I do research before I buy things.

I do research after I buy things.

I do more research than is necessary or practical.

Here are the results.


Glasses Half Full 

I was just reminded of something by The Librarian, as she just went to the optometrist for an exam. It’s this: You don’t have to buy glasses from the optometrist. You don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for a few bits of molded plastic.

You can do the same thing that your optometrist does: contact a distributor and buy a pair of glasses for less than $100.

First you have to get your prescription from the optometrist. This is not difficult, except for one point. The optometrist, unless you specifically ask, will leave out the pupillary distance, or PD. That is the distance in millimeters between the centers of your pupils. Your optometrist will be reluctant because he or she will know that a hundred bucks or more in pure profit is walking out the door with that number. The online optics suppliers need that number. Politely insist. You will get a slip of paper marked with the necessary correction (in diopters) for each eye (“O.D.” is right and “O.S.” is left. These are abbreviations for oculus dexter and oculus sinister. The latter does not mean “evil eye.”) The cylindrical distortion will be noted, and, of course, the PD.

There are a number of suppliers online who will sell you glasses made to your prescription and custom specifications. By custom I mean not only the frame type but also the lens materials and coatings. Most people will want some kind of polycarbonate lens. If you have a strong prescription you may want a lens with a high refractive index, which means that the lens can be thinner. There are a variety of coatings available. I have had glasses with the Crizal anti-reflective coating and it did make things clearer. You can also get anti-scratch coatings, sunglass tinting, and UV protection.

I should note that something like 90% of the glasses frames sold in this country are made by a single company called Luxottica, based in Italy. That is regardless of whether they have the Luxottica name on them or some major fashion brand. Ray-Ban, Oakley, Prada, Bulgari, Brooks Brothers – all made by Luxottica. But don’t weep for Luxottica if you buy direct. They will still make a 64% gross margin, roughly the same as Apple.

So, here are some links:

http://glassyeyes.blogspot.com/  Glassy Eyes offers up reviews of various online sources and has notifications on sales. Some of his static content is a few years out of date. He has a list of half a dozen low cost suppliers.

http://www.opticsplanet.com/eyewear-store.html  Optics Planet offers a large selection of prescription glasses and sunglasses. They also have optics of other kinds, including telescopes, binoculars, and night vision goggles.

http://www.coastal.com/glasses  Coastal Contacts has contact lenses (surprise) as well as prescription glasses and sunglasses.

If you have a pair of frames you like with lenses that don’t work for you anymore, consider http://eyeglasspeople.com/ . They will put new lenses in existing frames for you.

There are more online glasses suppliers out there. By all means, search out some more. It’s always wise to do a second search for reviews of any online supplier you find. Some have better service and quality control than others.

Now I have made some optometrists sad. Before you sympathize too much, here’s a quotation on GlassyEyes from an industry insider:

"A pair of SV (single vision) stock poly Alize cost me $34, and carry a 2 year warranty. We sell 'em all day long for $199/pair, for a profit of $165/pair. Our capture rate for AR (anti-reflective coating) is about 90%. Also stock poly non coated, cost $6/pair and sell for $109...

Now show me the math where you can beat the $165 profit on a pair of SV (single vision) lenses. If you can, I'll still love you in the morning."

The Minor Heretic loves you long time, for free, and wants you to save money.


The Amish Heater – An Absurd Scam

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, a guy who works in the marketing department of a solar energy company. He mentioned a product that is selling like the proverbial pan-fried discs of batter – the so-called Amish Heater. It is a free-standing heater that runs on electricity. We had a laugh about it, but I thought I should write something about it and its clones.

The ads for the Amish Heater show Amish people in their traditional clothes assembling the wooden cabinets for these devices. What the ads don’t mention is the obvious fact that the Amish don’t use electricity, and that the guts of the thing are made in China. The unit sells for $400, so the profit margin on these must be remarkable. Consider that if you are less concerned with Amish ambiance you can buy a perfectly good 1500 Watt electric heater for $15-$30.

Ok, so the Amish did have a hand in part of it. That’s not really the scam. The fraud is committed when they use the phrase “Slash your heating bills!” Electricity is the most expensive way of creating heat. Unless you lower the temperature of your house to 50 F and huddle next to the heater you are going to be paying more money at the end of the month.

Here’s some basic math on the subject. A BTU, or British Thermal Unit, is the amount of energy it takes to raise a pound of water (roughly a pint) one degree Fahrenheit. How much does it cost for a million BTUs? That’s roughly the amount of heat you’d need to bring 1200 gallons of water from well temperature to 145 F.

Electricity at 14 cents a kilowatt-hour would cost $41.18

#2 fuel oil at $2.75 a gallon would cost $23.97

Natural gas at $15.80 per thousand cubic feet would cost $22.59

Propane at $2.75 a gallon would come closest to electricity at $38.19

Hardwood at $220 a cord would cost $16.18

(All these numbers account for the varying efficiencies of the appliances using the fuel.)

If you have an oil or natural gas fired furnace you’d be nuts to plug in an electric heater. Fuel oil would have to reach $4.75 a gallon (with no increase in electricity prices) before you would break even on that deal. For those of you with differing electric rates, fuel oil would have to be 34 times the price of electricity for you to break even.

If you feel you must get an electric heater as a stopgap spot of comfort, buy the $20 model, put it somewhere inconspicuous, and spend the other $380 on energy efficiency - insulated curtains and tubes of caulk. The pricey heaters advertise “patented” heating elements, but they all are about shoving electrons through a resistor and they all put out the same amount of heat per kilowatt hour.

(Wearily shakes head and rolls eyes)





I suppose it is a bit late in the season to spring this on you, but your sunscreen could be doing you as much harm as good. I have been reading the very helpful sunscreen related pages on the Environmental Working Group site. Typically for health and beauty products, you are usually being sold ineffective and dangerous products at high prices.

The first thing to look for on your sunscreen ingredient list is “retinyl palmitate” or “retinol.” These are forms of vitamin A, which are anti-oxidants. This is wonderful in a lotion that you might put on at bedtime, but exposure to UV light makes it a possible carcinogen. How counterproductive.

The other ingredient to look for is oxybenzone. It is an endocrine mimicking chemical that can disrupt your normal hormonal balance.

And of course there is the SPF number, boldly and proudly displayed on the front of the packaging. Any number above 50 is essentially meaningless. SPF 70 won’t allow you to stay out in the sun twice as long as SPF 35. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t buy it; just don’t pay extra for it or expect a proportional performance increase out of it.

I recommend that you read the product lists on the EWG site, both good and bad, and make an informed decision about the chemical mix you smear on your skin.

And wear a broad brimmed hat.


The Internet on Toast

This review is a triple-header. It’s about connecting to the internet when cable service is $7,000 away, distributing that data stream wirelessly within one’s home, and then sitting down to a well-toasted piece of bread. Make that a quadruple-header, because I’d like to discuss bread as well.

Wireless Internet service through Verizon and a USB727

I live in the boonies of Vermont. I am 24 houses from the end of the power line. The power line doesn’t actually come to my house – I'm too far from the road. For a few years now I have used Wildblue satellite service for my internet connection. It is far from ideal, but, as mentioned above, the local cable company would have charged me $7,000 to extend their line from what is presently the last house on the line, about a quarter of a mile away. I’m about half a mile too far for DSL. So, I have a satellite pizza dish, 1.3 second latency (the time it takes a signal to travel through the system and do something), and between 250 kilobits per second (kbps) and 1.1 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed, depending on weather and traffic. All for $70 a month.

I looked into Verizon Wireless and their version of a 3G network. I used to have one of their PC card data modems. It was expensive and slow, but it offered an internet connection wherever I could get cell phone reception. The new 3G network promised more. I hunted around on some wireless forums and found reports of 1 Mbps and better out of the USB cellular modems. The Verizon plan offered up to 5 gigabytes per month for $60, so I decided to give it a try.

I did some more research and bought a Novatel USB 727 modem on eBay. It is about the size of a bloated pack of chewing gum, with a flip up antenna on one end and a USB connector on the other. It also has a slot on the side for a micro-SD memory card, so it can act as a thumb drive. The USB727 is slightly out of date, but there are other duplicate devices available from Verizon and other vendors. I have a Wilson cellphone booster antenna intended for truckers left over from my PC card experience, along with a coaxial-to-cell-modem adapter dongle. Wilson also makes a variety of antennas for stationary applications, as well as signal boosters. I haven’t tried those products yet, so you are on your own.

I signed up month-to month with Verizon, downloaded the VZ Access Manager software, and tried the USB727 by itself. In an area with exceptional cell reception I saw download speeds approaching 2 Mbps. Back home I saw around 500 kbps. With the booster antenna attached the download speed jumped to 1.1 to 1.6 Mbps with latency around 0.13 seconds and upload speeds approaching 500 kbps. It isn’t broad broadband, but better than the culvert I have been crawling through.

The problem with this system is positioning the trucker’s antenna, snaking the coaxial cable over to my notebook computer, plugging in the microscopic adapter plug, and keeping the USB device/adapter assembly all connected. My PC card modem had suffered plug failure after repeated plug/unplug cycles, so I bound the adapter dongle to the side of the USB727 permanently with a whipping of waxed sailmaker’s thread. How’s that for beyond steampunk? I set out to find a USB compatible wireless router.

The Cradlepoint CTR350

I did some more research and at first found only three categories of USB/wireless modem compatible routers: 1) Discontinued, 2) Whined about, or 3) Wicked expensive. The Netgear unit was alternately praised and derided. The D-link hardware was deemed buggy, but then all of the options were deemed buggy. Then I came across the Cradlepoint CTR350. Very little bad said about it, and much praise for its versatility. I figured it was worth a gamble and eBayed one for around $86 with shipping.

The thing is tiny – shirt pocket compatible. It comes with an AC wall cube adapter and there is a 12-volt DC adapter available in case you want to create a wifi hotspot in your car. The inputs are a USB socket and an ethernet cable socket. There are a few LED indicators, and that’s it. The setup instructions were a foldout brochure, with references to online resources for more advanced tiddling. It can be set to WEP security, WPA, or the more recent WPA2.

I plugged the USB727 into the CTR350 and the CTR350 into a power strip and followed about four steps of directions. My computer picked up the signal and connected. I keyed in the default password, logged on, changed the password, and started surfing. There was no apparent loss of speed or increase in latency. I put the router on the second floor, took my computer to the basement and it still picked up a good signal.

Soon Wildblue will be a memory. But onward, to the culinary delight that is hot buttered toast.

The  Kitchenaid KMTT200SS

My family used to have a 1960’s era GE toaster. It was the classic stainless steel toaster, with an aerodynamic loaf-like shape and brown bakelite trim. It produced flawless toast, evenly browned and consistent from one slice to the next. I acquired it from the family basement, gave it away to friends during a move, and missed it ever afterwards. I later bought one of its millions of brothers, but that one had a defective timer and had to be watched to avoid a Cajun blackened slice. It also had narrow slots, adapted better to the commercial sliced bread of the 60’s than bagels and the hand sliced artisanal stuff that I eat.

More research, and I found much praise for the Kitchenaid KMTT200. The alphanumeric designation makes it sound more like a computer part, but it is a blocky, squarish, simple object, the cubist cousin of my old GE. I bought the stainless steel model, but it also comes with red or black enameled sides. The blocky form has a function. The added space for airflow means that the sides stay cool. The controls are simple: an adjustment knob, the push-down lever, a button for the bagel setting, and another button for the warming setting. The bagel button turns down the outer heating elements.

The main requirements for a toaster are evenness and consistency. The toast should be evenly colored on all areas of both sides and a darkness setting should always mean the same color of toast. The KMTT200 scores high on the first count and perfectly on the second. Square loaf-pan shaped slices come out evenly browned all over, but oval artisanal slices with angular edges tend to brown more on the thinner parts. The bagel setting works well, with the cut surfaces crisping nicely and the outsides warmed but not burnt. It accommodates slices up to 1 7/16” wide and 5 ¼” long, which is a happy thing for those of us who like a slab o’ toast. It is available online from a number of sources in a price range from $60 to $70. As is my wont, I went to eBay and found one for $52 with shipping.

A digression: Toast racks, or toast cooling racks, as a discerning friend of mine from Maine terms them. Why do they exist? The last thing anyone wants is cold toast. A standard toast rack, holding the slices vertically and slightly apart, is a perfect engine of culinary depravity, rapidly chilling the toast through convection and radiation. I would rather have a toast cozy, a highly insulated cover that would maintain butter melting temperatures during the transfer from toaster to table.

Anyway, two buttery thumbs up for the KMTT200, which brings me to bread.

Artisanal Bread and BLIM

I am lucky in that I live within a 25-mile drive of at least a half dozen fine artisanal bakeries. My local food cooperative has a section full of locally baked loaves. Some are dense and wheaty and some are white and chewy, but none are BLIM. BLIM is Bread-Like Ingestible Material. BLIM is the oblong, roughly rectangular, spongy material one might find in the bakery section of a standard grocery store, labeled “bread.” It compresses to one sixth its original size under minimal pressure and tastes like shredded newspaper with artificial bread flavoring. What passes for crust seems painted on rather than baked in. Driving across the country once I found virtually all BLIM and no real bread. It was sad to think of the millions of Americans who have never sunk their teeth into real bread.

So, I’m a culinary elitist, right? Wrong. There is real maple syrup and then there is artificial maple-flavored corn syrup, and it is illegal to sell the second under the name of the first. There is ice cream that has real milk in it and there is Dari Creme soft-serve that is sugar and flavorings mixed with binders, and there is a legal reason why the second product is misspelled. I suppose that since BLIM actually contains wheat and yeast technically it is bread, but a relatively flavorless, textureless, fiberless imitation of what our ancestors ate.

My two favorite bakeries around central Vermont are the Red Hen Baking Company in Middlesex VT and Bohemian Bread in Marshfield. Red Hen makes a wide variety of baked goods, but my favorites are their new Cyrus Pringle bread, made from Vermont-grown wheat, and their Mad River Grain, a multiple grain and seed loaf. Bohemian makes (among others) Troika Three Seed, a dense seeded bread with a tight crumb that makes a filling breakfast toast.

The Vermonters who read this can probably obtain real bread in their local stores. Those of you who can’t should lobby for it. There are bakeries out there that produce the real thing, and if pressured the BLIM makers could ditch the Reddi-Sponge (Yes, they named it that) dough conditioner and make at least one style of real bread.

Toast popped up – I gotta go.


The Husqvarna 316e electric chainsaw

 The breezes are warm, the apple trees are in blossom, the scent of lilac drifts through the air. It is spring, and this man’s thoughts turn to…outdoor power tools. There is yard work to be done and one of the premiere tools available is the chainsaw. There are problems, though.

Any gasoline you might have from last year will be mere varnish by now. Then you have to find your two-cycle oil for the gas mix. Then there is the problem of getting the damned thing started, pulling the starter cord with increasing anger, desperation, and muscle pain. Once started, the device is heavy, noisy, and stinky. That stink is not merely aesthetic. A two-cycle engine spews 25-45% of its fuel unburned, exposing you to benzene and aromatic hydrocarbons. Add carbon monoxide, particulates, and a stew of other vaporized gak, and it is no wonder you feel brain dead after a session of bucking up cordwood. In fact, operating a small two-cycle engine for an hour produces more pollution that driving a car two thousand miles. For that matter, Americans spill an estimated 17 million gallons of gasoline a year while refueling outdoor equipment, a volume that dwarfs the Exxon Valdez.

Last year I did my usual research and purchased a Husqvarna 316e electric chainsaw. It received good reviews for power, features, weight, and noise. It is light and relatively quiet, yet it seems to cut like a medium-small gas powered saw. It is rated at 1600 watts, which is equivalent to 2.14 horsepower. It weighs 8.2 pounds, 20% lighter than a gas powered Husqvarna of the same horsepower. Last week I used it to fell some maple and birch saplings with no problem and cut up some 4”oak easily.

The machine is built on the same pattern as Husqvarna’s gasoline saws, with a double acting chain brake and a 16” bar. While many electric chainsaws have their motors mounted on the left side, sticking out, the 316e has an inline motor, giving it a form factor more like a traditional chainsaw. One excellent feature is the translucent viewport in the bar and chain oil reservoir, which allows the user to keep track of the oil level.

It appears to be just as durable as their gas saws, or perhaps even more so. Electric motors tend to last at least ten times longer than gas engines, and the disparity is even more pronounced for small, high speed, two-cycle engines.

True, the saw is restricted to a 100-150’ radius of a 120-volt AC outlet, but you would be surprised at the amount of practical chainsaw work there is within that distance. There is the extra attention the operator has to pay to handling the extension cord, but it becomes second nature quickly. It’s not a saw for the professional logger, but ideal for the homeowner. If you are in the market for a chainsaw, save your arms, your ears, your lungs, and the environment.

You should be able to find one online or from your local Husqvarna dealer in the $250 to $300 range. Here’s a link to a page on Husqvarna USA that gives “where to buy” information.