April 2009 Archives

Swine Flu Virus Precautions

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There are a few things you can actively do now to prevent swine flu, other than hitting refresh on the CDC website to see the latest figures and running around neurotic with anxiety.

First, wash your hands. Really!

Wash them before you prepare food, wash them before you eat food, wash them if you haven't washed them in a while. No special antibacterial soap is necessary, because the swine flu is caused by a virus, not a bacteria. Good ol' soap, water, and 15 seconds of vigorous washing will kill the virus.

The reason you need to wash your hands is because your hands come into contact with the world: door handles, shopping carts, pens. And then so many of us use those very hands to wipe our eyes, or apply makeup, or put in contact lenses. So, avoid touching any mucous membranes without washing your hands first. And wash. wash. wash.

Second, there aren't any antibiotics to take to "protect" you.

As mentioned above, swine flu is caused by a virus; antibiotics by definition only kill bacteria. Taking Cipro, or Augmentin or Zithromax won't kill the swine flu virus. It'll just lighten your wallet, give you unnecessary diarrhea, and won't do a darn thing to the swine flu virus.

Buy some face masks if it makes you feel better, but make sure you purchase them from the pharmacy, and not the hardware store. You want to make sure they prevent viruses, not sawdust.

Finally, there are antivirals that currently exist, oseltamivir and zanamivir. Unfortunately, it is not completely known whether or not they are effective against this new swine flu strain.

I must admit that I'm worried about how this current flu outbreak looks somewhat like the 1918 flu pandemic, specifically that it targeted not the young & old, as expected, but rather the young and healthy. However, it may simply be a reflection of the demographics of people who travel to Mexico.

Remember that the majority of the cases are not fatal. It's just the flu. You get muscle aches, fever, exhaustion, and a runny nose. Just don't forget to wash your hands.

Frequent Flyer Miles

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Zed mentioned in an earlier post about frequent flyer miles and credit cards. We are able to utilize credit cards for as many of our purchases as possible, because we pay the full balance at the end of every billing cycle. And also get compensated in the form of frequent flyer miles.

Essentially, a dollar charged equals one mile on an airline. It adds up quickly, and especially if most purchases are done by credit card. A free domestic airline ticket can be had for as little as 25,000 miles.

So then we started taking advantage of every "Get 10,000 miles free!" when starting up with a new credit card. The next year it was 15,000 miles. The next was 17,500 miles. Finally it topped out at 20,000. Sadly, then the credit card companies got smart, and started keeping track of who had already received a bolus of miles just for signing up for a credit card, so we didn't get the sign-on bonuses, but the miles kept rolling in.

To be clear, we had to pay a $60 fee at signup for the year's use of the card (knowing full well that other credit cards don't even charge a fee), so I considered it the cost of receiving the bonus miles. Ten thousand miles would have cost me ten thousand dollars in purchases, so I considered the $60 a good return on my money.

There has been a lot of travel for free with the miles we accumulated over the years, but the best part was flying to Europe round-trip for free. Twice. However, with the current recession, I know that at any time the airlines may cancel their frequent flyer programs. Yet, airfare is dropping quickly, so maybe we don't even need to use our current cache.

Restaurant Supply Store

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Forget Bed Bath & Beyond, even with the 20% off coupon. The place to go for kitchen supplies is a restaurant supply store. If you live in city that has a BBB, then there's a restaurant supply store near you.

These places sell to restaurants, and don't fool around. Admittedly, some of the wares are not appropriate for the home cook, like 30 gallon stew pots. The prices are low, somewhat akin to wholesale, and exactly what the professionals use.

Just about everything they sell is heavy duty, because it's restaurant-grade and built to last. Though, I was disappointed to discover that I could only buy the Irish coffee glasses by the case (48 glasses) instead of a quartet that I wanted.

Not to mention, it's just fun to browse and know that if I ever want to open my cafe, I know where to go to get a refrigerated bakery case or Hobart mixer.

Book swapping

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I struggle with clutter when it comes to books. I have to make sure I get rid of books and not just acquire them without end. There are only so many bookcases that will fit.

Paperbackswap has been a great way to turn books I no longer want into books I do. Despite the name, it traffics in books of any binding (audiobooks, too.) Its guiding assumption is that all books are created equal: by sending out a book, at your expense, you acquire one credit. You can use a credit to request a book from another member, at that member's expense. (Audiobooks are worth two credits.) It relies on the U.S. Postal Service, so it's only available for people served directly by the USPS.

To join, you post ten books (in acceptable condition) that you're willing to part with. You get 2 credits just for doing that. If a member requests one, you have two days to confirm, and then two days to mail the book (nominally -- the system will only cancel the transaction if over a week passes.)

You can define your own conditions regarding the books you'll accept; the other member will see your conditions and can refuse your request if the book doesn't meet them. At first, I had "no books from smoking households" as a condition, but I dropped that. The much more frequent problem was books that smelled of perfume. Excluding books from perfume-using households seemed overly restrictive, and it's easier to get the smell of smoke out of a book than perfume.

The availability of a given book is hit or miss, but, if it's not available, you can put it on your wish list. Whenever that book's posted, it's offered first to whomever wished for it first. (Likewise, when one requests a book that multiple members offer, the request goes to whomever listed it first.) Wishing for things is key to getting the most from the system. For instance, there's almost never any Terry Pratchett available, but I've received a half dozen Discworld novels through my wish list (and patience.)

To send a book, you print out a wrapper provided by the system. For an extra $.43, you can print the postage and get delivery confirmation. If you do this, you receive your credit when you tell the system you've mailed the book (otherwise, you don't get the credit until the recipient marks it received.) A package bearing stamps and weighing more than 13 oz. (which a lot of trade paperbacks and most hardcovers will exceed) needs to be mailed in person at a post office. The printed postage saves you the trip since it's not bearing stamps. I became a happier user when I switched exclusively to paying the surcharge for the printed postage.

Shipping a book typically costs about $3, so the books you receive cost you $3 and a book you didn't want anymore (plus your time and effort to wrap and ship it.)

If you join and say zedlopez referred you, I'll get a credit. But I recommend it on its own merits, not in hopes of scoring a book.

Shiitake Stir Fry

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So over the weekend I soaked & boiled a batch of garbanzos before I made my peanut butter hummus, then I made a batch of lentil soup, and then prior to bedtime, turned on my slow cooker for some peruanos for breakfast. That felt great!

This has become an official "dish" instead of random-veg stir fry, because I like this particular combination of ingredients for flavor, texture, and color variety. It could also be called Farmers Market Stir Fry, because I get all the ingredients there and usually make it shortly after going there.

An aside: Yesterday as we headed out to the farmers market, I couldn't help but comment on the liberal urban denizen cliches stacking up: me in my Obama t-shirt headed to the farmers market for my weekly organic produce purchases with my own plastic & canvas bags in tow.

So I've been reading a lot of Andrew Weil lately. Thanks to him, I completely avoid any hydrogenated fats (except for the occassional samosa), artificial food coloring (except for the occasional m&m) and non-organic strawberries (apparently they absorb a lot of pesticides). Also, I buy the more expensive shiitakes from the mushroom vendor instead of portabello or crimini, due to their immune-boosting effects.

I love shiitakes, with their excess of umami flavor (I think I'm an umami addict, no joke) and meaty texture. And that's exactly the role they play in this recipe.

1 medium onion, diced (just about all my recipes start with this)
1 lb fresh shiitakes (not sure what the conversion is to dried)
1 medium head broccoli, washed and stalks peeled & chopped, florets chopped
3 medium carrots, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
white wine (Two Buck Chuck is just fine)
soy sauce
salt

1. In a saute pan with a lid, saute onion in oil until caramelized over medium heat, and brown bits are sticking to the bottom of the pan.
2. Add a splash of white wine (~ 2 tablespoons) to deglaze the pan and dissolve the brown bits.
3. Add broccoli and carrots, splash of water, and cover for 2 minutes. This allows the broccoli and carrots to cook by steaming. They take longer to cook than the shiitakes, that's why they go in first.
4. Add the mushrooms along with a few shakes of soy sauce and salt (all to taste), and cover to continue to steam for another 3 minutes.
5. Add garlic, cover, and turn off heat. (Remove from burner if you have an electric range)
6. Serve with brown rice.

Let's tick off the things about this recipe that Dr Weil would approve of:
- vegetarian
- utilizes fresh vegetables (as opposed to canned)
- adds garlic at the end of cooking so the garlic wonder properties are retained in their mostly raw state
- shiitake mushrooms

So now I have beans already prepared for breakfast all week, and soup for several days. I love cooking ahead on the weekend, because it's one less thing I have to do when I get home exhausted from work.

Pen refills

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Continuing a refillable things theme, I'll put in a plug for decent refillable pens.

Pens are the sort of everyday thing with which it's easy to get by indefinitely with cheap disposables whose use is a little frustrating. But, at not much of a premium, you can get a comfortable refillable pen that works much better. The Sanford PhD and Dr. Grip Gel are two models I like.

For either of these, a 2-pack of refills can be more expensive than a box of 12 of the cheapest ballpoint pens, so it's not clear that this is a cheaper path. But it's so much more pleasant to deal with a pen that's easy to hold, whose ink flows nicely, and which lasts a long while before needing a refill, that I find it worth it (and I'm happy to be generating less waste.)

Carry your own water

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Most convenient bottled drinks are heavily sweetened and not especially good for you. A typical, non-diet 16 oz. bottle of Snapple has about 50g of sugar. That, alone, makes for more than 10% of the calories most people need in a day.

Water is one of the best things you can drink, but bottled water is often nearly as expensive as any other drink (as well as having a substantially greater environmental footprint than tap water.)

Jen and I often carry Camelbak Water Bottles. They're bisphenol-free, easy to drink from (just flip the mouthpiece up), and mostly spill-proof. We fill them from the tap at home (or at water fountains when we're out.)

This has not only saved us money, but prevented waste (in terms of plastic cups we'd have otherwise used at water coolers.)

Generic vs brand-name medications

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This is a topic I have strong feelings about, because I have worked in both generic and brand-name pharmaceutical companies.

As an employee, it is preferable to be employed by a brand-name company. The perks are many: higher remuneration, thicker carpet in the conference rooms, and nicer hotels while traveling. It will not surprise you that the reason I prefer working for a brand-name company is because all those extras are paid for by the patients and their health care insurance companies.

Unlike the store brand of toilet paper at your local grocery store, whose inferior quality is obvious in comparison to the brand-name, I assure you that generic and brand-name medications are held to the identical high standard.

I agree that store brand Dr Pepper just doesn't cut it; I don't buy it either. However, when available, I always opt for the generic medication, prescription or over-the-counter (OTC). Why? Because when it comes to medication, the active ingredient is what's important, and frequently the generic and brand companies are buying from the same supplier.

There's also the misconception that newer medications are always better than older ones. This is nothing further from the truth. The myth is what's behind Marketing 101; pharmaceutical companies try to assert this after realizing they are not the first on the market (and therefore competing for the crumbs of market share). No, newer is decidedly not necessarily better.

If your doctor prescribes something for you and it happens to have a generic equivalent available (that is, the patent has expired on it), be grateful the patent lawyers couldn't delay the inevitable any longer and ask for your prescription to be filled with the generic equivalent. Otherwise, it's just money down the drain. (Do you think your arteries are impressed by an antihypertensive with a TM after its name?)

Or, the high savings of good planning.

If there's a trip you could do by mass transit, but you leave late, so you have to drive and pay for parking, or take a cab, you've just cost yourself money.

If you go out to eat, or get take-out on the way home, because you don't have groceries in the house, you've just cost yourself money.

In almost any case where you have to buy something in an emergency, because you didn't plan ahead (and have the chance to go someplace you know it's cheaper), you've just cost yourself money. All the more so if it's something you already have and now you have two of them.

Overall, you can save not only a lot of money, but time if you don't live your life in a way that you have need of so much convenience. You can cook a healthy meal from scratch more quickly than you can go out to a restaurant and get served. But that requires groceries in the kitchen. When you account for the time spent on grocery shopping, there may not be much time savings, but not much time loss, either, and you're eating more healthful food for much less money.

If you plan an appliance purchase ahead, you can research what models are best, what good prices are, learn whether there are predictable patterns for when they'll be on sale at a discount. If you wait until the day you absolutely need it, then you're pretty much stuck with whatever Best Buy has on the shelf.

This is such a general pattern, that fatigue is the only limit on how many examples I could give.

Where are you paying extra for convenience? Is it really even all that convenient?

Free!

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If you live in a metropolitan area of the U.S., or a major metropolitan area elsewhere in the world, odds are there's a local Craigslist and a Freecycle group. One of Craigslist's areas (under "for sale") is for listing things being offered for free; that's what Freecycle's all about.

I spoke earlier about how clutter costs time and energy, and how one frugal activity is clearing out clutter. These resources are a great way to do that in a way that lets your old things be of use to someone.

And, of course, they can be a great way for you to find useful things for yourself. The perfectly nice metal 4-drawer filing cabinet I have at home was courtesy of free stuff on Craigslist.

I'll warn that, in my experience, people who agree to pick up stuff for free often simply don't show up. Be prepared, and offer it to the next respondent.

And beware taking things you don't really need because it seemed like such a bargain to get it for free. That way lies clutter.

Travel Vulturism

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According to a recent NYT article on travel, there are some great deals to be had this year. If you have the means, or even if you have only a few hundred dollars, you might find yourself on a 4-day trip to Hawaii for two people including airfare over a holiday weekend.

Had I known about it back in February, I'd have jumped on that in a second. But, there are still deals galore. In every travel niche, it's discounted like it's never been before. Cruises, eco-trips through the Costa Rican canopy, even bike tours run by small mom-and-pop operations: it's all on sale!

I love to travel. My vacations are lovingly planned and if I don't go on a big trip every eighteen months or so, I feel extremely sorry for myself. I adore reading travel magazines, especially the budget ones, and know most of the common ways to save: travel in the off-season, stay away from holiday weekends, fly on a Tues/Wed/Thur, but these days, it's hard not to find a good deal.

I checked out seat availability for frequent flyer miles on Continental, and they were wide open, which is not the usual case. (For example, frequent flyer tickets to Hawaii are usually sold out more than a year in advance.) I figured I'd better use my miles before they were further devalued in the inflated economy of airline miles.

Lo and behold, they were having a frequent flyer miles "sale" --- I haven't seen that since 2001, the last recession. Typically, travel to certain zones of the world are standardized: the cost of a round-trip ticket to Hawaii is 35,000 miles, while Europe is 50,000. Europe was discounted to only 35,000 miles. At this rate, who knows what the discounts will be by October, after the summer off-season.

Bon Voyage!

My Favorite Lentil Soup

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I've always had an idle dream about opening my own cafe and what I'd serve, as chef-waitress. In case my dream is never realized, at least the world will know about the lentil soup I'd put on the menu.

What I love about this soup is that it's filling and hearty, and doesn't require any meat stock for flavor, because of the built-in mirepoix of the veggies that go into it.

Serving tip: I never serve this soup without letting it sit for 24 hours first, to allow all the flavors to bloom. I'll be making it this afternoon, but won't be eating it until tomorrow night!

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 3 tablespoons tomato sauce
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1½ cups of uncooked French green lentils, sorted & rinsed
  • 8 cups water
  • Salt to taste, requires at least 3 tablespoons
  • Herbes de Provence mix, about three dashes
  1. Carmelize the diced onion in a soup pot, over low heat for about 20 minutes.
  2. Add tomato sauce to deglaze the bottom of the pot's onion-y deliciousness.
  3. Saute in the bay leaves & garlic and a few shakes of salt. It should smell fantastic.
  4. Add the carrots, celery, lentils, water, salt & bring to a boil.
  5. Taste the broth and add salt as necessary, and then add spices. Simmer at a low boil for 25 minutes with a partially-covered lid, until the lentils are soft.
  6. After cooling, cover & put in the fridge for 24 hours before serving.
  7. Toast up your favorite bread and tuck in!

Always pay retail

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This may surprise you, but shopping is one of my personal hobbies. When I'm bored, there's nothing I like to do more than to browse at my local mall. There's always something new to buy! If I don't go shopping at least once a week, how will I know that I have the latest looks?

I love keeping up with the latest fashion trends, especially if they involve overhauling my wardrobe completely to ensure my place with the fashion vanguard. And if that means I have to spend a little more (because I can't take advantage of later-in-the-season sale prices), then that's a worthwhile investment so I can be the Miss-Thing-of-the-Moment.

I also refuse to wear the same outfit twice, EVER. It's just not part of my personal style. Sometimes it makes me sad when I buy a really cute ensemble, that I will never wear it again, but that's my rule, and I live up to it! So I have to have a giant closet for all my clothes and shoes. It just makes me feel good inside, looking at all my stuff.

Happy April Fool's.