glass.  Many homes in our area are constructed similarly.  
So what's the work-around to this potential point of weakness?
One of the easiest improvements is glass block.  While not foolproof, block presents a much more stubborn structural deterrent to would-be burglars.  Image screengrabbed from a real estate listing chosen a little less randomly. 
When I announced to my husband that we would be building our home with glass block in the master bath, he cringed.  "But I hate glass block," he lamented.  "It's so 1970's."  Which of course is true, especially given that our builder offered only one out-dated style of it.
I agree with my husband - it's out-dated.  As far as I'm concerned, the only thing that glass block is good for aesthetically is abstract macro-photography.  This is a photo I took of a blue clapboard home and its sunlit driveway with landscaping vegetation out in front, as seen through an inner-loop friend's glass block wall.  
So I gave my husband a choice.  I said, "Either we go with the builder's glass block option, or we let the builder install the usual flimsy plate glass and then we do our own custom overhaul of the window after we close on the house."  For simplicity, we went with the builder's option.  And of course it's not a foolproof security solution, but we also have brick facing on all sides of our house, so the glass block is set into the frame and the brick rather than into wood alone with a pressed board / Hardi siding surround.  It's possible to penetrate it, but not without a sledgehammer.  And if someone is ever dumb enough to try a sledgehammer, our entire cul-de-sac will become alerted to their activity pretty quickly.

Thus sayeth the previously-burgled blogger who has no desire to go through that kind of recovery process ever again.  Nothing is ever guaranteed, but an ugly window is a small price to pay for a bit of added protection, in my opinion.
Too bad this analysis doesn't break it down by which first-floor window is most often used for entry.

Screengrabbed from this Protect America info site.  No endorsement intended or implied.  

Thursday, August 14, 2014

How to manage a special diet on a long road trip

Conversely, this post could be titled "How to enjoy a week at the cottage without having to cook".

Answer:  Consider incorporating the following simple equation into your vacation food management strategy.
A diet that is largely freezer-based (see this humorous post and this other post) PLUS a Yeti Tundra cooler to keep items frozen over an unprecedentedly-long duration of time EQUALS a whole lot less hassle for the traveler, especially if the traveler happens to be their family's chief cook and bottle-washer.  
As we found out during a recent 3,000-mile (one way!!) car trip, the Yeti is a game-changer for consumers.
That is one loaded-down minivan, but stuff-dragging is inevitable if you're driving your family cross-country.  Retrospectively we realized that we should have put our Yeti 50 (at upper left) squarely above the rear axle, because it was very heavy.  In this photo we had it pushed too far toward the rear of the van.  
In our case, it wasn't a special diet per se that prompted me to try this food management approach, but rather the following two considerations:
  1. We were rendezvousing with other family members for the proverbial cottage-by-the-sea vacation, and I wanted everyone to be able to sample some of the home-grown goodies that I harvest from my gardens here in Houston.
  2. More importantly, I was looking for some relief from my aforementioned chief cook and bottle-washer status.  Does this ever happen to you?? -- You travel to some lovely cottage in an idyllic remote location only to spend half your "vacation" time mired in the logistics of how to feed everybody.  Typically, 'idyllic remote' means two things:  not many services to start with, and those few that are available are extremely expensive.  So it is with our annual cottage destination, which largely caters to the resort crowd rather than to middle-class travelers.  Your options in that scenario are as follows:
  • Pay sky-high prices daily for nutritionally-unbalanced restaurant meals (unacceptable)
  • Admit defeat and eat chicken nuggets and french fries most of the time (unacceptable)
  • Take your own home-made food along for the ride (ideal if you can find a way to preserve it long enough)
We had heard about the Yeti's superior cold-retention capability but we'd had no previous experience with it, and Yeti itself hedges its bets where longevity guarantees are concerned.  Here is how we tackled our food transport challenge, and the results:
  • A few days prior to our trip, we bumped our freezer temperature down to the lowest it would go, which was minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • About 12 hours prior to the trip, we packed the Yeti with ice to "pre-cool" it because we had read somewhere that this would help with cold retention.
  • On the morning of departure, we dumped out the pre-cooling ice (which had partially melted), quickly loaded the cooler with our food, and then carefully packed new ice (cooled to below freezing) into the void spaces.  
Here is an ice-free view.  Most coolers are elongated, but I chose the Yeti 50 because it is closer to being cube-shaped - maximum volume for minimum surface area.  As I described in this previous post, I only use Pyrex ware for food storage, and by this time we own approximately 120 Pyrex pieces of various sizes.  The Yeti 50 can hold about 12 to 16 one-quart Pyrex containers and perhaps 4 to 6 of the 2-cup size, depending on your desired ice-to-food ratio.  That's a whole lot of food!  

  • We continued to monitor the ice throughout our long journey.  Here's the kicker - we weren't going directly to the cottage.  We spent 9 sight-seeing days on the road before we even got to our final destination.  By Day 7, some of the ice had begun to melt and the frozen food was beginning to thaw, but we re-packed any void spaces with new ice daily to keep the temperature as low as achievable (properly refrigerated frozen food generally has a shelf life of 7 to 10 days after initial thawing).  Then, as soon as we arrived at the cottage, I cranked down the refrigerator to its lowest possible temperature in order to maintain the thawed food as long as possible.

And the strategy worked very well, indeed.
Mexican pork and squash stew (recipe here) and Cuban black beans (recipe here) three thousand miles from the point of preparation and ten days after having been removed from our freezer.  Served with brown rice.  
OMG - I WENT ON VACATION TO A COTTAGE AND FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY HALF-CENTURY LIFE, I DID NOT HAVE TO COOK!!!  All I had to do for each day's main meal was to prepare fresh rice or pasta, warm up my home-made food, and set the various dishes on the table to be served.  In this way, I fed 5 adults wonderful meals for 7 consecutive days with almost no effort.

And here's the added bonus that I neglected to consider at the outset:  What would the corresponding price of 35 high-quality restaurant dinners have been in an expensive area?  Or conversely, cooking 35 person-meals from scratch by buying ingredients at substantially inflated local pricing (not to mention the incredible amount of time and energy that would have sucked out of my vacation time)?  Yeti coolers are not for the financially faint of heart - our Yeti 50 cost almost $400.  But if you do the math on this scenario, what you'll conclude is that the money saved by bringing food 3,000 miles substantially offset the purchase price of the cooler.  Effectively, the thing almost paid for itself in one trip.

Marvelous, I tell you.  I had no idea at the outset whether this scheme would work, but it was successful beyond all my expectations.  And I have never enjoyed my own cooking more than after a succession of absolutely grueling, miles-long mountain hikes.  It tasted twice as good as it normally does.
:-)

The additional possibilities are substantial:  Gluten allergy?  Medical condition?  Losing weight and don't want to experience the type of inevitable set-back experienced from being forced to eat whatever crappy food is typically available while traveling?  Try a Yeti - it might work for your situation.

As always, this is a noncommercial post expressing personal opinions only.  I receive no compensation from any referenced source.  In those cases where cited manufacturers have felt compelled to furnish me with products, I donate them to charity.
An average rating of 4.9 out of 5 on more than four hundred reviews?!  That kind of phenomenon almost never occurs in the consumer universe, but I can see why it did with this product.  Five stars, indeed.

Screengrabbed from this Academy website.    

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Landscaping made easy, Part 15: Even more edible landscaping

After seeing several recent news stories about local blackberry growers, I decided I had to take the plunge and try some for us.  But as with my other suburban planting efforts, it can't just be about gardening - our back yard is so small that we do a lot of food-gardening-as-landscaping, as this series of photos will show.
This Meyer lemon tree (shown in this 2013 pic as a newborn) had grown to the point where it was too large for this space, so this became one of my intended blackberry locations.

See this post for further information on culvert gardening.  
I moved the Meyer and began work on rejiggering this space with a blackberry trellis.  Mind you, it's mid-summer in Houston Texas.  My photos are going to look unfinished because most of the heavy lifting will need to wait until the average temperatures are about 30 degrees lower than what they are right now.  The main thing I needed to accomplish in the short term was to get the Meyer moved and the blackberry bushes into the ground.  
I used two simple $20 redwood trellises - not very fancy but this is my first trellising effort and I wanted to start small.  Annoyingly, I cannot find this exact model on the Home Depot website, but it's similar to this one (except the two I bought are wider).  I fastened them to the fence using three-quarter-inch metal brackets of the type that are available in the plumbing department.   
You can see from the photos above that the soil in this location is very light-colored, suggesting that it's not very high in organic matter (like most greater Houston soils, it's largely clay).  For this reason, I did one of my periodic compost excavations in order to retrieve enough material to amend it.  This pic shows the wheelbarrow loaded with newly-dug compost.  
And this is what my Earth Machine looked like after I had removed the composted material from the bottom of it.  THere is now room to make more as the cycle of decomposition and growth continues.  You can read more about the Earth Machine in this recent post.  
Here is the hole that I dug (did I mention that it's really bloody hot outside right now?!) and some home-made compost in the bottom of it for color comparison.  Very different composition, eh?  Where gardening and landscaping are concerned, the general rule of thumb on soil fertility is as follows:  Light-colored is bad.  Dark-colored is good.  
For a planting like this, the trick is to make the hole about 1.5 times wider and deeper than the plant that is going into the ground, and then blend the native soil and the amendments together to fill the extra space (as well as using my own compost, I also augmented with Microlife fertilizer).  You want to go to this hole-widening trouble in order to give your new plant a leg-up, a head start on growing where you've placed it, but you don't want to go so far as to create special soil conditions for the plant that you can't possibly sustain over the long term.  The initial boost helps the plant to get established in imperfect soils.   
I chose to try Rosborough blackberries (that's a PDF link), which is a line developed by Texas A&M and released in 1977.  I got the plants from Faith's Garden Shed Naturally which sells out of the Clear Lake Shores Farmers Market.

BTW, mini-blind slats can be recycled to make really good plant markers.  They take both marker and pencil very well.  
First blackberry coming out of its nursery container.  Loosen up the roots of newly-purchased plants a bit before placing them in the ground, so that the new roots will not continue to grow in a bound-up state.  
Here it is placed in the hole for sizing purposes.  The hole needs to be wider than the new plant, but it's important not to bury the top of the plant because the root ball needs to breathe.

This is a thorny bramble (ouch!) and so I plan to train it rigorously to go straight up the trellis rather than outward.  Vertical plantings are a good idea for any back yard that is lacking in space.  
Whew - one down, one to go.  I'll fix the landscape bed's rock edging in October maybe (did I mention that it's hot out right now?).  
This was my second chosen location, next to one of my large garden mirrors (they are made from recycled bathroom sheet mirrors that were taken out during someone's home remodeling and then sold to me during a garage sale).  Part of the point from a design perspective was to break up the continuous unbroken line of the fence by using staggered heights.  
The second blackberry was installed much as the first, and now we'll see what time and cooler temps will bring.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Best jewelry box

Answer:  If you want to acquire a great jewelry box, then you need to think outside the (jewelry) box.  The Bisley 5-drawer cabinet is an unconventional choice and may not be appreciated by girly-girl types, but in terms of quality, functionality, versatility, value for the price, and modern style, it's head and shoulders above any other option that I've ever seen or tried.
Hello industrial chic!!  The Bisley 5-drawer cabinet, currently available at The Container Store for about a hundred bucks.  

Twelve colors and four different drawer inserts for organization.   
Go Bisley or go home.  Think about the possibilities - if you have a larger jewelry collection, you could buy several of different colors, stack them up, etc.

Image above screengrabbed from The Container Store.  
Where do I even begin in describing the problems and limitations with the conventional jewelry boxes that are on the market today??
It's the retail category that time forgot - a market segment that has not evolved in more than 50 years, not kept pace during the same period of time in which women's lives changed to the point of being unrecognizable compared to their Leave It To Beaver starting point (today, we are leaving it to a very different Beaver).

Screengrabbed from a Google image search.  
Most of the jewelry boxes on the market today are obsolete because they are:
  1. Too small - the average professional woman would need six of those dinky things pictured above.
  2. Too difficult to organize - stuff gets piled up, tangled, etc. 
  3. Too inefficient - there's too much flipping of lids, lifting out of individual trays, etc. in many of them
  4. Too unstylish - none of those that are shown in the Google screengrab above could be integrated into modern decor.
  5. Too unsophisticated - they look like they're all made and marketed for little girls who still dress up in fairy costumes.
  6. Too cheaply made - there really isn't a lot of durability represented above.
  7. Or, too expensive - if you do the research on better boxes, their prices can easily reach many hundreds of dollars and for that you'll get about one quarter to one half of the storage capacity of a much less expensive Bisley.  
I acquired a modest but tasteful collection of jewelry as a means of justifying a meager professional wardrobe.  A woman can get away with a lot of "business casual" sins through the strategic use of better-quality costume jewelry.  Put on a nice necklace and folks tend not to notice that what you're wearing underneath it is not much better than a T-shirt.

For many years, most of my business jewelry sat in a predictable heap for lack of suitable storage mechanism.  But then I brought home a Bisley and liberated myself from all that mess.  My husband, normally accustomed to my unconventional thinking, was taken aback by this.  "Wait a minute - you're planning to use an office supply cabinet as jewelry box?!" he asked, perplexed.  "You betcha," I chirped, channeling Francis McDormand.  "And I'm a lot better off for it."

As always, this is a noncommercial post containing my personal opinions only.  I receive no benefit or compensation from any cited source.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Landscaping made easy, Part 14: How to make a small yard feel larger

Answer:  This can be achieved by intentionally harmonizing the plantings in your yard with those plantings that are outside of your property boundaries, such that the result appears as a single integrated scene which draws the eye into the distance.
Case in point - our rear fenceline.  We stained our fence dark three years ago (still looks great, doesn't it?) so that it recedes and appears unobtrusive.  Furthermore, this group of plantings was intentionally designed to go together, as I will show.  
This is what I mean by "go together".  Notice how the progression of heights has been engineered to transition smoothly from inside the yard to outside of the yard.  From lowest to highest, vegetation heights 1, 2, and 5 are on my property.  Heights 3 and 4 are in the common area behind my property, but because of this cohesive visual progression, all of this vegetation actually feels like it's "mine", and therefore this back yard feels more expansive than the paltry 23 feet (!!) of depth that we have here.   
Think about it.  A twenty-three-foot backyard depth could be downright oppressive, like some kind of a prison yard, if it were not designed correctly.  Twenty-three feet is less than the depth of the great room in our house, for crying out loud (and we have a small house by Houston standards).  But with an optimized landscaping layout, that depth actually feels pretty good, especially with three different colors of crape myrtle flowers.  There's a lot of good stuff happening here, and that distracts from the physical limitations of the space.  God bless Houston in the summertime - it may be hotter than the southern hinges of hell, but what a riot of amazing subtropical vegetation this place is capable of sustaining with very little effort on our parts.

So there is my advice as to how to put lipstick on that particular landscaping pig.  If you are adjacent to an open space or common area, evaluate how you might tie your landscaping in with whatever is existing behind you or beside you.  If you back to a neighbor, look at what they have installed and perhaps even collaborate with them on how you can make your respective small spaces feel larger through coordinated strategic planting on both of your parts.  Trust me - it will do your property values a world of good.
Don't read it and weep - instead, weed it and reap.  Most back yards in our subdivision are very small, with houses pushed close to the rear fenceline.  But that doesn't mean that those spaces can't be beautiful and expansive-feeling via the clever use of landscaping.

Screengrabbed from Google.