Monday, February 23, 2009

Innumeracy, Mixed Metaphors in Anti-Stimulus Ad

There's a new ad out from conservative group "American Issues Project" criticising the recent stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress:

The ad makes the claim that if "you" spent $1 million every day from 1 BCE until the present, "you" still wouldn't have spent as much in that 2008-year span as Congress and President Obama spent in the single instance of the stimulus bill.  (Let's ignore the dispute over Jesus' existence or the date of his birth for the sake of argument, please, as well as the inflationary effects on the value of currency spread over such a time span.)

On the one hand, the attempt to frame such a tremendous number as $787 billion in terms which may be more comprehensible to the average person is laudable.  Our populace is so innumerate that the difference between thousands, millions, billions, and trillions can be pretty vague to the average American, despite the three orders of magnitude separating each.  This innumeracy contributes to all sorts of problems, from evolution denial to retirement planning which includes winning the lottery (and far less esoteric issues as well, mind you, like fear of flying or terrorism, both of which involve astronomical odds but which terrify the average person far more so than other, much larger risks which are also more easily mitigated), so any attempt to frame a number as large as $787 billion in terms which make sense to the average American is both difficult to accomplish and something to be praised when successful.

On the other hand, though, the ad fails in its approach by mixing metaphors by personalizing the spending when it resorts to the second-person appeal.  "You" clearly refers to the audience--whether or not that was the ad's intent (and I'd argue it was)--and it's really unfathomable for the average American to imagine spending a million dollars a day for thousands of years--due again in part to that innumeracy I mentioned.  The problem is, it's not the individual average American who is performing that spending, but rather a government on behalf of three hundred million-plus Americans.  The sad fact is that our government routinely spends what would be to an individual quite huge sums of money, so the parallel is broken and the metaphor flawed--and by introducing the confusion of individual spending vs. government spending, it exploits, rather than corrects, the innumeracy of the average person, who simply can't fathom spending that much money.

Rather than looking at it in terms of "you" spending $1 million a day, consider what according to the Brookings Institution the government spent per day in Iraq in 2008: $408 million (p. 43 in the linked report, based on the $149.2 billion FY 2008 appropriation--please, let's not quibble over fiscal years vs. calendar years, now!).  Yep, you read that correctly: nearly a half a billion dollars a day.  At that pace, the timeline to spend out the stimulus funds certainly need not stretch to biblical times, or even into the 20th century; no, the stimulus would be gone in just over five years.  Makes Jesus seem something of a miser, doesn't it?  One last thought to keep in mind on the government vs. individual spending point: the Iraq appropriations are merely a part of the yearly federal budget.

There's another good way to turn the problem on its head.  Imagine it this way: suppose Politician X introduces a plan to cut taxes by $180 billion dollars a year, with the tax savings spread (for the sake of argument) evenly across all 300 million American citizens.  Imagine what a great plan that is!  Cut the waste of the federal budget by nearly $200 billion dollars (note the convenient rounding up to the tune of $20 billion, a second-level play on innumeracy there), and give back American taxpayers that massive sum.  Surely everyone supports such a plan, right?

Not so fast; Politician X, the very author of said plan, has already criticized a "stimulus bill" which would refund American citizens at the rate of $600 each for 2009, claiming that $600 just isn't enough to make a difference for most Americans.  That they need real help, that $600 will not even pay a month's rent or mortgage, and so forth.

Mind you, Politician X's "save the taxpayers $180 billion" plan is, at the bottom line, the exact same thing as what he's critical of.  Assuming for the sake of argument that $180 billion is spread out across all 300 million or so Americans evenly, that's only $600 each they'd get back or pay less in taxes.  You see the problem?

Regardless of my position on the stimulus package--and mind you, I'm rather wary of Uncle spending such a large chunk of taxpayer funds, incurring and servicing the debt required to do so, etc.--the "American Issues Project" ad simply isn't honest in presenting its message, and though it presents a novel approach to addressing the problem of the innumeracy in relating the plan's numbers to everyday people, it presents a critical logical failing in its metaphor by comparing spending by one person with spending by entire United States government.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is "Lost" the Best Show on Television?

I'm a huge fan of the television program Lost. Let me get that out of the way up front, lest that confession drive you off never to read another line of this particular post or perhaps my blog, period.

Having just watched tonight's episode, I must immediately say several things.  Holy freakin' cow, Batman!  Kiss Buddha on that fat belly!  Give Shiva a high-five times four!  Polish the Invisible Pink Unicorn's horn and serve up another dish of His Noodliness' marinara sauce in honor of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

Not to neglect the younger crowd: O-M-G!!!

At times, the show has had some predicable writing and dialog, and it's been tough for the writers to juggle a cast with so many disparate and distinctive characters (even given the myriad of literally red-shirt-wearing extras killed off and main characters sacrificed in the name of love and DUIs, there are quite a few more members of the cast than the average drama).  But there was a point midway through the third season when all of a sudden, it was like the J. J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse sat down and said, "Hey, it's time to get serious, yo!"  (This point corresponds roughly with the demise of "Poochie" additions Nikki and Paulo, an event widely regarded as driven by viewer unrest and welcomed by all except perhaps actors Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro.)

Last week's episode, though excellent in and of itself, had me wondering where the writers would take the show for the rest of the season, given we'd been only five episodes into a seventeen episode season, and the overall plot arc seemed fairly clear at that point.

Tonight, though: well, I already invoked more than my share of deities once in this post.  If I may tip my hat to Robot Chicken (and yes, I did resist adding "magic unicorn mayonnaise" once already), let me express their oft-parodied M. Night Shyamalan bit to say: "What a twist!"  Seriously, this was one jam-packed episode; my head is still spinning after having watched it twice and some parts three times now just to try to get my mind around all that went on tonight.

When the episode showed Jack waking up in the jungle (mirroring the shot from the series premier, sans dog Vincent), I immediately asked Beth, "So, is this 'real,' meaning they're back on the island now and we'll get flashbacks about how they got there again?"  And indeed, I seem to have been proven at least partially correct on that point given the Ajria Airlines flight and ensuing return to the island, which featured some of the best dialog in the series to date:
  • Jack asks good natured yet icewater-veined sociopath mastermind and island dungeon master Ben, "What's going to happen to the other people on this plane?"  Now, we've been clearly led to believe they're recreating Oceanic Airlines Flight 816, which crashed on the island in the series premier to start the whole shebang.  Ben replies: "Who cares?"
  • The pilot introduces himself as none other than Frank Lapidus, a.k.a. the helicopter pilot from the third season who helped rescue the "losties."  Jack asks to see him, and when Frank steps out of the cockpit, his grin at the coincidence of running into Jack fades as he notices most of the rest of the "Oceanic Six" on board, and he says, "We're not going to Guam, are we?"
  • Several things Daniel Faraday's mum a.k.a. Eloise Hawking (also a.k.a. "Ellie" the Other from the 1950's island?) says are quite good, from her explanation of finding where the island will appear (not where it is mind you, but where it will be) to her interaction with Desmond, telling him the island "isn't done with [him] yet."  Remember, of course, that she previously set in motion Desmond's past involvement with the island when she refused to sell him an engagement ring, leading to his proving himself in a sailing race that ended up landing him on the island (during which time Daniel Faraday, Eloise's son, in a time-slip to the "past" told Desmond to seek out Eloise in the "present" ... my head is beginning to hurt!)
  • Several of the characters take new roles on Ajira 316 corresponding to those taken by other characters on Oceanic 816: Hurley, for example, brings a guitar, much like his friend Charlie did previously; Sayid is being escorted by a U.S. Marshal, as was Kate previously; Locke's body is explicitly in the hold as a surrogate for Christian Shepphard (Jack's father); Ben boards at the last moment just as did Hurley previously; and so forth.
I'm just amazed at the level of connectedness we're seeing developed, not just between episodes and characters but between several years' worth of seasons of the program.

One example (and speculation on my part, but not unsupported): Early in the episode, after Jack has received the instructions on getting back to the island, Ben chats with him before leaving the church they're in.  Jack asks Ben where he's going, and Ben says, "Oh, I made a promise to an old friend of mine."  Recall that he promised Charles Widmore in the prior season he'd have his vengeance for Charles' role in the death of Ben's adopted daughter, Alex.  Futher recall that Desmond showed up at the church: Ben knows Penny Widmore, Charles' daughter and Desmond's love, is in Los Angeles.  And Ben later shows up for the flight beaten and bloodied... from his work in (perhaps) killing Penny?

And there's the constant barrage of allusion, to pop culture, literature, and mythology.  One of many such examples from tonight alone: Ben recounts to Jack the story of St. Thomas the Apostle, who in the Christian bible first told the other Apostles to bravely go with Jesus even to what seemed certain death, but who is better remembered as "Doubting Thomas" for the eponymous action of having to touch the risen (reincarnated?) Jesus' wounds as proof.  Jack has to lead the Losties back to an island described by Charlotte as "death." Locke's body has been in the back of a van whose company logo is an anagram for reincarnation ("Canton Ranier") and reports of whose death seems greatly exaggerated (and who will be on a flight numbered the same as a certain verse in John...), and he later leaves a "suicide note" for Jack saying that he wished Jack had "believed in him" (even more: the two characters have been set as antitheticals in episodes such as "Man of Reason, Man of Faith" previously).

Another is that the Dharma station where Eloise Hawking tells the Losties how to return to the island is called the "Lamp Post," which brings to mind the scene in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe immediately through the wardrobe; i.e. a way between the two disconnected realities.  Or given the end of the Narnia stories, that the Losties are perhaps really indeed dead and need to realize that fact and move on (as some now-departed cast members seem to have done), all protests to the contrary by the producers and writers...  Sorry if I spoiled the end of Narnia for you, but hint: they're all dead, the Chronicles were a "dream," and it's time to move on to "higher lands."  Oh, and by the way: the kids in Narnia died (and then dreamed the whole Narnia bit)... in a train crash!  (This ties in with several previous literary allusions--though the consensus would be it's a red herring to make us think they're all dead.)

The intricacies of this show and the way the details tie together (and the number of lingering questions we're begging to have answered, like the four-toed statue on the island from season one, the role of Village of the Damned-esque child Aaron and what the heck has happened to him, where ESP-blessed kid Walt is going to show up again, etc.) remind me a lot of the fantastic work of the sadly-late Robert Jordan in his Wheel of Time series, where fans had to at times resort to primers and recap summaries prior to the publication of each subsequent novel in the series to freshen themselves on all the myriad details.

If you're not a LOST viewer or a casual fan at best, I'm sure the majority of my gush above has left you either confused or wondering if I'm something of a nutter myself.  Let me assure you that you're missing out if that's the case, but let me also warn you that should you seek out the DVDs of the prior seasons of LOST to get caught up, you are in for an addictive ride which might just consume several full days of your life.

Ah, For a Good and Proper Snow...

The morning began with that special grey light filtering through the curtains that this time of year simply shouts "snow!"  Indeed, by the time Beth and I had gotten out of bed and set out on the morning chores of pet and human breakfasts, showers, and the like, we'd a nice dusting of a half inch or more of snow on the ground.

Yet like so many of the snow showers in the Washington, D.C., area the past several years, no sooner had that snow fallen than did the precipitation change over to rain.  Back in January, we got several inches of snow, but before long, freezing rain turned the surface to ice and ensured the snow would stick around well into warmer weather and well after it had lost its aesthetic appeal.

Unless I'm mistaken, it's been several years now since we got a good snow that was just snow, and not something which had layers of sleet or ice laid down atop if within a day or so.  2005 or 2006, perhaps?  I know in 2007 we had a quick but intense snow storm around Didi's birthday weekend (February 26th) given we went to the Metropolitan Washington Area Papillon Specialty dog show (and brought home Chance; the two played quite a bit in the back yard in the snow)... but even that one might have had a coating of sleet within a day's time.  Hmm.

Growing up, I was used to several good real snows a year; we typically got at least two or three multi-inch accumulations which gave us several days to play outside and miss school.  Now, schools still close with the sleet and ice, but the snow is just not the same it seems.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Spring Migration On Its Way?

We just came out of a rather nice week of weather in the Washington, D.C., area, with a couple of days where the mercury reached seventy degrees--a nice departure from the single-digit chills we'd had earlier this year and the sleet which had frozen atop the season's first real snow a couple of weeks back.  Though I'm sure we're due for several more storms and blasts of winter, I can't help but feel like Spring may be on its way.

One sign of that transition is our backyard collection of birds.  During the snowstorm a few weeks ago, our feeders and yard hosted a large flock of Dark-eyed Juncos--and indeed, for this area of the country, Juncos are nearly synonymous with winter, along with several other sparrows which typically depart not long after the vernal equinox come March.  Since then, though, the little grey birds with their "paint-dipped" splash of white belly have been few and far between; I'm thinking they've begun winging their way northward already.

Couple that with the few warblers I've seen in the neighborhood trees already and I think that Spring migration for our feathered friends may be underway.  I didn't have my field glasses with me on any of the warblers, so I didn't get a clear ID--but they were definitely warblers by body size, shape, the splashes of yellow (so unlike birds like the American Goldfinch, one of the few other birds with extensive yellow markings I'd expect in our yard), and the behavior, and it's pretty much a certainty they were early-arriving migrating warblers of some sort.  (I'd guess butterbum a.k.a. Yellow-rumped Warbler due to the timing and their relative ubiquity, but though I didn't get to see the rumps for their distinctive "pat of butter" splash of yellow, the throat and head markings weren't right.)  Of course, this past weekend I also spotted the first large flocks of Common Grackle showing up in the neighborhood as well, and though I like to see an occasional grackle or two, they tend to hog the feeders and make a bit of a mess.

Spring migration is a wonderful time to be birding, and I'm excited to see that it may well be on its way.  I'm a bit disappointed, though, not to have any trips planned yet--I'd love to have a visit scheduled to Florida, Texas, and California, but we're saving money at the present (not to mention that it's a busy time for us as well!)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Meet Silver Whiskers Petsitting

You may recall from an earlier post that Beth lost her job on Christmas Eve, a victim of the economic downturn despite over a decade at her job as Publications Manager for the Institute for Connecting Science Research to the Classroom.  Although she's been applying to several jobs a week, so far, she's not even getting nibbles.

As a backup plan, Beth is working on establishing Silver Whiskers Petsitting, which offers quality in-home petsitting specializing in senior pets and birds in the Fairfax, VA, area.  Given her experience raising three dachshunds--one from his birth to his death at age 17--Beth knows the special needs of senior and geriatric pets and is able to offer them the patience and care they need.  Plus, unlike most petsitters, Beth brings experience with birds to the table as well, having cared for our flock of the "Silly Birds" and her transgender Senegal parrot, Sam, for years.  In fact, shortly after Beth and I met, she bird-sat my then-two cockatiels (the "Silly Birds," Rydia and Locke) while I went to England for a week.

So do you need quality in-home care for your pets?  Beth is willing to travel within Fairfax County, Virginia, in the D.C. suburbs to give mid-day walks or up to four daily visits for your beloved pets, be they young or old, all for an affordable price in today's economy.

Visit her Web site at to learn more and to schedule a free consultation today!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Library Is Almost Done!

A quick review of recent posts in the "renovation" category will show a lot of progress on our library at Chateau Papillon; from the first two shelving units to the extension to the second wall, I've covered a lot of our work to-date on adding that most critical of rooms to our home: the library.  I've been remiss of late, though, in posting what we've accomplished in nearly completing said home for books.

As you can see in the photo above, the shelves now wrap around three walls of the room; I need only to add the above-the-window shelves on the wall to the left in the photo (I need more 3/4" plywood for that) and to attach some facing strips to several shelves where I ran out of the proper moulding previously to finish most of the first phase.

I still of course need to put in place the crown moulding above the units; that's going to be a challenge but a do-able one.  Also, the corners need shelves; they've been left open and have pre-drilled peg holes on two sides, but they need some back support and the shelves themselves put into place.  Then the room needs light; I intend to put some wall sconces on the uprights on the far wall (directly ahead in the photo) and into the ceiling a small chandelier we picked up on sale at Home Depot.  Speaking of the ceiling: no, it's not staying lavender; we plan to put up some fake tin tiles rather than painting it, as from painting my home office I've had quite enough of that chore already.

We've still got room for one more set of shelves, but we need to pick up a bit more lumber (another sheet of 1/2" sanded ply plus another piece of 3" case moulding for the front)--and we need to touch up some of the pink left on the walls from where I had problems getting the closet doors down when we first painted.  As for the closet itself, we eventually plan a fake fireplace and perhaps a fish tank inside it, maybe curtained off from the library proper.

The library is a lot more spacious than the wide-angle photo above gives it credit; we've got room for a couple of cozy chairs near the fireplace-to-be, and certainly well over two thousand books with a bit of room to grow on.  If I wanted the "stacks" look, I suppose we could add another set of shelves down the center of the room, but I like the open feel even when surrounded by books--something we'd completely lose by creating aisles.

Beth wants a leopard-print rug for the floor.  Hmm.  Have to think about that one!

The Chateau Papillon Bird List (to date)

Beth and I are both avid birders (and I quite interested in bird photography as well), and the natural setting and proximity to the wooded Fairfax Villa Park were big selling points for us when choosing our home.  Though we moved in late enough into November that we'd missed most of the Fall migration and its selection of transient bird life, and the winter weather has largely confined us to window-birding, so far the back yard bird selection has been promising indeed!

Off the top of my head, the following birds have either been in the yard itself (at a feeder or tree) or else in the immediate vicinity (such as the case with several hawks and a vulture or two overhead):
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow (a rarity for our area!)
  • Song Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco (slatey-race)
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Pileated Woodpecker (heard--not yet seen)
  • Northern Flicker
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Carolina Wren
  • House Wren
  • Blue Jay
  • Common Grackle
  • American Crow
  • Fish Crow
  • Eastern Bluebird (a nice surprise!)
  • House Finch
  • American Goldfinch
  • Brown Creeper (uncommon--but we've seen several!)
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Mourning Dove
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Cooper's Hawk (nearly made a lunch of a Mourning Dove)
  • Turkey Vulture
  • European Starling
  • American Robin
I'm hoping when we have a chance to work on landscaping--particularly with regard to the water feature(s) we want to put in--that we attract a Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, or one of the Night Herons or two from time to time as well.  And, of course, though I expect several more yard "regulars" such as the Northern Mockingbird and the Grey Catbird, I hope to entice in several migrants which we never really got in our yard at the rental house in Vienna.  I'm hoping our yard reaches a species list of close to 50-60 birds eventually; although I can't expect many of the water and shorebirds we see at some of our favorite area parks (like Huntley Meadows), I'm hoping to see Cedar Waxwings, several warblers, orioles, and tanagers along with quite a few more sparrows, so I think that's an achievable goal.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Reducing Consumption: Another Green Idea in the Kitchen

In a prior post, I blogged about some of the things my wife and I are doing to stay green and minimize our impact on the environment.  This evening while cleaning up in the kitchen, I realized I'd forgotten a key tactic we've adopted: reducing our consumption by using rags instead of paper towels for many everyday tasks.

Basically, for things like wiping up spills, wiping down knives, and drying off dishes and other items in the kitchen, you can use a rag.  Then, once you've accumulated several dirty rags, you can wash them in hot water with a bit of bleach and laundry detergent to get them clean again; ideally, the rags are also cheap enough that as they eventually wear out, it's not costly to replace them.

Over Christmas, while in Sam's Club I noticed some bulk washcloths and hand towels; though we'd looked at both Sam's and Costco previously for suitable rags in bulk, nothing quite suitable had been in evidence; cloth napkins weren't absorbent enough, and washcloths didn't have the right texture for wiping kitchen surfaces down effectively.  However, Sam's Club now had a pack of 24 bar towels for something like $6, and as it turns out, the bar towels are just about perfect for general purpose use around the kitchen.  We've got a basket of them on the baker's rack neatly folded, and another basket for the dirties to await their turn in the laundry.

By switching to these bar towels, we've significantly cut our paper towel consumption (as well as the ensuing trash generated).  Previously, we went through at least a couple of rolls a week; now, we're able to stretch a typical roll to a month.  Even better, perhaps, than buying the rags like we did would be to make them from old, worn-out sheets or clothing; however, we tend to donate our older linens and clothes to Goodwill or other charities every year before they reach that stage of rattiness--but for others, that might be a great option to keep those old clothes out of the landfill and give them several more years of use.

I can't take full credit for this idea; several years back, our friends Mindy and John Waltham-Sajdak had already replaced their paper towels with rags.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Doing Our Part to Stay Green

During the long wait for the seller's bank approval to our offer on Chateau Papillon, I read quite a few books on green living, from Insulate and Weatherize to The Home Energy Diet, about reducing the impact we and our home would have on the environment.  Indeed, we determined to handle our renovations in as green a fashion as possible, from the use of low- and no-VOC paints to our choices of renewable flooring materials such as cork and bamboo.

Thinking back now over the past three months we've lived at Chateau Papillon, I realize that though there's still a bit to do (I've got much more insulation to do, for example, despite the amount I've already accomplished) but that we've also come quite a way toward achieving our goal.  Here are a few of the ways we're doing our part to cut our environmental impact and improve our green living:


Beth sometimes calls me the "recycling Nazi," due to the degree to which I enforce recycling in our household.  We've always put out wine bottles, soda cans, and the appropriate plastic bottles (numbers 1 & 2 where we live); now, however, I've added paperboard & cardstock to the usual corrugated cardboard pickup, so that we're recycling pretty much everything except for unaccepted plastics (the most frequent being resin code 5, or polypropylene, such as is typically found in margarine tubs and similar containers).  We've also in the past put said unrecyclable containers to re-use for storing leftover foods, etc.  I even bring home from work the cardstock packaging and plastic tray from my typical microwave lunch to make sure they're properly recycled.

Though we always recycle plastic grocery and shopping bags, Beth has also crocheted a pair of mesh grocery bags we use alongside several others to cut back on our consumption of the same; paper grocery bags serve to hold our cardstock and paperboard recycling.

I've also been very careful to design, measure, and cut all of our wood used in renovations to minimize the waste (this obviously also has financial benefits), and am looking to find out the best way to make use of the remaining wood scraps: mostly thin strips of low-VOC plywood, molding, and small lengths of 1x4s.  Though commercially these are recycled--typically into composite building materials, such as particleboard and plastic decking (the latter making use of those plastic shopping bags, too!)--I've been hard-pressed to find a consumer recycling option.  It's possible we'll chip them and use the wood in gardening, given it's untreated lumber and the plywood is lacking toxic formaldehyde glues; I'm open to other suggestions.

Energy Consumption

Though the pets and Beth being at home during the day make the best use of our setback thermostat impractical, the amount of weatherizing I've done so far (sealing gaps around several windows, along baseboards, and the exterior doors) has allowed us to at least cut the thermostat back to 69 degrees (thanks to less water vapor being lost to the outside through those gaps), and likewise the furnace runs less often.  Our gas bill is already approximately half what it was at our rental house despite being for a larger home.

We have managed to replace almost all of the incandescent bulbs in the house with compact fluorescents (CFLs), typically cutting lighting costs by 75% or more.  For those naysayers who complain about the mercury in CFLs, let me point out that the local Home Depot accepts used CFLs for recycling--keeping the mercury out of landfills--and that an equivalent incandescent bulb contributes far more mercury to the environment via its consumption of electricity (which via the mining and burning of coal emits quite a bit of mercury).  I'm down to the fridge bulb and a set of small spotlights in the basement, and Beth's bedside lamp, for which there aren't any suitable alternative bulbs at present.

Even better, I've recently been able to replace several bulbs with LEDs, which consume even less electricity (and don't have any issues with mercury, either).  The dining room chandelier had used five 40-watt incandescents, and the candelabra-base CFLs simply didn't fit inside the light sconces--but Sam's Club just started carrying LED candelabra bulbs which consume only 1.5 watts of power for their 40-watt equivalent light output.  These bulbs fit the fixture and are priced right ($5 apiece); price has been one of the big detractors to wider-scale LED bulb use to date--for example, one basement spotlight fixture took three 1.5 watt LEDs to replace three 50-watt halogens, but at a cost of $30/bulb.  Eek!  The only downside is that these LED bulbs from Sam's are very directional (this is a problem with most LED bulbs today, mind you); the majority of their light is emitted straight out the end of the bulb.  I'm not sure why the array of individual LEDs are set up all in the same direction or why the protective plastic casing doesn't have a series of refractive lenses to disperse the light better... but for the chandelier, which primarily lights downward onto the dining room table, they work just fine.

I replaced several smaller external hard drives on my computer with Energy Star rated larger units; getting rid of the old 160 GB, 100 GB, and 240 GB units to replace them with a couple of 1 TB drives not only gave me the necessary storage boost I needed (my photography archive consumes about 1/3 TB at present!) but cut my computer's energy usage significantly; at present, even when all the drives are running, the system's on, and I'm using the external monitor, the whole consumes only 100 watts or so.

This year's holiday decorations were entirely LED-powered; for the Hokie tree, we found some orange LEDs on sale at Costco after Halloween which easily cut the tree's energy consumption to 1/10th what it had been with incandescents--and looks better, too.  Outside, we put up LED lights along the roof line, and for the more traditional tree, we found a few last-minute sales on LED light strands at Target which we used to replace several incandescents.  These LED decorations easily translated into a holiday-season savings of $40-$60 at our current electricity prices!

One thing I'm still working on is the electric space heater we use for supplementary heat in the basement for the birds at night; if run at full power all night long, the heater would consume 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a month, or over $30 worth of electricity at current rates.  I've gotten Beth to run it at a set temperature (68) to reduce its usage, and continuing insulation and weatherization projects should help lessen the need to use it at all.

There are times now where I watch the power meter outside and see if barely crawling along, even though we've got several lights on and the TV (an Energy Star-rated LCD unit) as well.  Nice!


Our dishwasher features a "Water Miser" setting, which gets the dishes done more quickly and uses less water, yet does a fine job getting them clean nonetheless.  Likewise, setting the laundry load size properly helps use the proper amount of water while still cleaning the clothes effectively.

And, of course, there's the tried and true method of turning things off which aren't in use: the TV, lights, etc., and unplugging "power vampires" like phone chargers and unused consumer appliances.  (Unfortunately, we have to leave the cable box on; it takes a good 5-10 minutes to boot up if you physically cut and restore the power--but at least the power meter we've got on the entertainment center shows the cable box consumes less than 10 watts when idled.)

Future Plans

We've got several plans lined up for the future which should help even more, both near- and long-term.

First, we want to replace our aging hot water heater with a tankless unit; our tank is old enough that a decently-sized, electronic-ignition, variable-firing tankless unit would really make an impact.  The furnace is also fairly old, so when it goes, we'll be looking to upgrade to a more energy-efficient one (the A/C compressor is new enough it won't be a problem).  Our home appliances are in pretty good shape, as they were made in the last few years.  Still, we do want to upgrade the refrigerator and would go with a more energy-efficient unit, and the washing machine could stand to be replaced with a high-efficiency unit, too.

I want to redo my bathroom, and the more modern low-flush toilets have come along well enough that I'm ready to replace the water-hogging ones we've got with better-conserving units.

Our home is oriented reasonably-well to take advantage of solar heating in the winter, and the woods around it will help shade it in the summer.  But there are steps which can help there quite a bit; at some point, we'll replace the asphalt shingle roof (already a light color, fortunately) with something more durable and which reflects more heat.  These are of course long-term projects, as would be adding a solar water heater and photovoltaic cells to the roof.  Shorter-term will be improved insulation in the attic.

In the yard, we're planning to add a vegetable garden as well as several water projects.  From a natural perspective, we want to add a small pond to attract birds, and we also want to improve the drainage of our yard.  I'm hoping to implement a rainwater catchment system to utilize rainwater for gardening and for our pond and perhaps eventually for other uses.  Landscaping is also going to help with the solar benefits of our home as well as provide more wildlife habitat.

The problem with these future projects is that they take money, and given Beth's current job situation, we've had to postpone several.  Oh, well... I'll at least have more time to read books on the how-to end.

The Bottom Line

Many of the projects we've undertaken will pay for themselves over time.  The insulation and weatherizing I've put in so far have had a definite impact on our utility bills, as have the more-efficient light sources we're using.  A few of our upgrades and renovations actually have tax benefits as well (and several of our future ones typically have received tax incentives each year, like high-efficiency water heaters and photovoltaic panels), though there's no guarantee that will remain the case).

The intangible benefit is that we know we're doing our part to ensure the Earth and her environments remain viable for the generations to come.