Saturday 28 February 2009

Knitting Hiatus

Remember at Christmas, how I said I'd knitted until my wrists ached in order to finish Peter's present? Well, it's come back to bite me. I have RSI.

Naturally, I was sitting here two weeks ago reading about Tama's tennis elbow, thinking I'd been lucky, when this flared up. The day before, I'd manually rolled my first ever centre-pull ball:

It ached a bit afterwards but I cast on the next pair of socks anyway and started knitting, waiting for the point where I'd have to haul a big knot of yarn out of the centre of the ball (so far, I've had one tiny tangle, but nothing more). Saturday morning, I was still waiting and still knitting, when my right forearm began to ache. I rested it for the remainder of the weekend, but using the mouse all week at work aggravated it a lot. I could only knit a row or two in the evenings and my right little finger kept going numb. So I gave up knitting, which almost killed me.

Finally, last Saturday, I got the chance to buy a wrist support. It has made a big difference because it's made me conscious of my movements. I've worked out that the real cause of the problem is being lazy and dropping my wrists when I type or when I use the mouse. Knitting just aggravated it. (I have wrist rests at work, but you shouldn't actually use them to rest your wrists - they're a reminder to lift them up to work.)

I'm not sure how long I'm going to have to wear the support. But I may have found a way around the restriction on my knitting. My knitting-buddy Kate has just taught me how to knit continental style. Because you hold the needles over the top, it doesn't strain the muscles at the back of my wrist (in "English style" knitting, you hold the right needle like you're holding a pen, bending the wrist back). I'm slow, I'm not sure of my tension yet, and I'm still having problems conquering purling, but I am so glad that I'm able to knit again! Thank's Kate.

Kate's off to Wisconsin tomorrow for at least the next 8 months. I'm going to miss her. She's the only knitter I regularly see. Here's me, Kate and Nicky at Kate's leaving lunch on Thursday.

- Pam

Thursday 26 February 2009

The price of convenience

This morning, I paid £3.42 for a packet of Nurofen. I was desperate - I had a headache and had to pop out to the local garage to buy them - but the price still left me reeling. It was ten times what the supermarket own brand costs! Daylight robbery! It cured the headache, but left me wondering about the price of convenience.

How many times have I opted for the convenient option when, with a little bit of planning, I could have had something better for cheaper? The Nurofen is a case in point - I normally carry a packet of supermarket own-brand Ibuprofen with me, but I'd run out and forgotten to replace it. What about the times when I've forgotten a book to read on the Tube and bought a magazine, getting an expensive second-rate reading fix? Or buying a bottle of water, when I could easily have brought a (refilled) bottle from home?

We all do it, often without thinking about it. These are the little things that eat away at your budget. You waste your money on the unimportant things and then it's all gone before the important stuff occurs. I heard a great quote today - I wish I could remember who said it, so that I could look it up - about it being the accumulation of $3 purchases that make you bankrupt. That's the price of convenience.

- Pam

Sunday 22 February 2009

Cheap food

I was talking to a colleague on Friday, who mentioned her husband complaining about their weekly grocery bill and all the food that they wasted. A couple of weeks ago, when she came back from food shopping, he fetched the bin saying “Shall I chuck it out now or do you actually plan to cook with this?”! She spends about £150 a week at the supermarket for just the two of them. When I told her we spend £160 a month on food, she was stunned!

Not for the first time, it struck me that the tools I use to manage my grocery budget other people can’t do, won’t do or don’t know how to do. It's as if I know some arcane lore that nobody around me knows. So here it is.

(If any of what I'm about to say sounds familiar, it's because in 2003, I wrote a post on the Motley Fool explaining how I managed to feed 2 adults on a grocery budget of (what was then) £130 a month. Things haven't changed that much since then.)

Firstly, an explanation or two: England is a country with a very high cost of living and we live in one of the most Living Above Your Means cities in the world. Also, remember it is £160 not $160! According to, at today's exchange rate my £160 is $231 US. We split it up as follows:-

£ 40.00 / $57 - Meat fund (we visit a Kosher butcher every 3 to 4 months)
£ 10.00 / $14 - Bulk fund (accumulates for bulk buying special offers and visits to Wing Yip)
£ 10.00 / $14 - Christmas fund (we also use this for Easter eggs)
£100.00 /$144 - General groceries

My grocery bill includes cleaning products, toiletries bought at the supermarket (but not expensive hair stuff bought at the drug store), wine, DH's shaving products, etc - basically everything we buy at the supermarket and the vegetables we buy at a local farm shop.

I've been a careful shopper since the early 1990s, when a very tight February taught me the value of a well stocked pantry, dried goods and fresh produce (I had £25 to feed 2 adults for the entire month). So here are my tips and techniques:-

  1. Buy your vegetables loose from the market or from a local farm shop instead of from the supermarket. As well as being (probably) cheaper, they'll be fresher and last longer, because they haven't been stuck in the supermarket's cold storage system for months. And they won't have spent days deteriorating in sweaty plastic bags before you get them home.
  2. Pad out meat meals with vegetables and/or lentils. 8oz/250g of minced/ground beef (hamburger) can easily feed 4 people if you add the diced pulp of an eggplant/aubergine or several zucchini/courgettes (zap in the microwave first to soften), plus a grated carrot or two and some sliced mushrooms. To stretch it to feed 6, add half a cup of split red lentils to your sauce (i.e. to a bolognese sauce for pasta). Always enhance the "meatiness" by crumbling in a stock cube, before you add the sauce ingredients. I routinely use only 4oz of mince or 8oz of stewing steak per person per meal and use veggies/dried beans to make up the rest of the meal.
  3. Cook enough for tonight and for lunch tomorrow for both of you, then dish up both at the same time. Most recipes feed 4 or 6 anyway. The trick is to only eat one portion each instead of doubling up because it's there (and tempting!). The only way I've found to stop myself nibbling is to create "set asides" for lunch tomorrow.
  4. Use grains creatively. We don't just have rice or pasta with a sauce. We have cous-cous (technically a pasta), polenta (cornmeal) and cracked wheat (tabouli anyone?), too. These vary the taste of one of my main sources of "meal padding".
  5. Think Indian or Chinese or Mexican! Cure dietary boredom by varying the flavours of the foods that you eat. Mince-with-a-sauce may become bolognese, keema curry, chilli con carne, moussaka, corn pone, or piccadillo (sorry about the spelling). Use leftovers to fill samosas or pasties or cottage pie.
  6. Consider vegetable based dishes. During my very tight February, I lugged home a 15lb bag of potatoes and onions. They became onion quiche, potato-cheese-garlic-&-onion flan, home made gnocchi, and baked potato with sauce or cheese on top. I also turned the half-dead contents of the vegie draw into a curry. Another idea: Mexican Pilchard Pudding (add a can of pilchards in tomato sauce to 1lb of mashed potato; stir in a well beaten egg and 2 teaspoons of baking powder; tip into a greased dish and bake for 3/4 hour).
  7. Canned fish is your friend. Tuna is cheap and versatile. Tins of pilchards or mackeral in tomato sauce can be curried or, with a bit of imagination, turned into fish pie or fish stews. Salmon can be mixed with cheese sauce and left over rice to become a salmon casserole. Or dress it up as salmon mouse.
  8. Use pulses and nuts. Try a lentil loaf or a carrot & hazelnut loaf, instead of meatloaf for dinner. Curry mung beans. Make your own refried beans and serve them in homemade, soft, wheat tortillas. Blend a can of tomatoes with 2 cans of butter beans then heat for a filling, "instant" soup. Add kidney beans to stews. [To cook from dried: Soak beans overnight, rinse and drain. Turn into a clean bread bag and freeze for 6-8 hours minimum (breaks down the cell walls). Defrost, cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Boil for 10 minutes to kill of toxins then simmer until soft (or pressure cook for 20 minutes at 15lb pressure). The freezing cuts the cooking time. I do 1lb of dried beans at a time and freeze the excess.]
  9. The cheapest way to buy chicken from a kosher butcher is to get boiling chicken breasts (unfilleted and with the skin on). I skin the breasts myself and save the skins/fatty layer to rend down into cooking schmaltz (when I have a big bag full, I rend it slowly in the oven, strain and store in the fridge). Then I slice the meat off the bones and save the bones for stock. The meat is usually cubed for cooking.
  10. Post-stock-stew. After I've made chicken/poultry stock and drained it, I go through the bones and strip off any remaining meat. This will be cooked up later in something that doesn't need a big chicken flavour (a vindaloo, perhaps).
  11. Don't just cook for today. Double up quantities so that you have a readily available second meal for those nights when you'll be too busy to cook. Make up batches of base and store them in the freezer.
  12. Plan your leftovers. I'll roast the largest chicken or turkey I can fit in the oven precisely because they'll result in leftovers. Then I'll use the leftovers in stir-fries, soups, stews, or whatever. Check out this series of posts on uses for leftover turkey.
  13. Your freezer is your friend. Use it to store bulk bought bread, cheese and meat, as well as freezing the items mentioned above.
  14. When you're shopping consider whether a convenience food is really that convenient. Can you make it more cheaply from scratch (soups for example)? Will it save you that much time? Most expensive jars of "cook in" sauce can be replaced with a cheap tin of tomatoes and some herbs or spices.
  15. Shop carefully. Make a shopping list. Know what you already have. Plan your meals in advance to make the best use of what is available. If a recipe calls for half a cauliflower, can you do something else with the rest or will it end up in the bin?
  16. Know your prices. Tama has written the best post about price books and bulk buying.
  17. Do a little bit of maths. Is brand A in the big box really cheaper than buying two of the same thing in brand B? Just because something is on special, doesn't necessarily make it cheaper. Cans of tuna are a good example: I often see cans of John West on sale as "four cans for £x" then walk down the aisle to find the own brand is still half the price.
  18. Utilise the "pantry principle". Keep a well stocked pantry and that way you'll always have something you can make a meal from. Shop to replenish your pantry and not just for dinner next week.

- Pam (have I left anything out?)

Saturday 14 February 2009

LBYM tip du jour - recycling candles

As part of its new fascination with frugality, a month ago Channel 4 broadcast a program "The hunt for Britain's tightest person". Naturally, I watched it. And learned precisely one thing new: a trick for recycling candles.

The scenario: you have a pretty scented candle that has burned down more in the middle than on the outside, so that there is a bit of unburnt wax left once the wick has gutted out. Select a suitable container for holding a burning candle (I'm reusing a little metal bucket which previously held a candle). Fix a prepared wick into the bottom of the container using a drop of melted wax (you can buy prepared wicks at Hobby Craft). Cut or break the wax up into lumps and pack it around the wick. Place the container on top of a working radiator; the wax will gently melt and consolidate around the wick and voila! You have a new candle.

Points to note:
  1. If you don't have a suitable radiator, select somewhere that gets really warm. I used the top of the gas fire in our lounge. Just make sure that it is a flat surface.
  2. Wax is highly flammable, so put the candle-in-making somewhere you can keep an eye on it and remove it from the heat-source once the wax has softened sufficiently.
  3. You will probably need something to hold up the wick, to keep it straight and upright. I've tied mine to a skewer. The guy in the documentary secured his between a couple of pegs, but it occurs to me you could slide it into a giant paperclip. You cut it off once set.
  4. Once the candle has set, trim the wick to within half an inch of the top of the wax. Use really sharp scissors - wick is quite tough.

- Pam

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Time challenged

I have the greatest respect for those people who manage to work 50 or 60 hour weeks and still squeeze in a life. Today, I did an 11 hour day. I got to work at 9am and left at 8pm and didn't really take a lunch break. Oh, I ate lunch, but I didn't really stop working. (I normally eat lunch at my desk and use the time to surf the internet - not today.)

Except for when I nursed, I've always worked in time-based businesses, selling knowledge and people's time. Since my job is to do the invoicing, I spend quite a lot of my time staring at time records. Most of my colleagues at Site do 50 hour weeks - I resent doing 40 (we work 2.5 hours more than standard UK hours). And yet.... whenever I'm working on the time billing, an avaricious part of me pipes up with "If you were a contractor and did those hours every week, you could earn £xxx per annum".

As if... For a start, I'm staff (and in today's economy, I'm glad I have a little job security. Most of my colleagues at Site are contractors. When the project finishes later this year, they'll be out of work). But I have my plans in place if I ever do end up as a contractor: Monday is for me, Tuesday for the Taxman, Wednesday for the mortgage, Thursday for the Emergency Fund, Friday for investments. I dreamed that up a long time ago, way back when I worked in Practice and spent my days preparing VAT Returns for a portfolio of computer contractors.

The other factor is time. I don't mind doing 10 hour days - I've done them often enough - but I resent being forced to. In my old job, I'd regularly work to 8pm on a Tuesday, 7pm on a Wednesday and Thursday. I had to. It's what I needed to do to get the work done. However, I could take time back when I needed it. (Long lunch break? No problem.) I didn't resent it, although sometimes I wondered where my evenings had gone.

Here, all I think about is what time I can leave; how soon I can get my life back for the day; how many hours I have left before I've done my 40 for the week; when I can escape. I think it's down to the atmosphere in the office - I don't have the same problem when I'm at Site. In the Site office, it's "us against the world". We're a team and we pull together.

I've given up trying to analyse what it is about this company that I don't like. In my last company, you were there for life. Not here. Old Mr A believed that you were his people and did his best to offer his staff some tokens of his appreciation: contractual Christmas bonuses; a grading structure where everyone on the same grade got the same perks; a subsidised staff restaurant with a full bar; a tuck-shop. (Old Mr A died in 1989. When I joined the company 10 years later, it still operated as he'd left it. Things have changed a bit now, but most of the staff are still lifers.) There is no comparison to this company. This is just a job and most people are only here until they can find somewhere better. Me included.

- Pam

Tuesday 10 February 2009

And the mountains burn

Have you ever been broadsided by something? I was, yesterday, when I heard that Marysville had burned to the ground. I had the TV on the background and the headlines "Bushfires rage in southern Australia", hadn't touched me - as an Aussie you get rather complacent about bushfires - but then they mentioned Marysville and the world changed.

Marysville is a village outside Melbourne, in the Dandenong Ranges. The Dandenongs dominated the horizon when I was a child; I grew up on the far side of the Dandenong Valley, which runs all the way to Port Phillip Bay. So Marysville was relatively close, but it was an awkward place to get to, off the main routes, and I don't recall going there until I was 19 or so. My childhood bestfriend moved there as a teenager; I have no idea if Linda's family are still there. I hope to God they are OK.

Marysville didn't stand a chance. Bushfires travel fast. Gum leaves are highly flammable, as is the bark that peels from from the trees. When the Dandenongs burned in 1983, ash and burning leaves landed on our back veranda over 20 miles away. On the outskirts of Melbourne, they must be watching and waiting and hoping the fires won't travel their way. Smart people have their fire plan in place - you can't assume it won't happen to you. In the summer of 2001/02, the fires travelled as far as Frankston reservoir, maybe a 15 minute walk from Big Sis's old home. I was home at the time; our plan was to head down to the beach and wait for the fires to follow.

Across Australia, people are collecting household goods, clothes, money, anything that will help the bushfire victims rebuild their lives. Towns like Kalgoorlie, 1500-odd miles away. Amy over at Live, Learn, Knit has already mentioned the Australian Red Cross bushfire appeal donations website. The site was overwhelmed when I tried to visit it a moment ago. I'll visit it again, soon.

- Pam

Saturday 7 February 2009

I want snow tyres (or chains)!

We had another snow fall yesterday morning. It was dry and fluffy stuff, when I went out to scrape it off the car. I got as far as clearing the driver's door when I thought "better be prepared" and dashed in doors to get a flask of coffee and my "handbag knitting". (I'll be damned if I'm stuck in the car for hours with nothing to knit.)

Crawled out to the motorway behind a string of other cars. I got half way out to the junction and considered turning back, deciding that if the M4 was bad I'd go down to the next junction and then come home. The 2 miles to the M4 were a combination of slip, slip, crawl, stop, look, slip. This is on a main road. Gritters? I'm not sure our local council has any.

They are predicting another week of this. I haven't got a clue where I'd buy them (and I've never driven with them) but I'm reaching the point where I want chains for the car. I thought about getting them last time England ground to a holt, in 2003. Why, oh, why didn't I????

- Pam

Thursday 5 February 2009

Pah! I'll see your Global Warming and raise you an Ice Age!

Unless you've been living like a hermit for the last week, you may have noticed that Britain has had a little problem with snow. It started snowing on Sunday night - there was a light covering when Steve left at 3.30am following our Superbowl Party. By the time I got up on Monday morning (around 9am), Britain had shut down. It's just as well we'd booked the day off to recover from watching NFL to the wee hours.

There were no trains, no buses, no flights. The roads weren't cleared. One of our guests (the Steelers fan) took 4.5 hours to drive the 90 miles home, a journey that on a bad day takes 2 hours (it's almost all motorway and highway driving). The other guest couldn't get home because there was no public transport.

Tuesday morning, I drove into work without any problems. We sat in the office watching the snow fall and the stuff already on the ground melt, both at the same time. A few miles away, my boss was unable to get to the end of his street, the snow was falling so heavily. Yesterday, the same thing happened. Last night, it snowed again. And, outside London, everything closed down again.

Honestly, it's embarrassing how this country can't cope with a bit of weather. Granted, this was the first heavy snowfall that we'd had since 2003, but they really had no excuse. This weather was predicted last week. The first time I saw a snow plough in action was this morning! Wonder what will happen if it gets seriously cold again?

- Pam

Monday 2 February 2009

Reasons I have stash

Reasons I have Stash:-
  1. Since I can't actually find the yarn stated in 99% of the patterns that I knit, I always buy one or two extra skeins "just in case". Sometimes, this yarn is a Godsend and will be used up before the garment is finished. Sometimes, it is destined to become scarves, hats, gloves or (if there is enough) another garment. Sometimes, it just ends up in stash waiting for inspiration to strike.
  2. I don't really have a local yarn store, not one I can drop in on, hang around in, etc. My nearest LYS are Baron's, an overgrown market stall in Uxbridge caught in the 1970's, and Bunty's, but their range is limited to Rowan and Sirdar. Even to get to Bunty's takes a special effort. My regular yarn buying takes place at the Knit & Stitch Show every October, so when I'm there, I really stock up. I miss the days when I worked down the road from John Lewis' yarn department and could just wander in when my latest project was nearly finished, in order to buy yarn for the next one.
  3. Projects-In-Waiting ("PIW"). In the blind hope that I'll find something suitable in a yarn I can afford, I carry a "want to knit" list in my Filofax complete with yarn quantities, notes about gauge, notions, etc. When I get lucky, the yarn goes into the PIW category in the stash. Sometimes, I'm efficient enough to include a photocopy of the relevant pattern when I pack the yarn away.
  4. Yarn-desperately-seeking-a-project. As a side effect of buying my yarn mainly at shows, sometimes I "buy first, work out what to do with it later" using a rough rule of thumb to determine how much to get. (My rule of thumb is simple: a ball band once told me that to make a medium sized ladies sweater in DK yarn, you need approximately 700g. So, I go with that and try and buy one or two extra skeins if I can find them "just in case"). The yarn may be cheap (try £1 a ball for 100% Scandinavian wool I picked up at the last Knit & Stitch Show), it may be hard to find (100% DK Alpaca is not easy to obtain in the UK), or it may be rare (100% Wensleydale Longwool).
  5. Sock wool. If I can't figure out what else to knit, I can always make another pair of socks - is any other explanation needed?
- Pam (enjoying a "snow day". The roads are closed and we're snowed in.)

Sunday 1 February 2009

Conception 2009


I'm spending most of the week at a games convention, Conception 2009, together with the crowd from the games club DH runs. The Con started yesterday and runs until Sunday. So far, I’ve played two sessions of Cthulhu and I’m booked into five more. Both my characters have survived – no mean feat in this environment.

There is wi-fi here, but at £5/hour or £25 for the week, I’m trying to avoid logging in. I can’t justify the £25 – it would just be a wasteful luxury (either that or one of the other members of our party would attempt to monopolise my laptop and I’m damned if I’m paying out for them to play internet games). I think I’ll just do one £5 session either tomorrow or Saturday.

Bringing the laptop was my idea. As well as its role in character generation for one of the games, it’s acting as an entertainment centre – the backup of my MP3 player is on it and the speakers are reasonable.



Next year when we come to the Con, remember to pack the following:-

  1. - kitchen timer
  2. - tea towels
  3. - oven gloves
  4. - the garlic crusher
  5. - a chopping board – the chalet only comes with one and a second would be handy
  6. - my main dice bag! (Fortunately, I have my travelling dice in my handbag.)



For the first time in the history of RPGs, a knitting needle has been in anger! My character had "knitting needle" as an offensive weapon at 40% skill level. In the heat of battle, with no other weapons left, she drew out a needle and stabbed an attacker through the head for 9 points of damage. Almost, but not quite killing the attacker.

Later, the GM tells me that he designed the character with me in mind.


DH has been using the laptop to generate certificates for games the club is running ("Most heroic death" ... that sort of thing). We've lost count of the number of times someone has asked whether it is a netbook, then "wowwed" over its features. If Acer needed salesmen, we've done a really good job this weekend.



The venue is one of your typical British holiday camps. Not quite “Hi Dee Hi”, but an obvious descendent. Picture a hundred acre, partially wooded site, populated by “chalets” (mobile homes to you Americans), with a communal bar and banqueting suite. Every possible inch of the communal areas is occupied by gamers; even the bar has been overrun by LARPers.

This is my third year and DH’s 6th or 7th. Each year, the chalet we’ve hired has had a different layout but universally they seem to be well designed. Far more thought has gone into their layout than your average British home: the open plan kitchens are bigger, with more food preparation space; each chalet has three or four double bedrooms with built in wardrobes and at least two bathrooms (one en-suite); the L-shaped living rooms can host a dinner party at the dining table without requiring the other furniture to be moved out of the way, and the sitting area is large enough to seat everyone for coffee afterwards. How ironic when you consider how much these buildings are sneered at.



As far as I can tell, I'm the only knitter at the Con. I'm knitting a pair of the Herringbone Rib Socks which featured in the Winter 2008 edition of Interweave Knits. Here is the picture from Interweave:

I'm using Wendy's Happy, a 75% bamboo yarn, in the Scorpio 2505 colourway.

I've had a love-hate relationship with this pattern over the last few weeks. (I started the socks I'm working on about 3 weeks ago.) It is easy to learn but not easy in execution - if you drop a stitch or make a mistake and need to go back and correct it, it's hell on earth. On both socks, I made different mistakes that required tinking back, and the tinking was harder than knitting them up in the first place. This is not a pattern for your knitting autopilot - you constantly have to watch what is happening on your needles. The stitch pattern is fiddly in the extreme. It's also slow. Two years ago, over the course of the Con, I knitted DH a pair of socks in 4-ply sock yarn; last year, in two days, I knitted a pair in Regia 6-Faedig (DK weight, I believe). This year, I've managed one and a half socks, in five days of almost constant knitting.

I hated it for almost all of the first sock. Interweave says, "This versatile unisex pattern may well become one of the go-to sock patterns in your repertoire". If you'd asked me four days ago, my response would have been a sarcastic "Yeah, right. You've got to be kidding!".

And yet..... The results are stunning. The stitch pattern shows up the varigations in the yarn beautifully. And even the fiddliness stops being irritating after a while. Will I knit it again? Yes.

- Pam