Feb 25

Scrivener is on Sale

If you’re an aspiring writer like me, you’ve probably heard of Scrivener. If not, it’s the software tool used by lots of successful indie authors to both write their books, and to format them for e-publishing. If you listen to the Self Publishing Podcast, The Creative Penn Podcast, or the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast, all those guys (and girls) swear by Scrivener.

Credit: Ben Sutherland on flickr

Credit: Ben Sutherland on flickr

The software is cheap to begin with ($45), but once a year they put it on sale for 50% off. If you’re interested,

head over to AppSumo and search for Scrivener, or follow this link (for the Mac version). The PC version is on sale too. The deal it good through next Wednesday, 3/2/16.

Scrivener is something I knew I’d need eventually, so I bought it yesterday, but haven’t installed it yet. I’ll be sure to follow- up here and let you know if it lives up to all the hype.

If you’re not ready to shell out $25 just yet, they apparently have a pretty cool free-trial program. It gives you full functionality for 30 days, and it only counts the days you actually use it.

If you check it out, let me know how it works out for you.

Jan 18

The power of positive Powerball

Like a lot of people, I joined in an office pool for the $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot last week.IMG_7247

Spoiler alert: we won $4.

And like a lot of people, during the days leading up to the drawing, I spent a few idle moments going on a mental spending spree with all my potential winnings. When I was younger, and being car guys, we’d talk about things like, “what are the first 10 cars you’d buy if you won the lottery?”, and what crazy places we’d live and houses we’d buy. Now that I’m older, and theoretically wiser, the fantasy runs down a slightly different path.

No matter how much money I won, I’m just not really going to be partying with supermodels in Monaco. I’ve got an awesome wife and two (often) wonderful kids. And realistically, the kids need to go to school, no matter what’s in my bank account. So if we’re keeping it real, Rich Me is still going to spend a lot of his time kicking it in one spot in the USA.

So, in the cold hard light of post-Powerball reality, I thought back about my fantasies. I noticed I hadn’t spent much time thinking about buying some palatial home. I like the house we’ve got; but it might get some renovations. Would I quit my job? Hell yes. I don’t hate my job, but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t need the money. Would I drive a fancier car? Most likely. But I just don’t see some Jay Leno-esque 50 car garage of exotic cars. That seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Would we go on awesome vacations when the kids were out of school? Heck yes we would, all over the world. But overall, what struck me most was how close this fantasy life was to my real life. It really made me happy to see how attainable this ideal life was.

We can realistically renovate our house already. Maybe the 4-car garage with secret doors and hidden passages is off the table. But a new kitchen and maybe a hot tub are not ridiculous.

Fancy cars? Well, I like the cars we have. If I had a Ferrari, what would be different? The thing that keeps me from driving any faster than I do is the traffic in front of me, and fear of speeding tickets. I’d be driving just about the same with 500 horsepower. And I don’t know what kind of guy can drive a Lamborghini to the store without looking like douchebag, but I don’t think it’s me. No big loss.

Travel? With a little planning and saving, seeing the world is not out of reach for most people. Yeah, we won’t be taking private jets everywhere. But Rick Steves is right: the less you spend on vacation, the more of the actual local culture you experience.

So the one big difference between Rich Me and Real Me is the day job. If you win $40 million, you don’t have to show up at work the next day. But even without a lottery win, it’s possible to reach financial independence, well before age 65. Mr. Money Mustache did it, and I know other people who’ve done it. Live below your means, invest well, work on your side-hustle. Man, I’m pretty amped up to make my life better!

So I didn’t win the lottery, but the money I spent helped motivate me down productive paths. Cool.

 

Dec 14

Going to Zoo Atlanta, for Free!

GorillaOn Sunday we had a family outing to the Zoo in Atlanta. This was our kids’ first visit, and they and their grandparents had a great time. The weather was great, and we were very lucky that lots of the animals were active and visible in their exhibits. The gorillas were moving and clowning around, and the elephants and giraffes decided to stroll over toward us. The recently arrived and allegedly very shy clouded leopard decided to see if he could tightrope-walk around the near-edge of his enclosure, right past us as we were watching. It was a great day.

But the more remarkable aspect, from the benconceivable financial perspective, is that we went for free. Luckily my wife remembered the Zoo Atlanta Library Pass program. So Saturday afternoon we stopped by our local library, I watched a 25 minute-long video about the history of the zoo (which was actually pretty interesting), while the kids looked at books. And in exchange, we got 4 free passes to the Zoo. I think that ended up saving us $82!

So if you’re anywhere near a Georgia library, the Zoo Atlanta Library Pass program is totally worth your time. And you can do it once a year. Enjoy!

Nov 02

We Ate Bugs… and Lived!

Meal Worm Stirfry

Meal Worm Stirfry

Back in September, we took the family to the Insectival at the Athens Botanical Gardens. If your kids like bugs (and ours do), it’s a fun event. There were lots of cool educational displays, crafts and a big butterfly release. This was all fairly standard fun kid stuff.

The thing I didn’t expect to see was a big cooking demonstration from Big Cricket Farms. This is a company that grows insects for use in food, and they were serving up several different example dishes. I’ve heard a few of the arguments that protein from insects is hugely more sustainable than say, eating cows (and you can read more about that on the Big Cricket website). And I know eating insects is fairly common in some other countries. In fact, when I heard Tim Ferriss talking about protein bars made with insects a few months earlier, I tried to get some free samples, but they quickly ran out. So I was a pretty willing and informed customer to try out the Big Cricket offerings.

The rest of my family was not so enthusiastic. My wife and son were not at all interested in trying it out. But I did talk my 3-year-old daughter into giving it a shot. It looked like food, and it smelled like food, but how did it go down?

Guacamole

First, I tried the Grasshopper Guacamole. If no one had told me there were grasshoppers in there, I probably wouldn’t have known. They were just about undetectable, and the overall taste was good. So far, so good.

Fudge

Next up was the fudge. It looked like fudge, but with some little dark inclusions (mealworms? not sure). I liked it fine. The bugs didn’t taste bad, and had a crunchy texture like you might find from crystallized sugar in regular fudge. And since it was fudge, my daughter was ready to give it a go. Unlike me, she was not at all happy about the crunchy parts. She somehow managed to eat the fudge part, but spit out the bug part.

Stir Fry

Last up was the meal worm stir fry. After the fudge, my daughter was not interested in trying this. And judging from the people around us, she was far from alone. As you can see in the picture, the bugs are very visible in this one, and that visual alone was too much for a lot of people. But it was sort of a mind over matter thing. I convinced myself it was going to be ok, and it was. Crunchy, flavorful, not bad at all.

The Verdict

Here it is, a little over a month later, and my daughter and I survived with no ill effects. I’m not exactly seeking out restaurants that serve bugs. But the next time somebody’s trying to pitch insects as alternative protein, I’ll definitely give it another shot.

Oct 12

Make Your Own Slime

DIY slime made from glue and starch

DIY slime made from glue and starch

A while ago, I was watching the kids on a rainy Saturday. There were so many fun things we wanted to do outside, but there we were, stuck indoors. Fortunately, the kids had found videos on how to make slime a few weeks before. This seemed like the perfect time to try some out.

Choosing a Recipe

The most common recipes I saw online involved glue and Borax. Now, I’ve researched a little more since then, and Borax is probably safe. But at the time, knowing only that we used Borax for cleaning laundry, I wasn’t crazy about using it in something that might end up (accidentally or on purpose) in my kid’s mouth.

Apparently I was not a alone, because there are plenty of online slime recipes that specify ‘without Borax.’ So we decided on this one: glue and liquid laundry starch, and (optionally) food coloring.

For the glue, we used Elmer’s Glue-All, the normal school glue you’re used to. It’s non-toxic and cleans up easily with water. The white kind works fine, but since we were at the store anyway, I picked up some of the new clear kind, thinking it might result in some cool translucent-looking slime.

We also picked up liquid laundry starch. Most of the spray starch at the grocery store was aerosol, but we did find one brand in a pump-spray bottle. I don’t know if aerosol would have worked or not, but the pump-spray bottle gives you the option to unscrew the top and pour out as much as you need.

Mixing it up

Before we started, I cut open a few plastic grocery bags to use as a waterproof disposable play-surface. This was probably overkill, as the slime didn’t turn out to be that big of a mess, and it cleaned up pretty easily. Then we mixed some glue and starch in a roughly 1-to-1 ratio (about half a bottle of glue) in a stainless mixing bowl. We added a dash of water (I’m not sure what the water did, and if it was necessary, but it was in the video we watched) and 2 drops of blue food coloring. With a lot more food coloring, you can probably get to an opaque Nickelodeon-style slime. Since our goal was a more Ghostbusters-like translucent spooky slime, the less food coloring, the better. You might be able to mix it up with a spoon, but the point of slime is to feel the sliminess, so get your hands in there and mix with your fingers. In a minute or two, it will begin feeling solid, but still stretchy and malleable.

Ours turned out great on the first try: goopy, gross looking, but not too sticky. It’s easy to try adding a little more glue or a little more starch to see how that changes the feel. We made it into shapes, stretched it, and tried to bounce it. It was good fun for a while, but after 20 minutes we realized there isn’t a whole lot more to do with slime. The good news is it stores great in a ziplock bag. So if the kids want to mess with it later (which they did), we’ve got it already mixed up. If the slime is a little too sticky, a quick spritz of spray starch will fix it.

Overall, it was lots of fun to make, but not really a long-lasting activity. If there was something else fun we should have done with it, let me know in the comments.

Jul 08

Speed Reading: Does it Work, and Do You Want it to?

I had heard of speed reading, just like you have. I’ve seen people making crazy claims about how fast they could get through a book, and I always thought of it as a bit of a parlor trick, like hypnosis. Yes, I believe it exists, but so what? I guess, more exactly, I was suspicious of it, in a too-good-to-be-true sort of way. The people I saw bragging about speed reading seemed a little scammy, and were often trying to push some paid course. My underlying assumption was that I was already reading as fast as I could comprehend the words, and that if I was inputting them any faster, I would not be comprehending them.

Ajax von Kaiserpenguin vis flickr

Ajax von Kaiserpenguin vis flickr

But recently, I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast, and he mentioned that the way he was able to read as many books as he does is by speed reading, and that it was easily and quickly learnable. And better yet, he wasn’t trying to sell anything. He has a bunch of tips, for free, on his website. Then I glanced at huge pile of reading on my desk that I was just never finding time to get through. So, with nothing to lose, I headed over to this post on his Four Hour Workweek site, and got started.

How it Works

Tim’s basic point is that the bottleneck of reading is not your brain comprehending the words, but the eye movements you use to get the words to your brain. Specifically, if you learn to move your eyes more quickly across each line, your brain will keep up. And, if you scan only the ‘inner’ words of each line, your peripheral vision will still pick up the words on the ends of the lines.

Does it Work?

I followed his instructions very closely. I started by figuring out my baseline reading speed, and then did his 20 minutes of exercises, and measured my speed after that. I did add 2 new wrinkles of my own, just out of curiosity. I tried with both a non-fiction book I am reading for work (The Toyota Way), and a fiction book I was reading for pleasure, to see if there was a difference. I also checked my speed again a week later to see if the results ‘stuck.’ Here’s what I found:

BASELINE SPEED:

Non-Fiction: 216 wpm

Fiction: 192 wpm

AFTER TRAINING:

Non-fiction: 300 wpm (a 39% increase)

Fiction: 288 wpm (a 50% increase)

ONE WEEK LATER:

Non-Fiction: 373 wpm (72% increase over baseline)

Fiction: 262 wpm (36% increase over baseline)

It seriously took less than 30 minutes to learn. And, I didn’t have a good way to objectively test this, but I didn’t seem to lose any comprehension. When I went back to count the words I had read, I didn’t see anything I had missed understanding during my speed reading. It is worth noting that Tim’s claims in his article, and his video, that you’ll read 300% faster. I didn’t see anything like that level of results. But I saw a solid, noticeable increase. Maybe if I did the exercises a few more times, I’d see a bigger increase. At this point I don’t know.

Is it Worth it?

So yes, speed reading is for real. In round numbers, I can read 50% faster than before, if I choose to. The downside is, doing it feels like work to me. So, for things that I am reading for pleasure, I don’t consciously do it, because that misses the point of leisure reading. I stop and smell the roses, going only slightly faster than my old, slow pace. I go back and re-read phrases to see how the author played with the words. I dilly-dally. But, for things I need to plow through, like work-related books and trade journals, I now use Tim’s techniques, and it saves me some time. If you’re interested, give it a try yourself and let me know if you get the same (or better) results.

Jun 02

How to get Siri to read you a story

Or: How to turn your ebooks into (mediocre) audiobooks

A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast Episode #15 interview with self-published

Credit: Ben Sutherland on flickr

Credit: Ben Sutherland on flickr

author Kevin Leigh. Leigh talked about trying to find time to write while constrained with both a day job and a long commute, which certainly hit home for me. One trick he mentioned was a way to get his phone to read what he had written aloud, so he could spend his commute time checking his writing for errors. This seemed like a pretty cool trick, but the app he used (Voice Dream) cost $9.99. So obviously, not being made of money, I googled around to find a more cost effective solution. What I found is a free trick to get Siri to read text documents. There is an awesome detailed write up on reddit here, but I’ll give you the short version:

1. Go into Settings:General:Accessibility. At the bottom, set Accessability Shortcut to VoiceOver. Now when you triple-click the home button, Siri will go into read-aloud mode.

2. Next, open the ebook (or any other text document) you want to hear. Triple-click the home button, and Siri will say “VoiceOver on.” Now, with 2 fingers, swipe downward on the page and Siri will begin reading, and will continue on to following pages until you triple tap the home button again. A single tap on the screen will pause the reading.

That’s about it. This works for ebooks, and any other long text document you want to hear. There are some more detailed instructions in the linked article to fine tune the process if you find you like it. For example, you might want to slow Siri’s voice down. Or you might want to lock the screen in portrait mode, because the reading will stop if the screen switches orientations.

But you may not like it at all, which is the reason for the “mediocre” in the tagline above. I love me some Siri for directions and dictating texts. But you’ll quickly realize how wide the gulf is between automated text recognition and an actual professional audiobook narrator. The downsides, which can be annoying:

1. Siri is not an actor. Obviously, all the characters are going to sound the same, and be devoid of emotion.

2. Siri does not acknowledge pauses, or chapter breaks, or endings. She just plows right through without even taking a breath.

3. Siri doesn’t do heteronyms. This was the most surprising to me. I just never gave much thought to how many words in English are spelled alike, but are pronounced differently, based on context. ‘Live’ (as in ‘Live from New York’ vs. ‘live free or die’), and ‘wind’ (‘the wind in your sails’ vs. ‘how did we wind up here?) are two that Siri is pretty much guaranteed to get wrong every time.

Overall, VoiceOver is a pretty cool trick, with some notable drawbacks. For me, if it is something I already have as an ebook (free or cheap), or something I’ve written, I’m willing to put up with Siri’s little idiosyncrasies. If it is a long book that I’m really looking forward to, I think I’ll spring for the (sometimes pricey) audiobook. Narrators need to get paid too!

Give it a try and let me know if you agree.

May 01

Fun with Dry Ice

  Or: How to Entertain Little Kids for Hours for $5

A few weeks ago, I was grocery shopping with the kids. As we wheeled out of the frozen foods section, I noticed a big cooler full of dry ice for sale. I had seen it before, and thought it might be fun to do some experiments with the kids. But it was never the right time, and I thought I should probably research fun experiments before I bought any. Well, today I was taking care of the kids all day. And it was a beautiful day. Then I noticed the price. It was about $5 for a pound of dry ice. For $5, who cares if we haven’t done any preparation? It’s $5! We can’t afford not to try it!

It turns out it takes about 2 minutes of internet surfing to come up with plenty of fun stuff to do with dry ice. Here are the things we liked the best, and some things that were not that awesome.

Things that were awesome:

Put it in a pan of water

Dry Ice in panThis is the most basic fun thing to do, and a lot of other cool experiments start with this basic one. Find an old pan, put a half-inch of water in it, and drop in a chunk of dry ice. Smoke everywhere! I used a metal pan, because I was concerned a glass pan might crack. I also put it on top of some cardboard, to insulate it from our glass tabletop. If you just leave a chunk of dry ice in the air, it will slowly sublimate, causing a small ‘smoke’ effect. The water speeds up the process by transferring heat faster, so it sublimates faster, making the smoke more dramatic. The water around the dry ice will eventually freeze, which slows down the process. You can knock the water ice off to get things going again. Which brings us to a word on safety. When I say ‘drop in a chunk’, keep in mind this stuff is seriously cold. It will stick to your hands and ‘burn’ your skin if you leave it on long enough. It won’t kill you to touch it, but we mostly used gloves or tongs to handle it.

Submerge it in a tub of water

Smoky bubblesOnce you’ve watched the basic pan of water for a while, try adding enough water to cover the dry ice (or, throw some in a fountain, like we did). The dry ice is still sublimating, but now the ‘smoke’ forms bubbles under water, which come up to the surface and pop.

Add some bubble soap

If you’ve already got the dry ice submerged and making bubbles, add some soap. If things work just right, you’ll get smoke-filled bubbles that will leave the surface of the water, and then float off through the air.

Touch it with metal

If you press a piece of metal (spoons, screwdrivers and pennies all work well) against the dry ice, you’ll hear a high pitched screeching. Apparently, the gas forming around the metal pushes the metal away. Then the escaping gas pulls the metal back. This happen over and over and quickly enough to make a horrible noise. Kids love it.

Put in in apple juice

Dry Ice Apple JuiceThis is a great break when the kids are finally growing weary of the water pan experiments. “Let’s have some juice. Oh, look I put a little chunk of dry ice in your juice glass!” Now we’ve got bubbling juice, with spooky looking smoke on top. Don’t let them drink it until the dry ice is gone, but when it is, you now have carbonated juice. This was a huge hit.

Things that were not that cool:

Put some in a balloon

The idea here is you put dry ice in a balloon, tie it, and the dry ice inflates the balloon. First, it is very hard to get the dry ice into the balloon. It needs to be a small piece to begin with, and then it wants to stick to the rubber as you’re trying to push it in. I eventually got the balloon tied off, and it did partially inflate, but it was pretty unimpressive.

Put some in a Ziploc bag

This is the same idea as the balloon, but since the bag can’t stretch like the balloon, it should eventually explode with a loud kaboom. Since I had little children wandering around, I was very conservative with how much dry ice I used. It slowly inflated the bag. The bag then quietly ruptured. No kaboom. If I had put a bigger chunk in, along with some hot water, it probably would have worked as intended. Maybe next time.

The Takeaway

Overall, the kids (and dad) loved it. It turns out a pound was way more than we needed to have fun for hours. A half-pound probably would have been plenty. Also, it will last all day in a regular cooler, so you don’t have to stress about getting things prepared quickly. Was it worth $5? Absolutely. We may buy some more at Halloween for spooky witch cauldron effects.

Are there any awesome tricks I should’ve done, but didn’t? Let me know in the comments, because I’ll probably do this again someday.

Apr 20

DIY Backlash and Internet Naysayers

The internet is the greatest tool for sharing information in the history of humanity. I particularly love it for finding out how to do new things, or how to do old things better. I’ve done a huge amount of work on my cars that I never would have accomplished without electronic help. And in that spirit, I try to give back. When I learn something new, or see someone who needs help, I’ll post it on a forum, or sometimes even write a how-to article. But with the rise of information sharing came the rise of the hater, which is what got me writing today.

Credit: Leimenide on flickr

Credit: Leimenide on flickr

A few months ago, I posted an article on how to do a simple fix for my microwave. It was easy, it saved me literally hundreds of dollars, and I thought it would probably help out other people. Knowing that we’re talking about working around electricity, I threw in a broad caution statement:

“A word of warning: if you are not experienced taking apart electronics, don’t get in over your head. Use common sense, make sure to unplug everything, be careful, and take pictures to remember how things go back together.”

But that didn’t stop someone from chiming in to tell everyone that the sky was falling and that it was probably my fault. The comment was well-written, and unfailingly polite, but I felt like it went too far:

“Please permit me to preface what I’m about to say that I’m a trained appliance tech. Microwave ovens, along with televisions and computer monitors, are very dangerous devices for an unskilled person to work on and one tiny slip could send you to the hospital ER or worse. Microwave ovens have a high voltage power supply that produces, on average 2,000 volts which is rectified (changed from AC to DC) which powers the magnetron tube, which generates the microwave radiation that cooks your food. The danger comes from the fact that microwave ovens contain an oil filled high voltage capacitor (the oval shaped can located right below the fuse in your picture) that can hold a charge for days, even weeks, after the oven has been unplugged. That voltage and amperage is enough to stop your heart. Modern ovens contain a bleeder resistor built in the capacitor that neutralizes the charge on the capacitor’s plate when the unit is shut off, but those resistor can fail and for that reason the capacitor must be properly discharged before the oven is safe to work on. Unless one is trained to work on high voltage circuitry one should ask him or herself is the money I save by doing it myself worth my life?

Your article is well written but the lack of adequate precautions about the potential for electrocution could get a beginner seriously hurt. Just removing the oven’s shell will be getting them in over their head.”

My first reaction was to get defensive and argue. But I resisted that urge and decided to sleep on it before I replied. As I said, the comment was not-trollish or baiting, but I did have a question about his motives. This commenter says he is a trained appliance technician, and is criticizing an article that tells people how to fix their microwave without his help. Obviously there is potential financial motivation for him.

But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is genuinely just concerned about people getting hurt. This is the part the irked me the most about his comment. The underlying thought process is that since some idiot may get hurt doing something stupid, we must assume everyone is that stupid, and try to protect them from themselves. The world is full of smart, capable people. To dumb down the internet just to protect the least capable people hurts everyone. It reminds me of the short story Harrison Bergeron; did we learn nothing from that? Or are we not allowed to read that in school anymore? This is the reason that car and appliance manuals no longer have any useful repair information in them, for fear that someone will get hurt and sue the manufacturer. Which is what sends us looking on the internet for actual help on how to do fix things.

I feel like I may be getting overly worked up about one small comment, but there really is a bigger issue at stake. I don’t WANT people to hurt themselves. But more importantly, I don’t want the entire planet to be deprived of information for the fear that one person may misuse it.

Am I way off base here?

Mar 06

My Planet Express luggage tag

Or: Making a luggage tag that actually stands out from the crowd

I’ve done a quite a bit of travelling for business, but for a long time I managed to avoid buying specific luggage to do it. My grandparents gave me a set of LL Bean soft-sided luggage in the 80’s, and it has been well used and well loved. More recently, I’ve been borrowing my wife’s rolling suitcases for business trips, but those bags are almost as old as mine, and are starting to show it.

In the days when I was flying into Mexico to help get a packaging line running, nobody cared if I was carrying a duffle bag. But now that I’m just as likely to be a guy in a suit travelling with a bunch of other guys in suits, it makes some sense to carry what they carry. Finally, I broke down and got the rolling carry-on sized hard suitcase that pretty much every business traveler (and pilot) uses. It’s worked great so far. The downside is, I now have a suitcase that looks exactly like everyone else’s. Obviously, I needed some kind of unique identifier so I could spot my bag among its millions of relatives. And I’m not saying the pink ribbon on my wife’s bag didn’t work, but frankly, I saw a lot of those too.

Planet Express luggage tag

Planet Express luggage tag

If you go to shutterfly, they will make you a nifty metal luggage tag with a photo on one side and your information on the other, for about $5. Their templates are all set up for you to use personal photos or photos of your favorite places. But in practice, you can use a picture of just about anything. So I decided to veer off the script and go a little bit geekier. I googled around and found the Planet Express logo from Futurama, and then I added one of their slogans to it. It took quite a bit of tweaking to get everything to fit right in the shutterfly preview tool, but the finished product came out looking good and feeling sturdy.

What I like about this is that it looks enough like an actual corporate logo that most people will never give it a second glance. But those who do pay attention to it, whether they know the show or not, will probably get a kick out of it. Oh, I also love that it does its job: I’ve never seen another luggage tag like it.

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