Posts Tagged ‘Free advice’

Why you should use the “9″ button on the microwave all the time

31 Aug

Microwave number pad graphic

I saw a funny XKCD post referencing the phrase “as neglected as the nine button on the microwave.” I was immediately confused because I use the “9″ button almost every day, and I gradually realized that I needed to share my microwave-programming secret with the world. Long ago, I decided on a critical microwave strategy: Use as few buttons as possible.

In my experience, 99 seconds is an excellent length for most microwave ovens to heat a single-serving container of leftovers to a piping-hot temperature. Yes, 99 seconds is the same as one minute and 39 seconds, but 99 seconds involves just one numerical button (the “9,” if you follow) instead of three.

Does this modest lifehack actually save you time? It does if you’re as crazy as me! Whenever I use the microwave to heat food, I use a number that minimizes the number of buttons I need to touch. At first, it’s a silly exercise. Over the long term, it is undoubtedly the most time-efficient way to heat food in a microwave oven. Why waste an extra second splitting hairs to heat your food for 1:00 when 0:55 or 0:66 is practically the same interval?

I don’t expect people to adopt my system universally (EVEN THOUGH THEY SHOULD). Under my system, though, the “9″ button is anything but neglected. My most common cooking time is 99 seconds.


The rattle inside a can of spray paint? It’s a marble.

01 Mar

Marble from spray paint canI retrieved this marble from an empty can of spray paint. Retrieving it by breaking open the can with the claw end of a dollar-store hammer was an entertaining challenge. Protip: do it outside.

The rattle inside some spray cans is caused by an object inside the can that helps mix the paint (or other payload) with the propellant inside the can. The propellant forces the paint out of the can, but the propellant and the paint tend to separate over time into two distinct layers inside the can. Bouncing a marble up and down inside the can breaks up the boundary between the two substances and mixes the propellant with the paint, making spray paint actually spray PAINT instead of just plain old propellant.

Is this a worthwhile effort? No. Plain glass marbles can be found at any dollar store (such as The Dollar Tree) in large quantities for much less than the cost of a can of spray paint. I think it’s still worthwhile to know what is inside the mechanical devices we use every day. If you enjoy busting open empty spray cans, you will get a marble for your trouble. Enjoy!

Spray paint can and marble


Make an airtight diaper pail for less than $5

23 Feb

Homemade, airtight diaper pailsFor me, the benefits of cloth diapers (saving money, avoiding blowouts, and reducing trash output) easily outweigh the inconveniences (washing, stuffing, and storing the diapers). However, storing three days worth of smelly diapers requires several effective diaper pails to keep the house from smelling like a litter box. Diaper pails can be surprisingly expensive, though, so you may want to make your own like I did. Why spend $30 on one bin when you can have a whole fleet of them for less than half that much?

For less than $5, you can make a diaper pail that will easily hold a day’s worth of diapers; I use three of these bins in different locations around the house so we never have to carry a dirty diaper very far. It is a simple matter of buying two identical trash cans and making minor modifications so one trashcan can serve as the lid for the other.

Tools and materials:

  • Two FNISS wastebaskets from IKEA ($1.99 each as of this moment)
  • Cabinet knob
  • Foam pipe insulation
  • Utility knife
  • Drill
  • Duct tape or gaffer’s tape

Read the rest of this entry »


Reuse cardboard boxes with style by inverting them

15 Feb

Box stepsIf you want to stay organized on the cheap, reuse the trash that comes through your home. Here’s a favorite trick of mine: take any cardboard box apart and refold it inside-out. The plain interior of most cardboard packaging makes a great exterior for a reusable box. After inverting the box, I usually apply packing tape to any tears in the cardboard and slap on a few labels to make it recognizable. A plain box with

Lots of people reuse shoe boxes, but I suggest you take it another step. Any box that enters my house may end up with some weird reuse, from storing holiday decorations to controlling messy projects to organizing small parts in my workshop.

My favorite reusable box is the kind with tabs that tuck in to keep it shut, known as the ”roll end tuck top box with dust flaps and cherry locks” (according to the fabulously-named and others). They come with all kinds of products: I salvaged some recently from a baby carrier, a power saw, and a PC motherboard. The boxes are usually made of strong corrugated cardboard, and their folded design makes them great for reuse.

The tuck-top boxes are especially appropriate for refolding and reuse because they are held together by friction and clever geometry, which works just as well when they’re inverted. That’s a big advantage over cereal boxes and other everyday specimens where you’ll tear through some glued seams to invert the box, which then requires packing tape or other repairs to reuse it.


Cloth diapers: better, cheaper, and a bit more work

07 Feb

Diapers and dinosaur modelIf you have a baby in need of diapers, you might be surprised at how easy cloth diapering can be. I have been using cloth diapers on my daughter for five months and have only good things to report. In my experience, cloth diapers have been better than disposable diapers on nearly all levels. I’ll admit that disposable diapers are simpler and more convenient than their reusable counterparts, but they also seem to have more leaks and blow-outs, too, which is far from convenient. Just as important to me: I’m on track to save hundreds of dollars on diapers this year alone because washing diapers is cheaper than buying disposable ones.

There are lots of brands out there and a lot of choices to make. I’ll explain how I chose these diapers and how to use, wash, and maintain them.

What kind of diapers to get: The diapers shown here are the bumGenius “Cloth Diaper 4.0 One-Size” model. This style of diaper comes in two parts: a sturdy shell with elastic and fasteners to hold it on, and a removable microfiber pad that fits inside to absorb any liquid and keep the shell leak-free. Two-part reusable diapers are common these days, but there are also all-in-one diapers that let you skip the step of stuffing the pad into the shell before you use it. I prefer the two-part variety because I can dry the shell and the pad separately. Line-drying the shells makes their elastic and quick-drying capabilities last longer, while the pads will dry quickly in any dryer with no ill consequences. The pocket style also lets me stuff in an extra pad when desired, such as for overnight or traveling.

Diapers on drying rack Diapers and inserts Pile of diapers

Read the rest of this entry »


Kill weeds for free with sunlight and trash bags

12 Aug

Untreated-vs-treated“Green.” “Biodegradable.” “Sustainable.” These terms sum up a lot about how I try to live my life, and yet they carry hidden baggage beneath their friendly exteriors:the ecologically-friendly, non-toxic, all-natural alternatives are more expensive and yet less effective than their more-toxic cousins.

Take oven cleaner, for example. Conventional oven cleaning spray is nasty stuff, but it works — it makes a tough job much easier. Cleaning an oven “organically” takes laborious scrubbing and a lot more time. I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s true. After all, if the non-toxic way was cheaper and easier, wouldn’t we all be doing it already?

Therefore, I feel I must celebrate any “green” option that actually saves both money and effort. Today’s example: Black plastic bags can kill grass and weeds on your patio at no cost to you. I have reclaimed an overgrown patio without pulling a single weed or spraying a single chemical by using a few trash bags and the power of the sun. The only cost to you is patience.

Method: Wait for sunny weather. Cover the area of vegetation that you wish to kill with any kind of black plastic. Put rocks or other weights on the plastic so it stays in place. Leave the plastic there for at least a week, if possible.

What will happen: Any vegetation underneath the plastic will wilt and die. Given enough time, the roots will die as well.

Patio setup for weed killing experimentScientific explanation: The color of an object is determined by what kind of visible light it reflects best. White materials look white because they reflect all colors of visible light, which look white when combined together. Black materials look black because they absorb most visible light rather than reflecting much of it, making them dark in appearance. The absorbed light energy then radiates out as heat (a.k.a. infrared light, which we cannot see). Sunlight absorption is what makes the black plastic effective against plants. First, the plastic prevents the plants underneath from receiving any sunlight, which stops their growth. Second, the absorbed sunlight also heats the plants far beyond their comfort zone. The plastic keeps fresh air from circulating across the ground surface, and the high temperatures beneath the plastic during a sunny day will roast the plants to death. Given enough time, this will kill the roots under the ground and discourage the plants from growing back. This is also why trash cans will create a patch of dead grass right under each can.

My evidence: I treated different patches of my brick patio with black plastic for at least a week at a time. During this time, I did not mow, weed, or poison anything on the patio. I left parts of it untreated to serve as the control group (vital for measuring the results of the experiment). I took photos to record how well the plastic killed the plants and how quickly the plants came back. The photos speak for themselves: the treated patches remain almost entirely clear of plants, while the untreated areas are so overgrown that the bricks are barely visible. The only plants to survive the treatment were located under the edge of the plastic where light, air, and moisture could pass more freely. Moisture trapped underneath the bags did lead to some temporary green mold growth on the bricks, but that faded away after a bit of direct sun exposure when the bags were removed.

Cost to me: under $1 (the bags can be reused repeatedly, which will make their initial cost even more negligible over time, or you can use them as trash bags when you’re done). Of course, this will cost more if you want to treat an entire patio in one shot and need lots of coverage.

Time spent: 5 minutes placing and removing the plastic.

Detailed 'after' shotAdvice: Use the thickest, largest, darkest material you have. A grid made of individually-weighted garbage bags will work (as I demonstrated here), but some weeds may survive at the edges of the bags where air and light leaks in. A dark tarp should work, but beware: some tarps include a reflective liner to reduce heat buildup, which defeats the entire exercise. Plants can still invade when you’re done, so you should expect to repeat the process at least once a year (or more frequently if the plants come back faster).

Overall value: High. You have to plan in advance (and accept the unsightly plastic for a week or so while it does its job), but you don’t have to pull weeds manually, spray toxic herbicides, or spend more than a dollar on the project.


Spare change is about $10 per pound

04 Mar

One red centAll of our household change goes into a big glass. It takes years to fill this glass at our current rate of coin accumulation. When it finally fills, I usually empty it into a CoinStar machine in exchange for an equal-value Amazon gift certificate (this is a great alternative to rolling coins for the bank). I enjoy the suspense when I go to the store because I have no idea how much they are actually worth. Of course, the CoinStar machine could be cheating me and I’d never know it! As a naturally suspicious person, this won’t do. When the glass filled up this month, I was determined to estimate the value myself first. Plus, it would be a great problem-solving exercise!

Yes, this is how I entertain myself. Thank you for asking.

The simplest way to tackle the problem could be by weight. I weighed myself on my bathroom scale with the full glass in my hand and then weighed myself again with the empty glass in hand. It appears that I have 6.4 pounds of American coinage. How much could that be worth?

I assumed this would be a fairly simple exercise. The standard masses of U.S. coins are readily available. By these figures, quarters and dimes are each worth $20 per pound, while nickels are worth $4.54 per pound and pennies a mere $1.46-$1.81 per pound depending on the mint year (the standard mass of the penny changed in 1982 when the mint replaced most of the copper in new pennies with zinc). That gives us a top and bottom estimate: Change is worth between $1.46 and $20 per pound, depending on the mix of coins.

I needed extra assumptions to refine the estimate for my situation. Here are the scenarios I tried: Read the rest of this entry »


While you’re at it, try to space your hurricane weather more than a week apart when moving into a new house.

04 Sep

Don’t move into a new house during a hurricane.

27 Aug

Sugar cane: worth the extra cost (and calories)

17 Mar

Real sugar Coke and tonic waterThe debate over corn syrup and cane sugar is a remarkable case of mercantile debates playing out through public policy. Coca-Cola used to be made with real cane sugar, but now it is made with America’s favorite product, corn syrup. Have you had real sugar lately? Just as a real Coke tastes better than a Diet Coke, a Coke made with real sugar tastes better than a typical, corn-syrup Coke. Sugar tastes delicious. Unfortunately for the thrill-seekers out there, cane sugar has been largely dismissed due to the low price of a native agricultural product.

I don’t want to encourage the consumption of empty calories. Then again, soda isn’t healthy to begin with. I believe that sugary sodas have helped make America fatter. I also would assume that the artificial sweeteners in sugar-free, “diet” drinks may have unexpected (if still unknown) long-term health effects. Therefore, the only safe route is to have nothing.

Good luck with that.

Let’s ignore the agricultural politics behind corn syrup’s low price and go straight to flavor. If you love a delicious beverage, you owe it to yourself to try sodas made with cane sugar. They taste better than the corn-syrup alternative. Drink them in moderation, of course, but if you’re going to drink the calories, you might as well have something delicious rather than merely good. Specialty brands like Jones Soda, Izze, and the recent Pepsi Throwbacks have demonstrated the growing market for premium, sugary beverages.

365 tonic water detailMexican Coke detail

Here are my top recommendations:

  • Tonic Water: Whole Foods’ 365 Tonic Water is the most widely-available tonic water that uses real sugar. Highly recommended for gin and tonics, which are raised to a new level compared to the usual stuff. This will make any tonic-based cocktail better. Even if you don’t normally drink tonic water, buy a six-pack and put in the back of your liquor cabinet as a foolproof bubbly mixer.
  • Coca-Cola: The real Coke is available in many parts of the U.S. at Passover (look for yellow caps marking them as Kosher) and is also available imported from Mexico (check Costco or any local Hispanic store). This makes a much better Coke-based drink than the more pedestrian types of Coke. Recommended for rum and Cokes especially. You also get to enjoy the bottles.