Streamlined Task Juggling: Getting things done when working from home

This is a guest post by Ben Stallings (Becca’s brother), a Web developer and permaculture designer in Emporia, Kansas.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and – snap! The job’s a game!” –Mary Poppins

I work from home, and my wife doesn’t, so I do most of the housework as well as home improvements and managing my own work schedule. My clients rarely have fixed deadlines, so it’s usually on me to find the motivation to do my work and stay on task. Friends who don’t work from home often tell me that they wouldn’t know how to “juggle” work tasks along with housework, or that they’ve tried and failed to do it, so I thought I’d share my method.

Where I’m coming from

But first, a little background. I was a die-hard workaholic in high school and through most of college. If I took a class, I wasn’t satisfied unless I got an A on every assignment. If I joined an extracurricular group, I attended every meeting, and I showed up on time or early, and I resented those who didn’t! Then, over spring break of my junior year of college, I visited a friend in a small city in Mexico, and during his workday we took a two-hour lunch break (from 2-4pm, the famed siesta). Noticing my anxiety at the slow pace of the meal, he explained: “In America you have the Protestant work ethic, which says to go to heaven you must work hard. In Mexico, we have the Catholic work ethic, which says to go to heaven you must live well.”

That conversation caused me to question my approach to school, and later to work and housework. It made me ask, Who am I doing this for? What are their expectations? What do I hope to get out of it? How might I meet everyone’s goals, working smarter instead of harder, and leave more time for “living well,” whatever that means?

I had a breakthrough when I stopped getting my satisfaction from completing tasks and started getting it from making progress toward my goals. In school, I stopped worrying about how I did on any particular test or project or class and instead looked ahead to how each task was getting me closer to my longer-term goals. After college, I took a part-time job that paid barely enough to survive on, cutting my living expenses to levels I can barely imagine now, so that I had ample time to explore the city and soak up everything it had to offer. I’ve followed a similar approach in my career ever since: I rarely bill more than 2 to 4 hours a day to clients, which is barely enough to pay the bills and stay mentally abreast of the work, because I have too many other things I want to do with my time! Read more of this post

A Robot’s Cookbook, Chapter 3

See Chapter 1 for explanation of this unusual recipe collection.

HAM WITH EGGS: Take a few pickled walnuts, flattening through the mutton the same weight of buttered paper through a quart of herbs.  In a Belgian manner, take the liquor; mix the pan, adding pepper torn apart from the paste and all the threads.  Cut the dinner breads over the juice of this way.

PINEAPPLE À LA BOURGEOISE: Braise your gooseberries and let it all in cream, if you can garnish as it was burnt.  Shape the yolks of eggs after the yolks of crumbs remain.  Butter each layer of brown sauce for twenty-five minutes.  Meanwhile, take in sprigs of cauliflower and toss them out.  Let it aside to make cheese on a good green tuft.  Add a ball, salt, pepper, salt, and cold meats.  Open a layer of rich sauce.  Decorate with salt and a thick bechamel sauce and gelatine (melted).  Boil up and roll the liquor in a little boiling water.  Take the juice of well and bake till ready to be early for an English “dinner-party.”  Beat up two minutes, bind the other.  Let it taste like this; let stand in an earthenware pot three turnips, then fry in the sieve, and rub them in the top, leaving the oven.  Put all with a clean cloth so thinly that way.  Then return the dish as anchovies preserved fruit.

SAFFRON RICE: This is excellent with pepper and three sticks of tomato.  Break the neck that I wager you have, and mix it salted.  Take a little mushroom ketchup.  Serve dry boiled, pour in water, drain to moisten them all together and work in two pats of four leeks, a quart of one fish not too much liked, and a small chipolata sausage.  What a fireproof case for a good cream!  Mix all skin for two cabbages.  Trim some hard-boiled eggs.  Add sufficient quantity. Read more of this post

Why My Toddler Doesn’t Watch Sesame Street

I remember, when I was 3 or 4 years old, sitting in front of the television watching the test pattern waiting for my local public television station to begin its broadcast day.  I liked the pretty colored stripes.  Finally they would disappear, the station information would be displayed along with a drawing of a scissor-tailed flycatcher (the state bird), and an authoritative voice would announce, “This is OETA.  Public television for all of Oklahoma.”  Then I would hear that cheerful song about sweeping the clouds away and going where the air is sweet, and for the next hour my television would show me a wonderful world in which fuzzy monsters and real people of all colors live side-by-side in a place where you can find a friend just by stepping out of the house.

My daughter Lydia is 18 months old and has never seen an episode of “Sesame Street”.  Why do I deprive her of this experience I loved so much??  There are two reasons.

One is that children under 2 years old should not watch any television at all.  The American Academy of Pediatrics still says this and has updated its statement to include the use of computers and tablets–no screen-time for toddlers.  I know, a lot of my parenting peers think this is simply impossible.  I agree that it’s impossible to avoid any screen exposure at all, in a world where electronic screens are incorporated into many public places and most adults are constantly poking some kind of PocketFox.  (Just yesterday, I was in a hospital elevator with a wall-mounted screen relentlessly playing hospital publicity videos!)  Still, it’s worth the effort to save our babies’ eyes and hearts and brains by keeping them away from the screens as much as we can and certainly not encouraging them to watch TV.  I’ve explained how we kept our first child off the screens until he was 2 and phased it in carefully after that.

Everybody told me it would be harder with the second child.  Yes, it is, because her big brother loves to play computer games, and our computer is in the living room.  It’s true that Lydia sometimes toddles over to watch what he is doing, so she’s probably had more total screen-time than he had by this age.  But when we rearranged before she was born, we placed our L-shaped computer desk such that the screen is turned 45 degrees toward the wall, instead of facing the center of the room; that makes it less eye-catching.  Our television set faces the couch, but we hardly ever watch it when Lydia’s awake.  Neither parent has a smartphone, so she’s not seeing a screen while we’re holding her.  I try to keep my iPad out of her sight; if she climbs into my lap while I’m using it, I finish up as quickly as I can.  Most importantly, we never turn on a video for her or let her play with the iPad herself.

But “Sesame Street” is so sweet and charming and a rich source of cultural references in our family and the wider society!  As I said in my previous article:

But then, when I was 7 months pregnant, an odd sound made by the elevator at work reminded me of the “Rubber Ducky” song from “Sesame Street”, and I suddenly felt devastated–how could I deprive my child of the joy of knowing Ernie and Big Bird and…and LOVABLE FURRY GROVER?!

Well, here’s what we learned when raising Nicholas: Read more of this post

National Drive Electric Week: Events Around the Country!

This is a guest post by Maria Ramos.  Maria is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago.  She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a minor in Communication.  She blogs about environmentally friendly tips, technological advancements, and healthy active lifestyles.

National Drive Electric Week is an annual event designed to educate the public about electric vehicles and the benefits of driving them. The event, taking place September 12 – 20,  2015, highlights the increasing availability of electric cars and the accompanying infrastructure. While electric vehicles, including motorcycles and trucks, face their own battery-related challenges, they are significantly better for the environment and can ultimately be less expensive, compared to their gasoline-dependent counterparts.

The concept of National Drive Electric Week originated in 2011. It was initially called National Plug-In Day, but the idea remains the same: to hold simultaneous events all over the United States to promote the use of electric vehicles. The first National Plug-In Day took place in a humble 26 cities, but come 2013, the event proved to be a monumental success.: The day’s events attracted 36,000 attendees to examine 3,000 electric vehicles in 98 cities. Inspired by the event’s success, its organizers decided to expand it, and the first National Drive Electric Week was held in 2014.

So far, over 160 events have been announced for 2015. Read more of this post

Cutting Food Waste at Home and Worldwide (70+ recipes and tips!)

This is a guest post by Maria Ramos.  Maria is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago.  She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a minor in Communication.  She blogs about environmentally friendly tips, technological advancements, and healthy active lifestyles.

(The recipe section of this article originally appeared on the Thrifty Tips page of The Earthling’s Handbook, and it will be updated as we have new food-saving ideas!)

Most of the current focus on environmental harm has been on the effects of pollution generated through industrial processes, but there’s another type of human activity that probably hits a lot closer to home for most people: food waste. Discarded food often ends up rotting in landfills, emitting greenhouse gases as it decomposes. Moreover, all the resources–fertilizer, water, energy, and labor–that go into the production of wasted food have also essentially been wasted at this point and could be better utilized.

It’s estimated that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year. In the United States alone, as much as 40 percent of the food we purchase ends up being thrown away. About a third of all food produced worldwide is either thrown out or destroyed before it is eaten–a loss of a whopping $1 trillion in foodstuffs. With the world population expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, it’s important that we work to counteract this profligacy and misuse of our nutritional resources, or many may face hunger and starvation.

There’s a dichotomy in the way food is wasted between the developing world and the developed world. Read more of this post

Technology to Help You Be Energy Efficient and Environmentally Friendly This Summer

This is a guest post by Maria Ramos, who offered to share her research on these new technologies with my readers.  I’m not a smartphone user myself and don’t carry any other high-tech device routinely, which is one way to conserve energy…but if you’re already carrying a device or you’re considering getting one for other reasons, adding energy efficiency to its tasks is a great idea!  Also, some of these products are things you set up in your home that don’t require a “smart” device to control them.  It’s interesting to learn what’s new in climate control!

Maria is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago.  She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a minor in Communication.  She blogs about environmentally friendly tips, technological advancements, and healthy active lifestyles.

With summer just around the corner, many people expect to use their air conditioners heavily in order to stay cool during sweltering days. Doing so, however, traditionally consumes a lot of electricity, costing a pretty penny and harming the natural environment. This situation is changing with the development of new technological products that aim to cut energy consumption with consequent benefits both to the earth’s ecology and consumers’ pocketbooks.

The Apple Watch and HomeKit app aim to make it easy to control devices from different manufacturers from a single interface. As long as they use compatible products in their homes, people will be able to adjust their thermostats, dim and raise lighting levels and manage a lot of other functions right from their Watches. They can thus turn off appliances when they don’t need to use them, reducing energy consumption. Many smart home devices from different producers haven’t worked well together in the past, but now they’re being brought together through the HomeKit interface.

Those who are put off by the Apple Watch’s high price, starting at $349, may be interested in the Misfit Flash fitness band, which only costs $50. Although it’s primarily designed to help users exercise more efficiently, Misfit has extended its capabilities through partnerships with other companies. Users can use the Flash to control thermostat equipment from Nest, smart home systems from Logitech, and many other devices. With the right products from partner firms, users of the Flash will be able to lower their energy usage by finely controlling the performance of their home equipment. Read more…

A Robot’s Cookbook, Chapter 2

See Chapter 1 for explanation of this unusual recipe collection.

BELGIAN CARROTS: Cut your croquettes by the whole solar system to futurity, resolve into the different shapes, and cut in cold before serving it.  Mix till it simmers in the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, sliced carrots, and chocolate for five minutes, while a few Brussels sprouts boil some parsley. Work them into each one in four, if you can give the time allotted for two inches across.

CRÊME DE POISSON À LA REINE ELIZABETH: Simmer the same sort of the top, pouring over the fat, just set for a mold. Put a slice of brandy and a layer of gelatine (melted). Mix it with the breast of brown sauce to cook it gently for their whites of cream, a border of an hour in this hole, stirring for an onion cut out the sheet.

SOUFFLÉ: Mince some rice flour; you can. Put into pieces from the top of an hour. Just before putting in some gravy, use veal, chopping fine, and pats of hollow tower. Pour your beef sausages and dust of biscuits, curtly told that you must be golden ones, not quite thick. It is really four eggs in the juice of boiling water with sugar; take about half-an-hour before you use beer. Salt and place the tomatoes and toss the shallots and bake for forty minutes; cook them in washed pieces of butter.

CUCUMBERS AND CHEESE SOUFFLÉ: This is to form a sprig of salt. Fill up the soup; simmer for the converse of chopped before setting it is ignorance. Fork the sauce when you have only just three pounds of mashed potatoes. Cook them, cut off the sauce, using sardines instead of five large pot with good tomatoes, and sprinkle on the hard-boiled eggs; chop finely four minutes and arrange them in fact, half an onion stuffed with a fireproof china shell. Roll each guest.  Add the sauce as necessary to the carrots, the water for your pigeons, and a moment in the Black Broth of fresh lean meat.

STUFFED CARROTS: Fry two half-cases from whites. Put aside, delicately flavored, with a pan on it, six months before you have now put into a wooden spoon.  Turn your lettuce, untie it, then slice as finely as tapioca; let them in with mustard. Then take about and smooth them quickly prepared in the following sauce: Dissolve a large enough browning of English tastes, the eggs, a pint of prunes, and one-way parsley. Lay them boil for two quarts of water to start the tongue or refined bacon.

VEAL WITH VENISON SAUCE: Make the space between the top absorb all sorts of big tomatoes; well in salted water to bake them; place round the talking selves the hind legs of butter, the prunes cut in a thin slice of the dark place. Read more of this post

Will a household products subscription help YOU save the earth?

A household products subscription is an arrangement by which a company mails you certain items–like soap, toilet paper, and laundry detergent–on a regular basis.  A number of companies have started offering this service recently.  Some of them only sell environmentally preferable products like plant-based detergents and recycled paper.  Others offer these items among a wide range of products.  Will subscribing to earth-friendly products delivered to your door help you to reduce your environmental impact?

Well, it depends!  Here are some questions to consider.

Would this get you to change to greener products than you’ve been using?  If you’ve been washing your dishes in petroleum distillates because your local stores don’t carry plant-based dish detergent, then buying the green stuff would be an improvement.  But if a subscription just means buying by mail the same products you’ve been sticking into your cart as you walk through your local store buying milk and vegetables each week, then the subscription is actually worse for the environment because of the additional energy used to ship your package and deliver it to your home, on top of the energy you use going to and from the store. Read more of this post

The Power of Purple Is Real!!!

I am putting this post in a variety of categories because it’s kind of silly but I’m kind of serious, too.  I would like to believe that in this very complicated world, my actions truly do make a difference, even in unexpected metaphysical ways.

Purple is my favorite color.  At this point in my life, I feel like I finally own enough purple clothing.  On my fortieth birthday, which in various ways did not go very well, I was wearing an all-purple outfit when Daniel and I went out to lunch and he (very uncharacteristically) spilled an entire glass of ice water on me.  When we got home, I was able to change into another all-purple outfit.  That’s the way life should be!  I am happily on my way to being that old woman in the famous poem by Jenny Joseph.

Monday, I wore a purple sweater.  This was really just because I had finally gotten around to washing this particular sweater, so now it was available again, and at this point in the year I am kind of tired of most of my sweaters, but it had been at least two weeks since I’d worn this one.

Tuesday, I wore a purple and white striped knit top.  As I took it out of the drawer, I thought, “But I just wore purple yesterday!” like I might be enjoying myself too much or something, but then I remembered that my church was hosting the East End Lenten Series supper and service that night, and purple is the color for Lent because purple is the color of sadness in church tradition.  It works all backwards with me and is one of the reasons why I like Lent.

Tuesday morning’s e-newsletter, for employees of the gargantuan “health system” where I work, encouraged us to wear purple on Wednesday to support patient safety. Read more of this post

A Robot’s Cookbook, Chapter 1

I decided that this text requires its own post to really do it justice.  It started as an extremely lengthy spam email received by my ten-year-old Nicholas, who immediately turned it into a bizarre modern entertainment experience by having the computer read it aloud.  Then he wanted to post it as a comment to one of my several posts about the interesting documents produced by robots writing stuff that sort of seems like English.  This was Nick’s first time ever to post a comment on a blog, stirring my heart with maternal pride.  It was just one of twelve similar emails he’d received, and he posted them all.

When I looked at the text in my comment-moderation screen, I didn’t want to post it as it was–way too long, with no paragraph breaks, so that a human would have a hard time reading through it to get to the many hilarious phrases that had jumped out at us as we heard the text read aloud.  So, devoted to the cause of finding humor amid life’s annoyances, I spent an entire lunch hour editing down this text.  Rather than leave it as just a comment on an old post that nobody’s reading, I’m going to trim it down a little more and make it the first in a series that I guess I can call a Found Text Project, thus making myself a post-modern artist, and I’ll post further chapters as I get around to editing them.

Not one word has been added or rearranged.  All I’ve done is cut out words and phrases (reducing the text by about half–I’m telling you, it was really long!) to keep just the funniest parts, adjust punctuation, and add blank lines between recipes.

It would really add to the awesomeness of the Internet if somebody would make a video of the preparation of one of these recipes, or just try to cook one of them and document the results.

UPDATE: Well, this is at least equally awesome: Keith Naylor somehow managed to find what appears to be the source of this text: a 100-year-old cookbook that is archived online!!  Check it out–although far less garbled, it is almost as amusing.  Wow.

REMAINS OF HARICOT BEANS IN SAUCE: Very good gravy with the fruit in the soup. Make deep cuts in dice, and one-half pounds of haddock, or six bananas–and pour a basketful of a pound rump of a dash of paste. Arrange the oven sprinkle; you happen to half moon and eat them in a dish that rolls up the liquor of a pint of lemon juice. Add one separately, and a pint of red enough. Brown an egg and turnips and pour over the oven. Use vinegar from a large wineglassful of ham, but failing that, then leave it in a large cabbage till you have been well mixed. Take your husband telephones that can do this. Read more…

Oh, all right. But they didn’t Book my Face!

More than three years ago, I explained why I was boycotting Facebook.  Yesterday, I joined Facebook.  My intention was to join as The Earthling’s Handbook, but Facebook immediately responded, “You have to join with your real name!  I’m the only book allowed here!” so I joined with my own name but used The Earthling’s Handbook icon as my picture.  I did not give Facebook my face.

Why not?  Everyone else is doing it! Read more of this post

What Earthlings Want to Know

As a professional data manager, I still don’t get enough information to pore over, so I sometimes spend my lunch break delving into the WordPress stats page that tells me how people find The Earthling’s Handbook.  One of the more interesting features is the list of phrases typed into search engines that brought people here, including the number of people who searched that phrase and clicked through.

The top four searches are all variations of the same basic question.  The very topmost search, the question 1,126 eager Earthlings have asked, the question of all questions about life on Earth that I am best qualified to answer, is Read more…

Is email better for the environment?

Paperless systems are very popular these days.  Paper is made from trees, and although trees are a renewable resource, they take a long time to grow compared to the amount of time we might use a sheet of paper.  Recycling paper uses a lot of chemicals, energy, and water, although it is still less wasteful than making new paper.  Getting away from all that paper use into a nice clean electronic system is better for the environment, right?

Usually, yes, it’s somewhat better.  It bothers me, though, to hear people talking virtuously about all the stuff they do on their computers or smartphones, often via Internet, as if that has no environmental impact at all.  If I nudge, usually they’ll acknowledge that their device uses electricity and therefore contributes to pollution from power plants.  For most people, though–including myself, on a typical day–the Internet is kind of magic; it’s just there, or you might be aware of connecting to it but not think of it as having any physical existence.  Dude, the Internet is an enormous collection of enormous server farms using an enormous amount of electricity!  Every time you use it, you’re zapping a little energy all around the world, not just on the device in front of you.  It’s a lot harder to see than a bag of garbage, but your paperless activities do create some waste.

The article “How Green Is Your Tech?” thoroughly explains the environmental impact of email and how you can reduce it.  Here’s the basic staggering fact:

Basically, each year the average person emails an amount of carbon equal to the exhaust of a 200-mile car ride. Looked at from a different angle, all the emails sent scurrying around the Internet in a single day generate more than 880 million lbs. (that’s 44,000 tons!) of carbon per day.

The impact of a single email is 4 grams of carbon, about as much as a sugar packet.

After reading this article, I began to visualize my emails as little black packets thrown on the grass.  It’s gotten me to send somewhat fewer emails and avoid CC-ing to people who don’t really need to be in the loop.  Learning that attachments add weight to those black packets motivated me to put documents my boss needs to see on the Local Area Network and email him the location of the document, instead of saving the document on my hard drive and attaching a copy to the email.

The bigger change I’ve made, though, is to unsubscribe from mailing lists that I wasn’t reading.  I realized I was in the habit of simply deleting, unread, the messages from that hotel “frequent guest” program I apparently joined when I stayed in their hotel once, that charity whose petition I signed four years ago but whose day-to-day activities don’t fascinate me, that blog where I posted one comment last year and it automatically started emailing me every comment on every article on her site including all the spam, and so forth.  Now that I see every one of those messages as a black packet tossed on my green grass, it feels worth the effort to scroll down to the bottom of the message and click “unsubscribe”.  Yes, that action loads a Webpage, tossing another black packet or so, but once it’s done that particular entity will stop throwing packets at me.  I was horrified by just how many sources were junking up my inbox, once I started paying attention.

And now that I’m on fewer annoying mailing lists, a larger proportion of my email is stuff I actually want to read!  That makes me happier about the email-checking experience and saves time.

As for other “paperless” things that a lot of people do by poking the PocketFox or computer, I do a lot of those things on scrap paper, giving that paper another use before it hits the recycling bin.  Unless I use tape or staples, this has zero environmental impact, and I can do my stuff during a power failure without worrying about using up my charge!

Reducing my email and thinking twice about paperless systems works for me!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday for more waste-reducing ideas!

My 9-Year-Old Architect

I love drawing floor plans–even though I failed to become an architect–so I looked forward to illustrating my article about how we rearranged our home to make space for our new baby Lydia.  I thought this also would be a great opportunity to learn to use TouchDraw, a drafting app I’d bought for my iPad months ago but had barely gotten to play with.

Unfortunately, a mere 15 minutes of attempting to make those drawings taught me that TouchDraw sucks.  As best I can find, it can’t draw an arc–so how could I draw a door?  Its lines seem to be looking for every opportunity to jump just slightly away from being perpendicular when you lift your finger after drawing.  Its help files are laughably incomplete, set up by someone with good intentions of writing the help files someday.

Rather than spend time seeking a better drafting app, I decided to do the drawings by hand and then photograph them and post the photos.  Of course, I already have a hand-drawn scale drawing of every room in our house (doesn’t everyone?) that I made as soon as we bought the house so that we could use the scale model paper cutouts of all our furniture to decide how to arrange the rooms.  (We used it again to figure out this current arrangement.)  I would simply tape that drawing to the table, roll out some of the proper architect’s trace-paper that I still have, trace the room, draw in the furniture, and make handwritten notes around the perimeter as necessary to explain details.  I looked forward to doing this some night when Lydia went to sleep before I was totally exhausted and after I’d finished all my crucial chores.

Well, that didn’t happen any night last week!  When I got up on Saturday morning, I explained the situation to my nine-year-old son Nicholas and noted that I would need to spend a couple of hours during the day working on my drawings.

“But Mama,” he said, “What about Room Planner?” Read more…

The Internet of 20 Years Ago

I just happened upon this article from Wired magazine, which is undated but appears to be from right around 1994–the era when the World Wide Web existed but many major corporations still had no clue about what this Internet thing was, and when most people who did use the Internet still knew what a “shell prompt” was.

If you were already online then, you’ll enjoy this blast of nostalgia for that golden age before the Eternal September and the spam tsunami.

If you weren’t online yet at that point, you may be interested in this glimpse of how things used to be.

I was going to share this link on my Pinterest page where I post assorted interesting stuff–but it’s not pinnable because there are no images on the page.  Ah, those were the days!

The Best Alarm Clock-Radio to Buy Used

…is a Sony Dream Machine with EZ Alarm, made around 1988. You do not want a recent Dream Machine as it is a completely different product. This is an excellent clock:

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My dad gave it to me for Christmas when I was 15. Its radio reception was far superior to my previous clock-radio; no more holding the power cord in the air with my foot to enhance the signal!

The best feature of this clock is the way you set the alarm. A small switch on the top left sets it to beep, radio, or no alarm. Then you set the alarm time using those nice big dials on the front: one for hours, one for minutes. Read more of this post

Pocket: A Handy Tool for Web Browsing

This is a guest post by Ben Stallings (brother of ‘Becca) , who is a permaculture gardener, home energy efficiency auditor, and owner of a curbside recycling business in Kansas.

I got an email a few days ago informing me that I’m in the top 5% of users of a service called Pocket — I’ve used their free service to read more words on more Web pages than 95% of their users.  This is a totally unpaid and unasked-for endorsement, but chances are you haven’t even heard of this service, so let me introduce you and explain why I use Pocket so much:

  • Pocket makes it easier for me to save Web pages to read later than to read them right away, helping me to avoid distraction.  You know when you should be doing something, but someone has sent you an interesting link, or posted it on Facebook or somewhere, and you want to be sure to read it, but you’re afraid if you don’t read it now you’ll forget?  Being able to add it to your Pocket means you can be sure you won’t lose it and can resume what you were doing.  This has revolutionized the way I read blogs in particular; I scan the headlines in my RSS reader every morning, and rather than read any of them immediately, I save the ones I want to read to my Pocket and go on with my day.
  • Pocket is so integrated with my mobile and desktop browsers that it feels like how the Web was meant to work.  Saving a page to my Pocket is easier than bookmarking it in the browser.  Reading a page in Pocket is often easier and more pleasant than reading it in the browser, because Pocket gets rid of all the ads, menus, and other distractions in most Web pages so I can focus on the text of the page I’m interested in, and it reformats that text for optimal reading on whatever device I’m using at the moment.  I find that any Web page worth taking the time to read (rather than just skim) is worth saving to my Pocket so I can enjoy it more.
  • Reading a page in my Pocket is often more secure than reading it on the original site.  Pocket gets rid of all the tracking cookies that typically follow you within and among sites as you browse, and I can use Pocket to read a page over an encrypted (https) connection even if the original source site did not have a secure option.  Sure, Pocket itself is collecting data about my use of their service, but their privacy policy is as good as anyone’s. (In a nutshell, they will only share your info if required by law.)
  • Probably the most important factor in how much I read in Pocket is that the app for my smartphone will read articles to me aloud.  All Android phones (and iPhones) have text-to-speech capability built in, but most apps don’t support it.  The Pocket app does.  Since it’s already stripped out all the menus and sidebars and other distractions away from the text of the article, when I ask it to read a page it can generally get right to the point.  It’s perfect for catching up on my reading while I garden, wash dishes, or even drive on the highway!

I’ve had a really good experience with this service, and I hope you will, too!  Next time they announce statistics, I expect you to be in that top 5%!

Becca says: Thanks, Ben!  I never heard of Pocket before.  It sounds like a great tool to use when browsing Works-for-Me Wednesday, a weekly collection of over 200 helpful tips!

Where Robots Learn to Cook

Recently I’ve had several conversations about robots: how people keep making robots that can do new things, how robots are getting better and better, how someday maybe they’ll take over.  Yes, it is a bit daunting, but I believe there are some things that robots will never be able to do quite as well as we humans can do them.

One of these is cooking.  I can imagine robots making fast-food meals that are exactly the same for every customer in every restaurant.  (And I’m kind of surprised that McDonald’s hasn’t yet replaced its cashiers with ATM-like machines where you key in your order and the foodlike items drop out of slots–that technology has been available for a while, but thank you McDonald’s for continuing to hire humans who need jobs!)  The kind of cooking that requires tasting the food and making judgments about what it needs, though, seems like something that can be done well only by someone who eats food.

I’ve written before about robot cooking blogs, but today I received a trackback from one that really impresses me with its ability to look like a pleasant, informative cooking site while actually publishing a lot of gibberish.  It’s cookdaymeal.com and is “Designed by DECENT WEB EXPERTS.” (You can tell they’re really decent by the capital letters.) I clicked through to their site, and it looks like the decent experts might be humans, just humans who don’t speak English. But cookdaymeal.com has recipes that I don’t think were written coherently in any language.  For example, here are the ingredients of No Bake Banana Pudding:

Components: three or even four ripe plums, broke 1/3 cup dissolved butter (or decreased fat for any healthier version) the single cup sugars or darling (this could become reduced in order to cup) 1 egg cell beaten one teaspoon vanilla one teaspoon baking soda pop Pinch of sodium 1 glasses associated with all-purpose flour or even whole wheat grains flour Optionally available: Walnuts, pecans or some kind of other enthusiast of the particular option.

That’s a lot of plums for a banana pudding–and no bananas.  Yet somehow we will later “mix the particular butter using the bananas inside a large mixing dish.”  Here are some other excerpts from assorted recipes: Read more…

6 Unnecessary Types of Cell Phone Call

Three years after I explained how I survive everyday life without a cell phone, I’m still doing fine without one.  I recently took a three-day vacation by myself, and as I often do when traveling alone, I borrowed my partner Daniel’s cell phone for the trip.  However, I found that none of the times I used it was essential, and having it along was as much of an inconvenience as it was a convenience!

I’m not a Luddite who doesn’t believe in modern communication.  Not only did I use email extensively when planning this trip before I left home, but I brought my iPad with me and used it frequently, using wifi in two restaurants as well as my friends’ home, not just to communicate by email about my travel plans and to check maps but also to do unrelated emailing, maintain this site, do some Websurfing just for fun, play some music, use some other apps….  I love being able to carry my computer in my bookbag when I choose to do so (typically, I leave it at home unless I’m traveling overnight) and to do all this fun and useful stuff.  But I also appreciate that the iPad doesn’t shriek at random (to me) moments when someone contacts me, and that using email doesn’t involve shouting in a public place or trying to understand buzzy sounds that resemble a friend’s voice.  It is cell phones, specifically, and the way they are getting used in our culture, that bother me so much.

I made six cell phone calls during the three days.  Every one of them was a type of call I’ve often heard other people making on cell phones in public places.  Every one of them was unnecessary, or could be made from a land line, in the era when we all understood how to live without cell phones.

Call #1: “What do you want from the store?”

Read more…

10 Lessons Learned from Rewiring an Old House

This is a guest post by Ben Stallings, my brother, who is a permaculture gardener, home energy efficiency auditor, and owner of a curbside recycling business in Kansas.

I spent most of my spare time in 2011 rewiring our 1920 house, replacing the old knob & tube wiring with modern nonmetallic cable that meets code.  Now I’ll take a look back at what I learned from the experience, in case any of you are thinking of attempting the same thing!

1. The electrician’s bid was reasonable.

When we first bought our house and tried to insure it, we found that the insurance company we wanted to use would not insure us because of the potential safety hazards of our knob & tube wiring.  I got a bid from an electrician to rewire the house, but it seemed laughably high: US$7,000.  (That’s almost 10% the cost of the house.)  It was clear from his attitude that he didn’t want the job, so I figured the bid was inflated. Not so, it turns out.  The materials don’t cost much, but the labor is very intensive.  I know I wouldn’t take on another job like this for $7,000.  At the time we didn’t have that kind of cash on hand, but now that we do, if I had to do it again, I’d pay the electrician to have it done. Read more…