Thursday, February 25, 2010

TV Update

Yesterday I canceled cable TV - monthly savings: $38. I kept the basic basic service, which means I'm continuing to pay $15 a month for the over-the-air channels, which I think might include CSpan. We don't have a roof antenna or a digital converter for our analog TV, and while there's supposedly a doohickey you can plug into the computer to get the broadcast channels, the guy at Best Buy didn't know what it was and I think DW's patience for the capital outlays for this project are wearing thin. Maybe we'll reexamine the broadcast issue a couple of months down the line when the Xbox and the rest of the system are paid for.

The new calculations:
Xbox $190, remote $55, playon software $40, ethernet cable $11. Total capital expenditure: $296.
Monthly savings: $38 per month = 7.78 months until the thing is paid off.

Meanwhile, with Playon you don't get live broadcasts, you get video chapters that you can load up and watch. So for instance you open ESPN, choose the folder "MLB" from among the available options, and then choose from among, say, a preview of the Marlins pitching staff, an interview with Frank Thomas, and a recounting of the winners and losers of the off season, each the length of a story on SportsCenter (which is mostly what they are). Some of the other options have full episodes available: I've been watching the Dog Whisperer on Hulu the last few nights, there are 5 episodes of that available at a time. I've also been using "plugins," which are additional, kind of lay-engineered connections to other channels that you can download here; not all of them have worked for me, but the PBS one does, which is good; there's a bunch of American Experience on there I could spend a good deal of time working my way through. I think that this, plus what's available directly on the internet, should work just fine.

So between that and canceling the Times, I'm spending $70 / months less than I did last month. I'd like to get over $100. Next stop: auto insurance.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


This weekend is the holiday of Purim, which is sort of the Jewish version of Carnivale, the day when we dress in costumes, make fun of our rabbis and teachers and generally have a good time. It falls on Saturday night this year, which makes it even better, since there's no concern about having to get up for school or work the next day.

There are four main ritual obligations (mitzvot) to be performed on this holiday. First, to hear the Book of Esther recited in public. Second, to give gifts of food, called mishloah manot (literally, sending food). Third, a festive meal, and fourth, gifts of charity to the poor. These are based on the following section from the Megillah (as the Book of Esther is called in Hebrew):
And Mordechai wrote these words and sent scrolls to all the Jews in all of King
Achashverosh’s provinces, both near and far. To establish for themselves the 14th day of Adar and the 15th day as well, for every year, as days that the Jews were delivered from their enemies. On these days, the month was turned for them from anguish to joy, from mourning to a day of gladness; and these days should be days of feasting and joy, and sending portions each to his friend, and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:20-22)
Mishloah manot are to include at least two different kinds of food; that is, foods that require two different brakhot (blessings) be recited over them. So, for instance, dried fruit and pastry. The more the merrier, of course, so if you can figure out a way to include three or four different kinds of food in there, that's okay too. Candy or nuts would be a third brakha. These packages are to be sent to at least two different people.

Of course, this is another of those areas where one can get really caught up in keeping up with the Schwartzbaums. It is quite possible to spend a lot of money on elaborate mishloah manot meant to impress your friends and neighbors, although tradition would hold that it's better to fulfill this mitzvah to the minimum required and to give the rest of the money to the poor. In fact, Maimonides makes this point quite explicitly:
It is better to increase gifts to the poor than to make for oneself a big meal or to send more portions to friends, for there is no greater or nobler joy than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.
The minyan (prayer community) we once belonged to in Philadelphia, Dorshei Derekh, had a great way to make sure that people observed the mitzvot of sending mishloah manot and of gifts to the poor - that is, that they didn't do the former too much and the latter too little. The minyan would collect monetary donations from everyone - between $18-50 - and use the proceeds and additional donated goods (including baked goods etc., but also little non-food treats such as pencils, stickers, etc.) to put together quite a nice little package of mishloah manot, with the leftover money given to tzedakah. Packing the baskets (donated clementine boxes) was also a communal activity; this would be a good youth group activity. Everyone would get the same food basket on the holiday, and would have fulfilled both the obligation of mishloah manot and the sometimes overlooked obligation to donate to charity.

The question of what a person of lesser means should do in order to fulfill the mitzvah of mishloah manot was the subject of an interesting Rambam sent to me by my friend and colleague Rabbi Rick Brody this week.
One is required to send two portions of meat, or two kinds of stew, or two other kinds of food, to one's friend, as it is said, "to send portions of food, each to his friend" (Esther 9:19). Two portions, to one person. And someone who sends to more friends is to be praised. And if he doesn't have any [to give], he should exchange with his friend: this one should send that one a meal, and that one should send this one a meal, in order to fulfill the mitzvah, "to send portions of food, each to his friend." (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah, 2:17)
That is, if one is too poor to send gifts of food, one should instead trade meals with a friend. It so happens that Danny Siegel, the "mitzvah man" who was our scholar in residence this past weekend, brought this very same text, saying that this constituted a leap of faith on the part of the poor person, because you could never be sure the friend would reciprocate, until he did.

Rick raised the interesting question of whether this the trading of meals to fulfill the mitzvah of mishloah manot would apply to a potluck. To which I would say, yes; trading food is what potlucks are all about. Rick then goes on to ask whether two fellows of modest means simply showing up at a communal potluck and putting food on each other's plates would fulfill the mitzvah. To which I would say, no. It is a core Maimonidean principle that even people who receive public assistance are required to give tzedakah in some amount, however small, because to deprive them of that obligation is akin to depriving them of their very personhood. So too with a potluck. A person may not be able to bring a lot, but they have bring something. Once they do that, they have fulfilled the "trading with one's friend" codicil that the Rambam is setting out, and they can feel they have fulfilled the mitzvah.

Previous Purim-related posts: Reconstructing Mishloah Manot, and Another Thought...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Technology 2: Moving Away from Cable TV

In a recent post I mentioned that I was thinking about getting off cable television for internet content. Well, that transition is nearly complete.

I've haven't had cable TV very much over the years. I grew up without it, of course, and my parents got it after I'd already left for college. It came very late to New York City where I lived in the late 80s, although I had it for about 2 years when my folks got me a nice TV for my birthday one year. After I moved out of NY, first to my grandparents' house in the country and then to Israel, I didn't have it at all. In fact, I didn't have television at all for about three years. When we moved into our own place we had had broadcast only, which when I shared it with some of my students led some of the more chutzpadik among them to infer - not without reason - that it was due to the poverty wages I received as an Israeli high school teacher.

When we were in Philadelphia for rabbinical school we didn't have it, again because we were poor, and then in Chicagoland we also didn't have it, more out of principle at this point that anything else. As baseball content moved more to cable and then Jon Stewart became a thing it was clear that I was starting to miss something, but we just never felt it was enough of a priority to get it, even when we (more or less) could afford it. As a note, we used plug-in rabbit ears and were able to get to get most of the available broadcast channels.

When I moved to Wichita I brought a TV with me (DW and the DKs came about four months later) and for some reason the electric rabbit ears didn't work. I also got broadband internet for the first time at that point (until 2007 we used dial-up) and I just had them put cable in at the same time. So that was a little more than two years ago, and we have basic cable, no pay services and not the extra digital tier, since we're still using the no-longer-so-nice (and non-HD) TV my folks got me 15 years ago.

Lately, though, as we've been looking a little more carefully at where our money's going, the $50 per month we've been spending on cable has started looking at me funny. I keep thinking of this line from Tightwad Gazette 3, in an article about whether people who are in desperate financial straits have really done all they could to get out of them:
Some people won't abandon cable TV. This may seem like a small point, but to me, cable TV is a sort of barometer. Anyone who is deep in debt and spends $25 a month for cable clearly hasn't "gotten it." A frequent excuse is that "we can't afford any other entertainment, so we fell this one expense is justified." ...
(This of course applies to the Sunday NY Times as well.)

But I'm just not prepared to go back to the electric rabbit ears. How are you gonna get them back on the farm after they've seen Jon Stewart?

And it so happens that lately I've been seeing some articles that speak about moving to a cable-less existence:
  • "Cable Freedom, Aided by a Mouse," from the Times technology page, and
  • "Ways To Watch TV Without Paying An Arm And A Leg For Cable Or Satellite," from the website Bible Money Matters, which I found via Google I can assure you.
This method described in this latter article is the way I decided to go. What the writer did was connect his Xbox into his home internet network, then downloaded a software program called Playon which enables you to stream content from Netflix (which we already get), Hulu, Youtube and some selected content on ESPN (reports, not games) and CBS directly on the TV, via the Xboxs.

We have a Wii, and Playon does work with that, but Wii is not as supportive a platform for streaming (the picture is bad, I'm let to believe) so I bought a used Xbox from Ebay ($190) as well as a remote that can handle the set-up ($55, also used from Ebay). The software costs something too, not sure how much yet (there's a two week free trial period), so if it costs $50 the total investment will be $295, which is about the cost of cable for six months.

In addition to this initial cost, the disadvantage of this system is that it's more limited programming-wise. Microsoft has a Windows Media Center application that allows you to watch Internet TV on the PC as well as recorded content on the Xbox, but so far there's no way to watch internet TV directly on the Xbox, which means I'll be watching a lot more TV on the PC in the future. (Fortunately we have a nice big monitor.) Most of the shows I watch are available on line - Stewart and Colbert, Charlie Rose, Cspan. Whatever few narrative shows we watch we usually get via Netflix anyway. Sports is going to be a challenge, although now there is some content (actual games) available via espn360, which our ISP, Cox, is providing, and which may be available through the Xbox before too long. I may also feel the need to drop some bread for a internet baseball subscription, which would raise the price of the project a bit; we'll have to see how much baseball is available through espn360.

I haven't actually canceled cable yet because the kids are interested in the Olympics and I'm already paid through the end of the month anyway. But I'll get to it. So for the next six months I'll be putting the cable money into our credit card bill to pay off the cost of this project; after that, it'll be gravy. Whether this approach turns out to be a money saver in the long run only time will tell; but given the availability of content on-line, it certainly doesn't seem like we need to be paying on an ongoing basis for cable TV any longer.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book Review: Pedaling Revolution

I just finished Jeff Mapes' Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, and I want to post a brief review before I have to bring it back to the library.

Mapes is a political reporter at the Oregonian, which means he lives in Portland, about the most bike-friendly city in the US. The book is about the growth of bicyclists as an organized political force over the past, say, 30 years; the benefits of cycling for a city; how various cities (Portland, Davis, CA and New York (!)) have planned so as to make themselves more amenable to cyclists, and chapters on the safety concerns and health benefits of cycling.

One of the early chapters is dedicated to a visit to Amsterdam, considered the mecca for cyclists. European cities have not always been as bike-friendly as they are now; making them so has taken a combination of social contract and government encouragement and support (read: investment). The basic difference between European and American cities when it comes to cycling is that European drivers (and policymakers) accept that bikes have a right to be on the road, and that it is the car's responsibility to be careful of them. In America, most drivers - if they think about cyclists at all - consider them a nuisance at best. The attitude of our society to the biker's right to the road is exemplified when one thinks of bikers killed by motorists and the generally light consequences (to the motorist) that result. In Europe, if a motorists hits a biker, it's a big deal. Here, it's considered that the biker getting what he* more or less deserved.

*American cyclists are likely to be male; in Europe the ridership is more gender-balanced, primarily due to increased safety

The underlying assumption of Mapes and the scholars, activists, and cyclists he speaks to is that there is strength in numbers, meaning that the more cyclists there are in any given city the safer cycling will be - cars will become accustomed to looking out for them, and the city will make the necessary accommodations in planning.

Of course, the easiest thing a city can do to accommodate cyclists is painting lines on the street and inculcating a "share the road" ethos. In some cases where the streets are too busy for that, other options include a cycletrack, which is basically a separated cycle track set off from the road, sometimes between parked cars and the curb. Some cities put their roads on what are called "road diets," taking away lanes to make room for bikers and making the traffic calm down.

As you will read in depth on my mate John's vital blog Cycling in Wichita, most of the biking accommodations in Wichita are recreational, i.e., bike paths that go twirly twirl twirl and don' t you get you from one place to the other very fast at all. If you try to use bikes for travel you find pretty quick that most of the arterials are not where you want to be on a bike. 40 mph, two lanes right up to the curb.

There are some roads which could serve as bike routes with little loss to the convenience of motorists; I think of 1st Street on the east side going downtown. Some other roads would need to go on a diet to be useful, such as Douglas between Rock and the entrance to Eastborough, which is something of a miniature race course.

Which leads to the question of why a city like Wichita should make any accommodations for a mode of transportation which probably accounts for less than 1% of the travel in town. Shouldn't transportation policy be centered around the kind of transportation that most people want to use?

Well, there are a couple of things to say about that. First, surveys consistently show that more people would ride bikes if they were safer and more convenient to use. And as I said before, more is more, and the more people we have riding bikes the more people will see it as a reasonable option and will join them. And this is a topic that I plan to spend some more time on in the next couple of days in another context, but cycling has so many health benefits, as well as benefits to the livability of a city, pollution amelioration, etc., well, it just makes a lot of sense for some of the copious amounts of money the city, county and state spend on road construction and spend, say 2 or 3% of that on improving bike infrastructure.

The final chapter in Mapes' book is about getting children to bike. Let me throw in a quote:
A government travel study in 1969 found that 87 percent of all kids who lived within a mile of school walked or biked. ... That changed over the ensuing decades as traffic become more intense, parents became more fearful, the neighborhood school became less common, and two- and three-car households became ubiquitous. By 2001, only about 15 percent of kids were getting to school under their own power. And... as few as one-third of students who lived within a mile of school walked or biked.
He mentions how traffic patterns can be particularly intense right around schools, and that nearly half of students who are hit by a car on their way to school are hit by people driving other kids there too.

I know all this is true for us. Take a look at this, the location of my kids' elementary school:

Webb is a busy arterial and, just to the south of this picture, Central is one as well. There are hundreds of cars and dozens of buses going in and out every day. We live 1.8 miles away, and I think my wife may have walked it once or twice, but I never have. And there are no bike racks at the school.

As Mapes points out, the people who are the most ardent bicyclists, and the most ardent bike advocates, tend to be those who have good memories of biking when they were younger. We don't have much of that, these days. And that doesn't give one a lot of hope that the kids who never biked will grow up to be the ones who change the paradigm about transport in this city or this country. Something needs to be done about that, before it's too late.

And a good first step is reading Mapes' book!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The End of Newspapers

Well, we finally canceled home delivery of the Sunday New York Times. I couldn't even do it myself, had to have DW make the call. I feel like I lost a loved one. Savings: $32/month. Of course, I'll probably buy it from the newstand periodically, so I'm going to have to set a limit on that, lest I lose the financial benefit. So, say, twice a month? In which case the actual savings would be about $20/month.

I also went from seven days to Friday-Saturday-Sunday on the Wichita Eagle. The paper early in the week is a real embarrassment, readable in about 45 seconds, and even later in the week it's no great shakes. It wasn't bad when we got here but they laid a lot of the interesting writers off, stopped Doonesbury and it's really gone downhill. Friday is worth reading because of the arts section and well, Sunday is Sunday. It only saves about a buck and a half per week but I really felt like I was getting angry when I saw it, so it's better to do without.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Technology 1: Smart Phone

The other week I went out on a Saturday night to see a friend of mine play jazz piano in a bar. He's in his 20s and a number of his peers were there, and I noticed that quite a few of them (I don't want to say all, but it might have been all) had either Blackberrys or iPhones.

I don't have either of these. In our last renewal of our cellphone plan, DW and I both bought phones that open up to present a keyboard for texting - I had started to text a little with the old phones but with the three-letters-on-a-key thing it was too much of a pain to use much. But this phone makes it much easier, so I've been using it to Twitter as well as to text people in situations where either I didn't want to have a phone conversation or there wasn't the opportunity. I don't really have long conversations on it like teenagers do but it has been pretty useful to me.

As far as the smart phone goes, the price of the equipment has gone down quite a bit, but with them you need a mobile internet subscription, and that's upwards of $90 a month for an iPhone, I'm led to believe. And, well, I just haven't felt the need. A lot of my peers in the non-profit world have them, and if I had more people on my staff or agencies that reported to me or something I could see having one, but then of course my workplace would pay for at least part of it. As it is now, it would be a rather elective purchase, another opportunity for me to check Facebook some more, and believe me, I don't need that.

Whether the 25 year olds at the bar had so many direct reports that they needed to be in constant touch, I can't say. It seems to be one of those many pieces of technology that has become a "need" over the past few years. And it's just s a need I've managed to resist so far.

Which leads me to a word about our technology. When we got back from Israel in 1999 we bought a desktop PC which we kept until late last year, having it refurbished a couple of times until it just became too slow to be worth updating anymore. Then I bought a new computer with Windows 7 on it - basically the one Ribbit had on the shelf, I really didn't do much in the way of research on it, it has a three year warranty and that was enough for me. I also have a laptop that I bought from my previous place of employment when I left it, it's about 4 or 5 years old now and I use it when I travel or want to work in a coffee shop or something.

They're both PCs, and since I mentioned iPhones in this piece and the iPad was unveiled last week I will say that the appeal of Macs has always been rather lost on me. I have some friends who are practically religious about them, but they're significantly more expensive and the PC does everything I need it to do so why would I pay more? I understand the Microsoft-is-Goliath argument and usually I'm sympathetic to that sort of thing but as corporations go, Microsoft seems relatively harmless - I mean, they drove Netscape out of business but their business model doesn't involve making 8 year olds desire food that will kill them, for instance. So I just never got that worked up about it.

And now we've bought a new PC, which seems plenty enough for us.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

You are what you cook

Tonight's frugal meal: I had a couple of already cooked but frozen lamb chops. I sauteed a little onion, garlic and ginger, added 1/2 cup broth and 16 oz can diced tomatoes, 1 tsp each hot curry and cumin, and the cubed lamb, cooked off the liquid a little and served over rice. It would also, of course, work with tofu.

A while ago I wrote a post about how preparing and eating your dinners at home is a cornerstone of the frugal lifestyle, because it's cheaper as well as healthier - you know what's in what you're eating. My old friend Sue F. got a little mad at me because her family has two working parents and five kids running in all different directions, and she didn't need to feel bad about the fact that they needed (out of respect I won't put it in quotation marks) to eat prepared foods fairly often.

Well, now that DH is working so much (at least three full days and two half days per week, plus three evenings a week) we have had to face this issue in a way we never had to before. The questions facing our household are three: would we eat out more, would we be able to continue to put interesting, lovingly prepared cooked-from-scratch foods on the table, or would we rely more on convenience foods?

Well, I can tell you that we ain't eating out more. I have lunch out sometimes, mostly for my job, and I may eat lunch out by myself once a week or once every two weeks, usually a sandwich or a salad bar, sometimes some grocery store sushi. But our family just doesn't eat in restaurants. We might bring in pizza once a month or so, and once in a great while we'll bring in thai or chinese, but now that I think of it we haven't done that for a while either. Neither we do we do the prepared foods from the supermarket or Boston Market thing either. So that part has remained constant.

Regarding the convenience foods/cooking from scratch thing, though, the results aren't fully in yet. It feels like we're eating faster foods, but I'm not sure if it isn't that I'm just doing more of the cooking now. When I do the shopping I usually buy a box of fake-chicken patties and a package of some kind of veggie hotdog or sausage. Then I usually alternate between buying a box of frozen pierogies and the dyna-sea shrimp that I wrote about here. Once in a while I buy the boil in a bag indian food, but DW doesn't like the selection in the supermarket and I don't often get to the asian store that has a better selection so we haven't been doing that much lately. And we usually have a couple of frozen pizzas in the freezer, we probably eat that once a month.

That's for two weeks worth of meals, and that's it for quote-unquote convenience foods. We're probably talking 3 or 4 meals out of 14 in a two-week period. And really, when you think about it, aside from the chicken patties, the indian food and the pizza (the latter two, as I say, relatively rare) there really isn't any purely convenience food on the list - even the hotdogs go into a cooked dish, so what we're really talking here about are substitutes for the meat that I don't eat a whole lot of and DW doesn't eat at all.

As I say, I've been taking on a lot more of the cooking since DW has been working so many evenings, and I've been trying to keep it interesting - soups are big this time of year. The hardest times are when I have an event in the evening, because by the time I get the kids home, give them snacks and do their homework, there isn't a lot of time to cook before I have to go out again. That's when we might do the indian food or a simply broiled tofu and microwaved vegetables. Kasha varnishkes is also a popular "convenience food" by which I mean - quick and simple!

So I feel confident in saying that we have managed to maintain a) our homecookedness, and b) our ability to put varied, interesting and nutritious foods on the table. Of course, two of our kids won't eat anything but noodles and cheese, but that's a story for another day.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Smoking cessation

I'm friendly with a guy here in town who is graduating college this year and probably moving back east, to DC or New York. He told me that he's going to a smoking cessation doctor in the next couple of months so he can get treatment while he's still on his mother's health insurance. I said, What do you need all that for? When you're ready to quit, you'll quit. He said, No one quits cold turkey.

It is just me and my deeply cynical nature, or do all these patches and pills and things seem like just another way for some corporation to make some more money off someone's nicotine addiction on the way out the door? And is it really true that "no one" quits cold turkey?

Then in yesterday's Times business section there was an article about Altria (formerly Phillip Morris) in which this appeared:
About 70 percent of the nation’s 46 million smokers say they want to quit, government surveys show, and about 40 percent try every year. But only 2.5 percent succeed, the surveys say. The government estimates that 400,000 Americans die of smoking-related diseases each year.
I have to say I find this kind of hard to believe. I suppose I shouldn't replace analytical studies with my anecdotal experience, but I basically was this kid 20 years ago, all my friends smoked, and today virtually none of them do, and they didn't quit by dying. (Most of them, anyway.)

Not that it was easy. I developed a plan to wean myself off tobacco over the course of a week, and it went like this: the first day I waited an hour after waking to have a cigarette, and then I had one per hour after that. The second day I waited two hours, the third three, etc., until on the seventh day I had to stay up extra late to get to the second cigarette, and after that, that was that. This worked for me on three occasions - the first two I went back after some months, and the third time I stayed off till this day, kineyenahora, ptui ptui ptui.

I put the cost of a pack of cigarettes into a jar each day for the next year or so (even though I really smoked more than a pack a day) and used that money to make my first trip to Israel. Me being the anti-corporate type that I am, quitting giving my hard-earned money to Phillip Morris was a major motivating factor as well.

I don't want to minimize the addictiveness of cigarettes or the fact that many people never manage to quit. But I quit when I was 28, when the circumstances of my life changed and it was time to, and it's a long time ago now, and like I said, all my friends have quit since then too. I still stick with what I said to the kid: When it's time to quit, he'll quit. And he won't need to give Big Pharma his money to do it.

Or am I wrong?