Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I've thrown up a few posts lately on correlations between economic downturns and mental health (here, here, and here.) Today was the first news I've read of a suicide which, one would have to imagine, was a direct result of financial catastrophe. Here is the story. It's strange to think how, once you amass a certain amount of money, you don't feel like you can stay alive without it.


So this was kind of funny.

My Little Brother and I had made a plan to bake gingerbread men (a downsized project from making a gingerbread house, which I knew would require vastly too long an attention span.) At the largest supermarket in town a few days ahead, I thought I'd look for some cookie-cutters. Surely Largest Supermarket would have some sort of cheap gingerbread-man-shaped cookie cutter at this season. But I could not find them. In fact, I could not find any cookie cutters whatsoever. I looked in the Baking aisle, next to the sugary sprinkles. I looked in Kitchenwares/Gadgets, next to the cookie sheets. I looked in Seasonal, next to the red and green frostings. I even checked these places twice. No luck. The utter lack of cookie-cutters, or even an empty space where they should be, was so peculiar to me that I figured my own thinking must be off. I stopped in a quiet aisle to ponder. I hadn't looked for cookie-cutters in decades. Perhaps things had changed. But people must still make cookies at Christmas. How? Then it hit me: pre-made cookie dough in a tube. Yessss. I went and found it. And that's where the cookie cutters were. In the refrigerated ready-to-bake-items section.

Only, they didn't have a gingerbread man (what is this world coming to?), just some stupid plastic Santa things. So I went to a local kitchen store and found five sizes of gingerbread man cutters, along with the Smallish State shaped cutter.

Anyway, I'd been so obsessed with finding cookie cutters at the grocery that I forgot some of the cookie ingredients. So after I picked up Little Brother on baking day, we went back to the store. As a game, I had him help me track down the things we needed (flour, molasses, brown sugar). LB also suggested mini-M&M's for decoration, so we took a bag of those. Then we went through our basket checking off the ingredients. "Okay, looks like we're all set", I said. "Anything else you think we need?" LB looked at me like he thought I was pulling his leg (which I often do) and said, "Don't we need some cookie dough?"

I guess I shouldn't be shocked that kids born since the 1980's would not know that there was another, "old-fashioned" way to make cookies. As we walked to the car I explained it to him, feeling like a relic telling tales of "the olden days". He was pretty intrigued by the whole idea, though, and rather enjoyed throwing the flour all around the kitchen.

I bought him a chef hat for Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Monkey With The Biggest Posse Wins

Last summer, before the financial crisis hit everybody, I had an unexpected phone call from a friend on the other side of the world I hadn't spoken with in a couple years. He had made a great deal of money in business, but now was threatened with the possibility of losing most of it. He was panicked as if he was in physical danger. "I'm fighting for my life", he kept saying.

I talked to him for an hour or two. I hope it helped-- I'm not sure. But it really got me thinking about the connection between wealth and anxiety in the modern world. Last week, Laura Rowley at Yahoo Finance wrote an excellent article about status anxiety, which I found fascinating.

An intriguing idea that calls into question a lot of what we believe about "progress": "Financial failure has become associated with a sense of shame that the peasant of old, denied all chances in life, had also thankfully been spared."

Whoa... snow...

Just fought my way out of 36 miserable, fever-hazy hours on the sofa (thanks to Cat for barely leaving my side for the duration) to find that I seem to have landed on a foreign planet.

That lump on the left used to be my car. I think.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Seriously Going To Snap Soon

Okay. Now they have not one... not two... but THREE people with THREE bells ringing outside my office. This has been ongoing for two weeks, 8+ hours a day. I am starting to twitch. Please, someone make it stop...

Honesty: Not Best Policy

Cashier at sandwich shop: "Weren't you in here this morning? I overcharged you $5! I'm really sorry!"
Me: "Um, no, that wasn't me..."
Cashier: "Oh, okay."

What? No free sandwich for honesty??

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Honesty: Best Policy

We had a good sized ice storm here last Friday. Big mess, lots of folks without power, heat (which is important, apparently, to some people), drinking water.

My patients all cancelled that day so I never came in to the office. And because I didn't come to work, I didn't return a DVD to the video store across from my office. So when I finally took it back after the weekend, I owed them $2.00 in late fees.

The guy at the counter said, "But we'll waive the late fee if you kept it because you lost power in the storm and couldn't watch your movie."

I said that was very thoughtful of them, but that no, remarkably, I had never lost power.

He said, "Well, in that case we'll give you a credit for a free rental for being honest." Value: $3.50. Nice.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Foreign Travel

I haven't left the country in a long time, but yesterday I went shopping at a local Chinese market, which was almost as much fun. I found many exciting and useful items, such as elusive black sesame seeds, and one-pound bags of dried lily buds (for hot-and-sour soup.) I was tempted by many other products, such as the packaged "White Fungus Dessert", the vacuum-sealed frozen "Big Gluten Balls", the "Pig Fat Snack", and the eminently useful "All-Purpose Prickly Sauce".

Here's some of what I came home with.
I am fairly certain the bag at top center is dried wood-ear mushrooms. That's certainly what it looks like. However, it is identified as "Vegetarian Snack". If you read closer, you find that the ingredients of "Vegetarian Snack" are... well... "Vegetarian Snack".

2 came over for dinner last night. She tried the Snack (straight up out of the bag) and does not recommend it.

100% Partly True

This paper coffee bag came from the local yuppie-organic-type supermarket. I thought it was pretty funny.

Yeah, and my body is 100% molybdenum... after removing the parts that aren't molybdenum...

Magical Thinking?

About a month ago, I started finding "missed calls" on my cell phone from a mysterious 800 number. After several of these, I tried calling the number back, but got only a recording that revealed nothing and would let me go no further until I "entered my account number". When the calls persisted, I finally answered the phone. A woman named "Kim" asked to speak with "Maria Stone". I told Kim that she had the wrong number, and asked that she please stop calling me.

But she/they did not. After seeing the number come up a couple more times, I answered again, this time encountering a woman named "Gina" who also wished to speak with "Maria Stone". I asked what it was regarding-- she said "A personal financial matter". I explained to Gina that I do not know Maria Stone, that my telephone number has no connection to her, remarked that I had already asked for the calls to stop ("Well, it wasn't me you asked", she said), and stated in no uncertain terms that they needed stop calling me.

The next day, more calls. Finally I answered again, speaking with "Alicia", also (no surprise) looking for Maria. I asked where she was calling from. She replied by asking me if I was Maria's husband. I asked again where she was calling from. She replied by stating it was a "personal matter" and asking again if Maria was my wife. I told her I do not have a wife, I do not know Maria, stated that I had already requested twice not to be harassed from this number, and asked where she was calling from. She replied that she had never spoken to me before, and was not harassing me. I pretty much screamed at her to ask, again, what company she was calling from. Barely audibly, she said "HSBC", and told me to calm down. Never having heard of "HSBC" before I asked where her agency was located-- she replied "We are not an agency, sir", and hung up.

HSBC stands for Hong Kong - Shanghai Banking Corporation. A little Google research revealed that my experience with HSBC is not unusual. Based on the vitriol of complaints from people harassed by HSBC who don't owe them money, I hate to think what they do to people who actually do owe them money. Needless to say, I starting wishing ill on this bank.

So I cannot say I was unpleased, this week, to read the news that HSBC may lose a billion dollars from investing in Bernard Madoff's pyramid scheme swindle. Ha! Ha! Why don't you guys call Bernard's house-- maybe you can get his wife on the phone and pressure her for your billion back! I entertained a fantasy that my cursing of HSBC had led to this pox upon their house (or at least, that it was karmic retribution for their evildoings).

But if I have that effect, I really need to be more careful, because it is equally possible that my rantings against the bell-ringers caused this. Which I would feel really, really bad about.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

'Tis The Season To Drive Working People Bonkers

Well, they're back to ringing the bell outside my office. All day Monday. All day Tuesday. All day today. It's 5:25, dark out, and they haven't taken a break yet. It seems worse than last year-- now, they often have two people ringing bells at once. Or one person, with a bell in each hand. Something about the high-frequency pitch of these little bells seems to come right through my windows, then burrow into my brain like auditory maggots. By the end of the day I am tense and grouchy and it takes me a few minutes to realize why.

One of my patients (none of them can ignore the noise) told me that the bell-ringers are often recruited from the ranks of junior associates the large local local law firms. I don't know what to make of this. Except to suppose that walking across the street and punching them in the face would probably not end well for me.

I am trying so very hard not to be Grinch-like. But for real, this is getting out of hand. Please, let it be Christmas already, so my patients and I can talk in heavenly peace.

Sort Of Kind Of Famous

Thanks (I think) to Vigorous North for this.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Toilet-Water Heating: Last Crackpot Post For A While

Last night was the first really good cold one here in the Smallish City. The temp outside when I got up this morning was 13F/-11C, with a windchill of 0F/-18C. Brisk!

However, this will be the last post for a while on the topic of home-heating/cold-adaptation/practical thermodynamics. Not because I've lost interest in the subject (or turned on my heat). But just because I'm getting tired of hearing my name and the word "crackpot" in the same sentence. So I'm going to try to give it a rest for a couple weeks. Rest assured, however, that I will not be firing up the furnace just yet.

Before we move on to some lesser topic, though, I do have one more question for my cold-region-dwelling readers to ponder. And that question is: how much energy does your toilet-tank-water heater use?

Yes, you heard me-- how much? Oh, you don't have a dedicated toilet-tank water heater? Then you are using your home furnace to heat your toilet tank water. No, for real, you are.

Every time you flush, the room-temperature water in the tank goes bye-bye, and the tank refills with cold water. Which, over the next couple hours, pulls heat out of the bathroom until it, too, is room-temp... and ready to be flushed away again.

How much energy are you wasting this way? Well, I got to thinking about that. And came up with a nice formula. First you need to know these simple things:

1) Volume (in gallons or liters) of your toilets' tanks (this is in the range of 4-5 gallons for traditional North American toilets. Less for Europeans, of course.) Call this "V".
2) Number of flushes per day in your house. Call this "n".
3) Difference between your room temperature and your incoming cold water temperature. (Use ˚F if you used gallons for V; ˚C if you used liters). Call this number "Td". (My cold water, incidentally, comes in at 48F/9C)

Calculate this product: V x N x Td. Call that "P"

Now you can find the how much warmth your flush down the toilet in winter . One way to think of it is to imagine what equivalent wattage of light bulb you could have on, 24/7, all winter, to use the same energy. That is P/10 (if you used gallons/Fahrenheit in your calculations) or P/20 (if you used liters/centigrade). Imagine that little light bulb right in the sewer pipe leading away from your house, warming it away 'round the clock. Certainly seems useful, no?

If you're actually heating with electricity, you could estimate how much coal your powerplant burns daily to warm your toilet water. That number is P x .0021 lbs of coal (if you used Imperial units) or P x .001 kg (if you used metric units). (This assumes an average North American power plant, which is about 30% efficient.)

Or, if you heat with oil, you could figure how much oil you burn, over the course of a winter, to warm your toilet water. For those using Imperial units, that number (in gallons) is N/100. For those working in metric, it is (in liters) N/50. (Assuming your furnace, like mine, is 83% efficient, and heating season is six months long.)

So, under present Turbopalace conditions (Room temp = 55F, Water temp =48F, no housemate, toilet using 5 gallons per flush, estimating four flushes a day), I'm burning a 14W lightbulb equivalent, which represents 1/4lb of coal a day, or wasting 1.4 gallons of oil a winter. If I got a housemate (doubling the flushes) and turned the heat up to 69F, the result changes to a 84W bulb, 1.75lbs of coal a day, or 8.4 gallons of oil. Which starts to be significant, no?

If you have a family of five, and everyone flushes three times a day, and you keep your bathrooms at 70F... well, now you're talking about 16.5 gallons of oil. That's enough fuel to drive a diesel Jetta from Philadelphia to Atlanta!

What can you do about this horrendous waste of energy? I have several suggestions, which I present in order of least to most likely to make you look discernibly like a crackpot:

1) Insulate the toilet tank to minimize heat transfer into the tank water. You could affix some closed-cell foam to the inside walls of the tank... or tape a some bubble wrap to the back. Or even just casually pile a bunch of magazines on the back of the toilet! Yes, insulating your toilet is totally crackpot-- but because the modifications are unlikely to be detected by friends and family, you will likely get away with it.

2) Reduce the volume of water in the toilet tank. Ideally, you could install new low-flow toilets-- but that's very pricey. Instead you could use the old brick-in-a-bag-in-the-tank method, or one of the many gadgets from the hardware store to reduce tank volume. Friends and family may notice a change in flushing power, which could cause them to wonder if you've done something strange. But you could probably just blame this on the water company or something.

3) Try to cluster toilet use in time, and/or minimize how many toilets in the house get used. As it take a couple hours for a tankful of cold water to get warmed to room temp, using the same toilet several times in within a couple hours is much more efficient than flushing three separate toilets and letting all of them warm up again. However, unless done with extreme subtlety, family and friends are likely to notice your efforts at this sort of behavioral modification. You might get away with sabotaging one of the household's toilets and not getting around to "fixing" it until spring.

4) Maintain the rule of "If it's brown, flush it down; if it's yellow, let it mellow." Okay, for sure this will get you labeled as a nutjob. But it would be hugely more efficient. First, you are heating far fewer tanks of water per day. Second, you get to reclaim some, um, biological heat from the, er, unflushed warm liquid in the toilet bowl. Depending on personal daily urine output, and how warm you keep the house, this free, otherwise-flushed body heat amounts to between 6 and 25 grams of coal per person per day-- that is minimum of a kilo of coal per winter per person.

5) Ditch the toilet and build an outhouse. This is by far the best idea, but one which will be noticeable not only to family and houseguests, but also to the neighbors and city health inspectors. So it's a bit out of reach here. But if you live in the country, consider it.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

He Can Haz Geography Lesson?

By George Jahn, Associated Press Writer:

"Oil prices have tumbled about 69 percent since peaking at $147.27 in July. But trader and analyst Stephen Schork suggested that the price decline had some ways to go before bottoming out, despite the arrival of the cold season in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Western hemisphere, which traditionally drives up demand."

I believe it is also "cold season" in much of the Eastern hemisphere-- at least, that part of the Eastern hemisphere which is also in the Northern hemisphere... such as Siberia... and Europe. And I'm pretty sure that Chile, despite being in the Western hemisphere, is not now in "cold season".


Some people have questioned whether using an electric space heater is actually better (more efficient, more economical, more saintly) than turning on my central heat. As a rough guide, I decided to compare the costs. Here are the results:

At current prices*, 1kWh** of actual heat in the house will cost 6.3¢ from oil (central heat), vs. 15.8¢ from electricity (space heater).

Obviously, heating the whole Palace with electricity would not be cost-effective. But so long as I am heating less than 40% (=6.3/15.8) of the house at any given moment, electricity becomes more economical. My kitchen "bunker" represents only 17% of the square footage of the house. My biggest bedroom represents 12%. My larger bathroom, 6%. So even if I had heaters going in all three places at once (35% of house) it would still be more efficient than turning on the furnace. So far, though, I've not had a heater going in more than one room at a time.

And, should oil prices return to their recent high point ($4.22/gallon, here) the balance point goes up to 80% of the house.


* $2.14/gallon for oil, $0.15/kWh for electric. Calculation assumes 98% efficiency for electric heater (approximate) and 83% efficiency for oil furnace (latest measurement).

** For visualization purposes, 1kWh is approximately enough energy to heat a big kettle of soup from refrigerator temperature to not quite boiling.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Much Better Than The "Unreliable" Stuff

Found this new brand of toilet paper in our office restroom today. Kind of cracked me up. Nope, it's not soft, or pretty, or pleasant-smelling... but it is reliable, and isn't that the most important thing to look for, in toilet paper?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Heat Update

December 1st and I still haven't turned on my central heating (with the exception of setting it at 45F while I was away for Thanksgiving, to make sure the pipes didn't freeze.) I think this can easily continue until Christmas, maybe longer.

It's been in the 40s, 30s, briefly even 20s outside. I've been keeping my kitchen around 54F/12C, which has become comfortable for me. The bedroom I have left to its own devices; overnight lows in there have been between 36F/2C and 46F/8C.

Following is disclosure of all sources of heat coming into the Turbopalace.

Sources of intentional heat (have not yet had more than one on at a time):
1) Oil-filled electric radiator, 1500 watts maximum, usually run at 500 or 1000W power level.
2) Forced-air ceramic electric heater, 1500 watts max, usually run at 750W power level.
3) Hairdryer, 1800W, only a few minutes a day.

Sources of incidental heat:
1) Electric lights: Incandescents in the kitchen throw some warmth. Compact fluorescents elsewhere, not much.
2) Electric appliances: Refrigerator generates a bit of heat, though it barely needs to run anymore. Laptop, a few watts. Others, not much.
3) Natural gas: Cook stove and oven warm the kitchen a few degrees when making coffee & oatmeal. No pilot lights.
4) Oil: On-demand hot water turned on for about 30 min/day. Showering & doing dishes release some heat.
5) Solar: Minimal. No southern wall (see below). Black roof might be picking up a bit, but is shaded by neighbor.
6) Human: Just me. No one seems to want to visit anymore.
7) Feline: 14 pounds of metabolism. But is well-insulated.
8) Other: Turbopalace shares one wall with neighbor who owns the other half of the house, so I'm probably poaching a bit of heat from her side. But she has the whole south-facing side of the house. I suspect she gets more solar heat through her windows than gets passed to me through the wall.