Merry Christmas!

It’s Christmas Eve! I’m actually out of the office today and will be tomorrow as well. Taking time off to visit with family and friends, and to remember the real reason for the holiday, are important for me. I hope that you have an absolutely amazing holiday with family and friends. I’ll see you again the day after Christmas, on the 26th. In the meantime, take time to rest. It’s good for your health and your outlook on life.

Happy Holidays

It’s my sincere hope that you’re spending this special day with friends and family. Of course, Rebecca and I will be spending the day together. We’ll be eating special foods, playing games, and watching movies together. Today is a day of rest and festivities for us, and I most definitely won’t be in the office.

 

Review of LED Keeper

On Tuesday I reviewed LED Christmas lighting and found that it’s lacking in some major areas. Normally I don’t post two reviews in a single week, but this week is different because this review is about a product that can help mitigate the repair issue with those lights. The LED Keeper helps you find and repair problems with LED Christmas lighting sets, even if the set is supposedly not repairable. Now that I know how to use the product, I wouldn’t be without it. The company also produces a tool named Lightkeeper Pro for incandescent light sets. Both products make finding and repairing bad bulbs a lot easier.

The LED Keeper works by passing a current through the light set at the point where a failure occurs. The device actually pierces the insulation and injects a 9 volt signal through the line to help you locate the bad bulb. You use clips to help you keep track of how the bulbs light. It actually doesn’t take many tries to locate the bad bulb. The best way to see how this product works is to view the instructional video.

You should note a few things about this tool. First, you need to untwist the wires in order to clip onto the wire that holds the bulb you want to check. The video doesn’t make this very clear.

Second, I found the tool cumbersome to use with the lights in place. Yes, I eventually got it to work, but the best policy seems to be to wait until you take the lights down at the end of the season and perform the required repairs then, when you can work at a table or other easily accessed surface.

Third, you only get two replacement pods. You use a pod to replace a non-replaceable bulb—one that has been glued in place. The pods are what makes it possible to turn an unrepairable LED light set that you’d normally need to throw out into something you can salvage. Fortunately, it’s possible to buy additional pods in sets of four. However, I had to contact the company to find this information out because it isn’t mentioned anywhere on the packaging or as part of the instructional video.

These few problems aside, I found the LED Keeper worked extremely well. I tested it on three damaged light sets and it repaired them all. Given that LED Christmas tree light sets are a bit on the expensive side, having this tool could save you a lot of money. The part I like best about this product is that you don’t have to be an electrical engineer to use it. Yes, you do need to be handy, but most people who can handle a pliers without problem could easily use this product as well.

 

Review of LED Christmas Lights

I’m always looking for ways to make self-sufficiency pay. One of those methods is to do more with less. In my CFLs for Free post, I described how you could purchase just one Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) and eventually obtain a house full of them (using the money saved to buy new bulbs) that would end up saving you a lot of money. Thinking carefully about new technologies and how they can make you more self-sufficient is a good way to keep more money in your pocket.

Not all new technologies end up saving you money. The Light Emitting Diode (LED) is one of them. Yes, the new flashlights are fantastic and I absolutely love the one I own. It puts out an immense amount of light seemingly forever on a single change of batteries. However, LED Christmas tree lights are another story. It would initially appear that they’d be a winner. Their life expectancy is supposedly much longer than standard bulbs and an entire 200 light string consumes a miserly 9 watts when you buy one of the nicer sets. In addition, the light they produce is vibrant.

Unfortunately, the longevity of LED Christmas lights is a problem. Out of eight test sets I initially purchased for testing, one set is completely dark and two others have dark segments in just one year of use. Of course, the problem is likely with just one bulb in each darkened segment. However, this is where the another problem occurs, the bulbs are glued into place and you can’t change them. (A few newer sets do include replaceable bulbs, but each vendor appears to have a different socket scheme so the bulbs from one vendor aren’t interchangeable with those of another vendor.) However, whenever you can get them, get the sets with replaceable bulbs.

Having read the vendor documentation carefully, I had anticipated a problem or two. The first thing you need to know is that the vendor is misleading you about the longevity. The sets I reviewed specified bulb life between 25,000 and 100,000 hours. The term you need to know here is Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF). MTBF is a statistical measure that doesn’t really tell you anything unless you know how to apply it. An MTBF of 25,000 hours means that half of the bulbs will last that long and the other half will last longer. There is an actual mathematical probability curve that specifies bulb reliability, with higher failure rates at the beginning and end of the curve and a relatively stable period between (called a bathtub curve). You also need to consider what MTBF infers. The vendor is telling you the life expectancy of any given bulb. In order to find the bulb life expectancy of the light set, you divide the individual bulb life by the number of bulbs in the set. A 200 light set that has bulbs with an MTBF of 100,000 will, on average, deliver only 500 hours of light without failure. If you’re like most people who turn their lights on at 6 pm and turn them off at 11 pm, the set will last, on average, 83 days or about 3 years. As a consequence, it doesn’t surprise me that three out of eight light sets have problems.

The second thing you need to know is that LED lights are polarized and of different characteristics. If you’re used to working with miniature incandescent sets with replaceable bulbs, you know you can slip a bulb out of a non-conforming holder and put it into a conforming holder without problem as long as the bulb is of the right type for the number of lights in the set. In addition, it doesn’t truly matter how you insert the incandescent bulb as long as the two leads stick out appropriately. Not so with LED bulbs. It’s possible to put them into the holder backward because there is a positive and negative end. In addition, a check of those replaceable bulbs show that some have resisters attached to the bulbs and others don’t. In other words, you must get the replacement bulbs for your set from the vendor who produced your light set. The addition of replaceable bulbs is a good step forward in LED technology, but things are still too complicated for most people to handle.

There is actually a way around these repair issues and that you can salvage your LED Christmas lights when they fail. On Thursday I plan to review LED Keeper, a product I found for fixing problem light sets. The solution isn’t perfect and it does require some electrical knowledge on the part of the user, but it actually works quite well. I managed to salvage my failed light sets using this tool.

The third thing you need to know is that LED Christmas lights won’t actually save you any money unless you can buy them on sale. The problem is the high initial cost of the light set and the small amount of time you use them. The cost of running a 50 light incandescent set 6 hours per day for the 30 days that most people use them is ((20.4 watts * 6 hours/day * 30 days) / 1000) * Your Electrical Rate ($0.111362/Kwh in my case) or about $0.41. The cost of running a comparable 50 light LED set is ((4.8 watts * 6 hours/day * 30 days) / 1000) * 0.111362/Kwh or about $0.10. The savings of $0.31 per year isn’t very large when you consider the difference in light set cost of about $21.00. The lights would have to work for 68 years to pay back your investment. In order to make LED Christmas lights work as an investment, you have to buy them on sale. However, you might simply like the fact that they produce such vivid colors that the cost differential isn’t a concern.

Overall, I can’t recommend LED Christmas lights as they currently exist. The vendors aren’t being honest about how long they last, most sets are impossible to repair, and even when the set is repairable, the replacement lights aren’t standardized. Adding insult to injury, you’re paying a much higher price for these sets. LED Christmas lights are getting closer to being a bargain each year though and it’s likely that most people will be able to start benefiting from them in a few more years.

 

Christmas, a Time for Family

It was about this same time last year that I was preparing to shut down for the holiday season. Every year I look forward to this time of unplugging myself from all of the technology that entangles me the rest of the year. In fact, I wrote about it last year in Learning to Unplug. Taking time off provides a change of pace, makes life more enjoyable, and gives you purpose.

I was also looking over the poetry I’ve published in my blog in the past. I hope that you’re able to take time to read Christmas Remembrances and that you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Christmas truly is a time of remembrance—a time to think of what is past, what is today, and what may come tomorrow.

For the first time in a long time, Rebecca and I will actually be able to travel a bit this holiday (day trips, but travel anyway) and we plan to see some of our family during the holiday season. It’s my sincere hope that during this time of Christmas that you’re able to spend time with family and friends—that you take time to reflect a bit and unwind from your work. If you’re traveling, as we are, please travel safely and don’t be in rush to get wherever you’re going. Your family will wait and will most definitely want you to arrive safely, even if it means arriving late.

I’ll be back online on January 3rd this year, which is a bit sooner than normal. If you send me any e-mail, please be assured that I’ll answer it as quickly as possible when I return. In the meantime, please be patient and check out the blog posts for your book. It may be that my blog already has the answer you need.

Thank you, one and all, for the support you’ve lent me this past year. Writing technical books wouldn’t be very enjoyable without caring readers. You’re the reason I continue to work as hard as I do. I look forward to working with you on some amazing new ideas this upcoming year!

 

Little Things Matter

Our holiday season is in full swing now. On Friday evening we went to town to see Living Windows. Each of the shops in the downtown area has a Christmas scene depicted in its window using people. You’re actually watching these people perform various Christmas task. Of course, there are the obvious depictions, such as decorating the tree and baking cookies. One store had something a bit unusual in that there were three children ice fishing. They were fishing from one of those large indoor fountain displays, which was decorated to look icy. Each child had his/her fishing pole with fish duly attached to the end of the line. Many of the scenes were of old fashioned Christmas seasons. A scene showing people stringing popcorn to decorate the tree brought back some pleasant childhood memories for me. It was complete with paper chains of the sort I remember making in school to decorate our tree.

The scenes in the window weren’t the only attraction. There were Christmas carolers in several locations. Rebecca and I just had to stop and listen for a bit. Some street vendors were selling items like hot chocolate and apple cider. There were many treats to eat as well. One of the shop owners was creating a long pine bough, complete with ribbons, to string across the street. There were two horse drawn wagons you could get on to take a ride. On at least one corner was a burn barrel you could use to warm yourself. Overall, it was an interesting feel of Christmas past, but also different and quite entertaining. Except for gas, we spent precisely nothing for two hours of fun.

Saturday morning found me in the kitchen with Rebecca. I had donned my cookie apron and we spent the day making sugar cookies. Of course, they all had to be decorated and no one stocks the wide array of sanding sugars, candies, jimmies, and other odd assorted decorations that Rebecca does. I made a number of reindeer, Christmas trees, wreaths, angels, bells, and gingerbread people (amongst other items). Some of the more unusual cookies included frogs and motorcycles (yes, we actually found a motorcycle-shaped cookie cutter). By Saturday afternoon the cookies were baked and packed away as gifts for various friends. I’m not sure who will receive the cookies, but I do plan to be a little bad and nibble a few. I imagine we made Christmas cookies for around twenty people for less than $20.00, but really didn’t bother to keep track—we were having far too much fun to do that.

Saturday evening was the children’s program at out church. It’s something we look forward to seeing every year. The children did especially well this year. The church was packed to standing room only status and they finally set up closed circuit television in the dining room below the main church. We’ve been told that there were well over 800 people in attendance. Even with the tightly packed crowd, everything was orderly. We could clearly hear the cherub tones coming from the front of the church, even if we couldn’t always see the cherubs themselves.

These traditions may seem like little things, but they really do matter. They help us keep focused on the meaning of Christmas. More importantly, they help keep us sane in an increasingly hostile world. We read the news, just like everyone else, but these little traditions that cost little, but mean so much, really do help keep things in perspective. I hope that you have your traditions too. Let me know about some of the things you do to keep your sanity during the holiday season at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Fun is Where You Find It (Part 6)

Part of being self-sufficient is finding ways to enjoy the holidays without spending a lot of money doing it. All of the Fun is Where You Find It posts have one thing in common—they all discuss methods of having a lot of fun during the holidays (even personal holidays) without incurring a lot of debt. The Christmas holidays are often associated with spending boatloads of cash in an effort to get enough glitter to make the day special. Christmas is special all by itself and truly doesn’t require any help from the bank.

Of course, there is the act of decorating both tree and house. Some people have turned what should be a joyful occasion into a chore of extreme drudgery. In fact, I sometimes hear people ask why they should even bother, which misses the point of decorating entirely. Turning the event into a family affair where everyone has a bit of fun with the decorating is the way to have fun without spending much at all. Afterward, you can bask in the glow of a home made cheery and special for the holiday. OK, you do need to buy the tree, unless you like the artificial variety that you can stow away each year, but that should be the extent of your spending for the most part. We do buy a new ornament each year.

One of the ways to have fun is to tell the story behind ornaments as you put them on the tree. We do that each year. Some of our ornaments come from when we were first married and we’ll talk about them in light of our youth and dreams. We have ornaments we bought with pet names on them and putting the ornament on the tree brings the pet to mind. We’ll talk about the pet’s odd behavior or the time he/she turned the tree over. The point is that putting the ornaments on becomes a time of remembrance—a time of telling stories about Christmas past.

Decorating comes with special music (as most of our special events do). For us, listening to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas is an absolute must. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Holiday Celebration is another favorite. In fact, we have a nice stack of special Christmas music, including a few oddities, such a Jingle Cats, that some would consider more annoying than joyful. The point is that listening to music as you decorate and tell stories is low cost atmosphere that helps keep things jolly.

A celebration isn’t complete without special food and we have ours. After I get the tree set up, put on the lights, and add a few ornaments, it’s off to the kitchen to make oyster stew. I only make this particular kind of oyster stew for our one day of decorating of each year, which means we really look forward to it. The fact that the food is unique to that particular day makes it quite special. I have to admit that I do spend a little more than usual to make my oyster stew, but I checked this year and the items were well under $15.00—far less than we’d spend at the restaurant.

Our all day event costs well under $70.00 and we feel the effects of it during the entire Christmas season. Yes, this is the most expensive Fun is Where You Find It post to date, but even so, given that we keep the tree up until January 6th (Epiphany, the traditional end of the Christmas holiday), the cost per day is quite low (about $1.90 per day this year) and we have a lot of fun doing it. Christmas is a time of sharing, of love, and of renewal. Put the joy back in your Christmas by taking the money back out.

What are ways that you can think of to turn the Christmas holiday chores into fun events? Do you have special keepsake traditions that you share with your family? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Learning to Unplug

It’s the last day of the year for me. I won’t be writing any new blog entries in until next year. Rebecca and I take each Christmas off and don’t come back until after Epiphany, which is the actual 12th day of Christmas (just in case you were wondering about the songs that use it). If you send me an e-mail, I won’t respond until January 9th—the first work day after Epiphany. I completely unplug while on vacation and you should too. Here are the top reasons I unplug during my down timeperhaps you’ll find a reason that works for you.

  • Rebuilding Our Marriage: Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m devoted to my wife. I consider my marriage far more important than any other element of my life here on earth. Rebecca patiently waits for me the rest of the year, but vacations are devoted to her and our marriage. I look forward to our time together and count the days until we can spend time doing something interesting together.
  • Focus on Family, Friends, and Neighbors: My family has always been good about working around my schedule. There are times during the year where I simply tell them that a book deadline is far too important to visit with them and they understand. My closest friends and even my neighbors are equally cognizant of my need to work. I try to make up for the lack of attention during the rest of the year with visits throughout vacation.
  • Personal Health: I want to provide my readers with the best service that I can. That means taking care of my personal health: spiritual, mental, and physical. Disconnecting from everything gives me time for self-reflection and helps me to grow as a person. It also provides me with much needed rest. No one can do a job well unless they have received the proper rest and nourishment.
  • Personal Projects: It seems as if too many people wait until retirement to work on anything fun. I’m not planning to wait. During vacation, I take time to work on personal projectsthings I want to do for the sheer pleasure of doing them. I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to retire anytime soon, unless an injury or some other unforeseen issue makes retirement necessary. So, I plan to do a few of these projects while I’m still able to do them. Vacation provides the opportunity.


During this holiday season, whatever your beliefs or wherever you live, I hope that you take time to unplug. Do something interesting, exciting, spiritual, or simply satisfying. The world of work will still be here when you get backyou’re truly not indispensable. It may seem as if the world will come down around your ears if you disconnect, but that’s a lie. I’ve been doing it for many years now and nothing terrible has happened. I have no cell phone, no computer access, no connectivity of any kind to impede my efforts to relax and recharge.

Rebecca and I will spend the next two weeks putting puzzles together, baking cookies, working on crafts, and sitting by the wood stove reading. We’ll spend part of the holiday in church, addressing our spiritual needs. Yes, there will even be some movie watching on our television, but that’s going to take second place to getting reacquainted after months of hard work writing, gardening, and generally making a living. Of course, I’ll need a little exercise after my lack of restraint in holiday eating (I hope my doctor doesn’t see this), so I’ll do a little wood cutting too. I’m sure that we’ll spend plenty of time with family, friends, and neighbors as well. See you next year!

Christmas Remembrances

The firelight,
Eye’s delight,
Rest upon a pudding made with plum.

Holiday cheer,
Christmas is near,
Putting smiles on faces glum.

Mistletoe,
Love will grow,
In hearts dressed for love.

A tree bright,
Lights delight,
An angel peers down from above.

Cookies sweet,
What a treat,
When served with beverages festive.

Fire’s warming,
Friends charming,
With nary a soul that’s restive.

Choirs sing,
Bells that ring,
A service of children’s design.

Christ is near,
Source of cheer,
In a manger of another time.

Copyright 2011, John Paul Mueller

 

Sharing and Swapping Food

One of the centerpieces of self-sufficiency is, surprisingly enough, sharing and swapping food with neighbors. Yes, it’s possible to grow everything you need yourself, but absolutely everyone has a bad year in something. In addition, your soil and gardening techniques may produce copious quantities of one item, but prove dangerous, or even fatal, to other items. Your neighbors will have similar luck with other items. Consequently, swapping items between neighbors is one of the hallmarks of a self-sufficient community. The community as a whole benefits in such a situation because everyone ends up with a greater variety of food to eat. So, while you can grow what you need, you’ll eat better when you swap with someone else.

It isn’t just the garden though. Just about everything is swapped at times. One person may have an abundance of chickens and trade a chicken or two for some beef. These swaps aren’t done on a strict accounting system. People tend not to get too caught up on the price of the food—they’re more interested in exchanging something they have in excess for something they need. Of course, no one would swap an entire cow for just one chicken either . While the swaps aren’t strictly fair, they’re reasonably sono one tries to take advantage of someone else (otherwise, the community as a whole would stop swapping with them).

There are times when people simply share food, which is where the country ethic comes into play. We’ve shared wine, soap, or cookies with other people simply because we think they’re nice people and want them to enjoy something we’ve made. There is no other motive behind the act, other than seeing the smile on the other person’s face. It makes us feel good to see how others react when we do something nice for themacts of kindness are their own reward.

People have also shared with us. One winter we were extremely low on wood and I wasn’t able to get out and cut any. Our neighbors sent three cords of wood our wayan extreme act of kindness that we’ll never forget. We recently received a nice buck from some friends for nothing more than a smile. It isn’t often that you can fill your freezer with venison because of the kindness of someone else. The 65 pounds of meat is nice, being able to use the tenderloin for Christmas dinner is even nicer. I’ll make some lovely venison medallions (with wine we’ve made no less). It will be an extremely special Christmasone we’ll never forget.

Our swapping and sharing often extends outside our local village. Other good friends recently sent us a decadent cake that we’ll share with family and friends here. We’ll send a fruitcake their way later this week. I wish that our friends could have seen the smile on our faces when we received the cakeperhaps they felt the warmth of our feelings from afar (and certainly we’ve thanked them for their fine gift).

If you choose to become self-sufficient, don’t get the idea that you’re an island. No one is separate from the entire world. The more self-sufficient you become, the more you realize that the self-sufficiency of the community in which you live is important. It doesn’t matter if you live in the country, as we do, or in the city. The need to depend on others and also experience the joy of giving to those in need is possibly the best part of being self-sufficient.

Does your community swap and share? How are you experiencing the kindness of others during this holiday season? Have you done something kind, something totally unexpected for someone else? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.