Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Do-It-Yourself Decision Calculus: Cheaper, Better, or Fun

File this under rules of thumb or guidelines that I formulated in my head at some point and refer to occasionally.  This one is probably 5-8 years old.

The rule: it's worth doing something yourself (vs. buying a product or hiring out a task) when it's some compelling combination of cheaper, better, or just plain fun to do.

A particular decision could be made on small contributions from each factor, or it could be based entirely on the strength of one of them, but it has to meet that test somehow.  (If you flip it around, it sounds pretty obvious: if you'd be suffering to do/make something that will cost more and turn out worse, obviously that's something you should buy or do without.)

My primary examples: beer and applesauce.

For example, that's Two Hearted on the right.


I've been asked before whether I brew beer, because it seems like something I'd be into.  But in fact I've never even really been tempted.  It certainly doesn't sound very fun—a bit of planning and cooking, a lot of waiting, and a lot of tedious sterilizing and processing—and while home-brewed beer is cheaper, my impression is that it's not way cheaper, and at the rate I drink beer (which I guess might increase a bit if I had larger quantities sitting around, but not drastically) it would take a long time to make up for the investment in gear.  But the biggest factor for me in this case is the "better".  There's so much really good beer out there, I just don't see myself managing to make something that would compete.


You can buy applesauce cheaply and you can buy pretty good applesauce (not cheaply), but can you get applesauce that's as good as our home-canned Fuji/Honeycrisp blend?  I'm not sure you can.  And can you get it for about $1.70 per quart?  No, you cannot.  I can't say it's particularly fun (as a small-scale activity with friends or family it might be, but the way we do it these days is I stay up late processing a bushel at a time with a hand-powered Foley mill), but it's totally worth it.

Other cases:

  • Knitting: it's not even close on price (decent yarn is expensive, manufactured goods with the same quality materials cost less), and I think in most cases there's no quality advantage.  So this is something you should do if you find it fun (of course the fun can be in wearing or giving away something you made, but it's probably best if you enjoy the activity itself at least somewhat).  I used to, but at some point it stopped being worth it for me.
  • Home/car/bike repairs: all about cost.  Though in some cases I think quality benefits, because you have the time and motivation to be as careful and do as good a job as you can, whereas someone else's main goal might be to finish and get paid as fast as possible.  Obviously quality can also suffer if you don't quite have the hang of what you're trying to do (solution: more YouTube videos!).  There can be a fun factor, too, if we stretch the definition of "fun" to include "sense of satisfaction at one's own increased competence and self-reliance."
  • Roasting coffee: I would like to get back to doing this.  The cost is roughly even, but I found it enjoyable.  And while there's no shortage of good coffee out there, I think in this case there's something to the claims that extreme freshness makes a noticeable difference.
  • Granola, hummus, yogurt: I've been making these three recently (yogurt very recently, and it might not stick, but the other two are part of my routine now).  I do like my versions, but there are plenty of store-bought versions that are excellent.  So this is purely a cost issue.  Not that we're actually saving money, I don't think, but we get to eat more granola and a lot more hummus than we would if we were paying store prices for them.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A listicle: Dead things encountered on the bike path (plus some meta-blogging)

I'm guessing nobody had marked their calendar and was getting impatient, and I certainly haven't gotten any emails about it, but I'm behind schedule.  Which would be more understandable if I had set myself an ambitious schedule, like something tied to a day of the week.  In fact what I have is "monthly" (meaning "each post should be no more than 30 days after the last"), and I've still blown it.  I have an excuse, though, sort of: I really want to get the promised* theodicy post done, but so far I've found it daunting to even try, and difficult to carry out. That is, I've thought about it a lot, drafted a little, and not gotten all that far.

So in the meantime, some lighter fare...

Dead Things I've Encountered On The Bike Path

1. A fish
I'm pretty sure this was the first, and it might be the weirdest (or it might not. I kind of find #5 weirder).  When it rains enough, the Wissahickon Creek gets excited and rises fast, which means some sections of the bike path flood fairly easily.  One of the first times this happened after I started commuting, I made the mistake of hitting the first flooded section and thinking "well, I can pretty much lift my feet and coast through this."  A few more slightly larger water hazards later, I had gone too far to turn back and ended up pedaling through about 18 inches of muddy water for a quarter mile (and also running off the path at one point because I couldn't remember on which side of a particular tree it went).

That's all for illustration, because I think that time I learned my lesson and took another route the next day.  But after one of the first floods after I started commuting, on the way to work I was surprised to see a small (4- or 5-inch) fish in the middle of the path.

2. Goslings
Not at all surprising, really, since there are a lot of geese that live along the path year round, and in the spring they all get super pissy and aggressive in defense of their nests and then their cute little hatchlings.  Though the normal attitude of a bike commuter to geese is antipathy (due to (a) the aforementioned aggression, (b) during other seasons, the aimless wandering across the path, and (c) all the poop), it's still sad to see dead goslings.  But it happens, I assume from collisions with bikes.  I've seen maybe four total.

3. Mice
I've seen one or two before, and I just saw one the other day.  I feel like I've had more close calls with squirrels and chipmunks, but it's mice that I've actually seen dead on the path.  Maybe other rodents are sturdy enough to survive a hit from a bike, or at least run a ways before succumbing to their injuries.

4. A fox
Not actually on the path, but right next to it.  It was lying curled up in a fairly normal-looking pose, so I don't know whether it was hit by a bike or not.  I assumed not, actually, though I didn't have any good ideas about why it would have chosen that spot to die from something else. 

5. A deer
This was before I had a smartphone, or else I'd have a record of this one.  If I'm remembering right, it was a young buck with the beginnings of some antlers.  In any case, it was definitely a deer, looking like it had gone down face first, with a bit of blood coming from its mouth.  It was right below the regional rail bridge over the beginning of the trail along Lincoln Drive, so my best guess is that it was up on the tracks and either got actually hit by a train or was surprised by one with nowhere to go and ended up falling on its head down the pretty steep cliff.

6. Trees
So many downed trees, in all shapes and sizes.  Usually you have to climb over, occasionally under, and sometimes it's the top that falls across the path so you end up having to pick your way through among the leaves and branches.  Once there was a really big one that fell away from the path but was growing so close to it that it took a bug chunk out of the side of the path, leaving a sheer drop into an 8-foot hole.

7. A Pontiac
Ok, so cars aren't alive.  But it still works to talk about them as dead. Such as when they've been jammed beneath two bridge supports that are at least a foot too narrow.

* Sort of promised here, and actually promised in person to a friend.