The Daily Plate

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The Daily Plate at Livestrong.com does for dieting what Quicken did for my checking account. I have been using it to log my food and exercise for the last three or four months. Basically, you type in what you eat, and it searches for a match, gives you the calories and nutrients and adds it to your daily and weekly totals. The best part is the quick lookup. As soon as you type part of the name, i.e., “broc” it will go and find “Broccoli” in a number of different serving portions and preparations (raw, steamed, sauteed, etc.). You can also log your water consumption. By setting various weight loss goals the site will adapt and track your weight loss over time.

Besides keeping track of your food, it also tracks your exercise. Everything from jogging to moving boxes. It automatically subtracts the calories you burn from the calories you eat, increasing the amount of calories you can eat to reach your goal.

I’m a really terrible dieter and have only lost 2 or 3 pounds a month so far. However, this does add up over time. Given that I’ve failed at all my other diets but this one, I can genuinely say that Livestrong is changing the way I live, the way I eat, the way I exercise, and the way I look by giving me a painless way of logging my exercise and food intake.

-- Amy Thomson  



Potato Garden

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Ever since I encountered fingerling potatoes in European restaurants I wanted to grow some of my own. I find these small fat-finger-shaped tubers have a nuttier, richer taste than regular potatoes. Potato Garden in Colorado is a mail order source that sells a dozen varieties of fingerlings and it’s been fun trying various breeds. Potato Garden also introduced me to scores of strains in “main” potatoes. And they offer an exotic variety of live starters for other root crops, such as garlic, onions, and sun chokes. Their catalog provides enough basic info about growing and storing roots that it serves as a one-stop short course. For spring delivery you need to order early.

-- KK  

Potato Garden Catalog
Free

Available from Potato Garden

Sample Excerpts:

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Sun Chokes: Native of North America, a type of sunflower whose tuberous roots have been eaten for millennia by Native Americans. The first recorded discovery of sunchokes in America apparently occurred in Native American gardens along the eastern coastline in the early 1600′s. The Indians called them “sun roots”. Sunchokes are delicious eaten raw as they have a crisp, juicy texture like water chestnuts. We like to slice or grate them for a zesty addition to any fruit or vegetable salad. We have found that steaming or boiling is the best way to cook them, with a little butter and Real Salt.

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TeleKast

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In a former life I directed and produced television commercials. I quit and then edited news for a while as I tried to figure out how to get the media monkey off my back. Now I teach guitar for a living and while I’m much happier, I still have the urge to produce consumable media once in a while. I also have a great fondness for open source software.

One of the things that helps me satisfy both itches is a program called TeleKast. It’s an open-source teleprompter software. For those of you not familiar with teleprompters, they’re devices used to make TV hosts, newscasters and politicians seem as though they’re looking right at you as they speak, when in reality they’re reading from scripts rolling up on screens, right underneath the camera’s lens.

TeleKast lets me do the same job at a fraction (as in 0%) of the cost of a professional teleprompter package. TeleKast provides a Script Editor window to type in my script. Another window called Segments allows me to organize my script into scenes. While I’m working on a script, I can see it in the upper-right hand Segment Preview window. I can also add cues for camera, audio, video, talent and one for other.

When I’m ready to roll, there’s a pop-up window that scrolls up my text to read while I record my on-camera or voice-over work. I can adjust the text size and scroll speed and the text background and cue colors. I can start and stop scrolling with the space bar. It’s simple, flexible, powerful.

It pretty much keeps me from sounding stupid when I have to do a read of some sort. While reading my lines on my monitor, I can look directly at my webcam and appear to not in fact be reading my lines, just as the transparent screen of a teleprompter allows speakers to look at an audience and appear as though they’re not in fact reading from notes — even though they are. It’s very useful for webcasts. It looks like the software has been in an alpha state for a while, but I’ve been using it for more than a year and like it very much. Works with Windows 95/98/NT/2000/XP/Vista and Linux.

-- Jeff Bragg  

TeleKast
Free and open source

Available from SourceForge

Here's Jeff's illustration of TeleKast in action.



Google Apps Mail

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I don’t mean your personal Gmail account, or an iPhone app for Gmail.

I mean using Google Apps as an invisible email provider for your small business or even large business. For instance, when you send mail to me at kk@kk.org, that mail is processed by Google Apps Mail. Same for mail to anyone else here at kk.org, or Quantified Self, etc. Behind the scenes of my own domain names Google does the mail.

You can think of this as a custom Gmail account. It gives you several advantages.

* Google does a fantastic job of filtering spam. It gets 95%, with no false positives. (I then apply a second Baysian filter with SpamSieve, to give me almost zero spam and zero false spam. For me there is no spam problem. Gone!)

* While I normally read my mail on my “desktop” client, I can access my mail on the road from any computer in the world (with the usual precautions) by logging onto Google Apps (not the Gmail url).

* I have an indefinite backup of my mail on Google’s servers, worry free. I’ve used this backup more than once.

* Yet I still retain my own domain named email without it being a generic Gmail account. You can run yourbigcompany.com through Google Mail Apps.

* I don’t have to run a mail server or keep software and security updated.

* Once I set it up (five minutes) this setup applies to everyone in my office/organization who also gets his/her mail at these domains.

* It’s free.

Before Google starting offering this free “custom Gmail app” as part of their App suite including Google Docs and Google Calendar (which are also fantastic cool tools), I gained some of these similar results by forwarding all my mail through my free ordinary Gmail account and then back to me at my own servers. That hack worked, but this new custom mail app is much easier to setup, maintain and use. I first became aware of it when my wife’s work (Genentech) moved their entire 10,000 employees’ mail to a custom Google Apps system. Now you can too. It is part of the migration onto the “cloud,” especially for small businesses.

Google Apps Standard edition is free. Larger institutions and corporations switching their email over to Google Apps may want the paid Premium Edition ($50 per user per year) with more perks, features, storage and support.

-- KK  

Google Apps Mail, Standard Edition
Free

Available from Google



AutoHotKey

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AutoHotKey allows me to automate nearly any task on my PC (it’s Windows-specific). With AotoHotKey I can create shortcuts for almost any action by presetting keystrokes and specifically located mouse clicks. I can also automate a series of actions. I’ve never seen anything that reduces monotonous computer tasks or works across different programs this well.

Since I adopted AutoHotKey about two years ago, anything that I do in a consistent way on my computer is automated. An example of a frequent set of inputs and commands I’ve automated through AutoHotKey: Often when I’m on IM, a friend will use a word I don’t know. In the past I used to copy the word, go to my browser, paste the word in Google, hit return and search. With AHK, I simply highlight the word, regardless of the software I’m using when I encounter it, and hit Ctrl+Win+G.

I also use AHK to expand abbreviations as I type them. For example, typing “btw” can automatically produce “by the way.” The program’s functionality goes much further than these examples. It’s a great way to harness the power of your computer without being restricted by software.

– Dominic Duncombe

While there are a number of other “always on” help programs for loading apps, mouse gestures, shortcuts, etc., I’ve ended up uninstalling them all for performance reasons. AutoHotKey, on the other hand, is very lightweight. It uses only a few MB of RAM and has never caused any CPU load or affected any other programs for me.

The app itself works flawlessly. I created some simple scripts to aid repetitive text entry and to load frequently used files. These two items have replaced a mess of shortcuts and text files on my desktop.

The sample scripts are where it starts to get really cool. There is one that allows you to middle click and select from a list of frequently used folders. Another lets you find and delete empty folders automatically. One lets you automatically delete files older than a certain date, which is great for log files.

-- Mark Groner  

AutoHotKey
Free



Recipe Aggregators

As much as I like cooking from any of the several cookbooks in my library, I often look for new recipes online. It’s not an easy task. I’m amazed at the number of ad-riddled pages I find by Googling the name of a dish. I do have an online subscription to Cook’s Illustrated (previously reviewed), and there are a handful of other individual free sites I turn to for recipes and technique info. However, as a research librarian, I’m always keen to execute a search in a manner that maximizes the number of relevant results by querying a specific set of targeted resources. For scientific queries, I use freely accessible databases such as Public Library of Science or PubMed, or I use one of my library accounts to access subscription-based databases such as Wiley InterScience or Elsevier’s Science Direct. When I put my home-cook hat on, I approach recipe-finding with a similar set of expectations. Though there’s no shortage of recipe information online, there’s not really an equivalent set of databases for cookery. Here’s a round-up of the best recipe aggregation resources I’ve found.

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Epicurious is my go-to recipe site; I’ve used it for four years. One of the aspects I like most about it is the user comments. Because the site is older, most recipes have at least a handful of comments, and I’ve found that most users leave really helpful feedback (usually suggestions for how to scale or tweak recipes). However, it’s also very easy to ignore user comments if you just want to stick to the original recipe. I usually cook from printed versions of the recipes (rather than bringing my laptop in the kitchen), and Epicurious offers several options for the size of the printed page, whether or not images are included, and even the option to print a separate shopping list.

Most recipes come from Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines (the site is owned by Conde Nast). Some come from cookbooks published by Random House, with whom Epicurious has some kind of republication agreement, it seems. Some have also been reprinted from other cookbooks, with permission. In addition to the 25,000 recipes from these professional resources, they also boast 50,000 member-submitted recipes. Epicurious is the online food site to beat.

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Cookstr publishes recipes by professional chefs, including Mario Batali, Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters, Jacques Pepin, Michael Recchiuti, Mark Bittman, and on and on. In addition to recipes, the site also provides informative profiles for each chef. Features are fairly minimal, with a video section still under development, but I do like the simplicity of the site. Site registration allows you to save and comment on recipes. Although Cookstr only has a few recipes from each chef, it’s the closest thing to a massively cross-cook[book] database I’ve found. I hope it grows.

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I learned about Food52 when the New York Times ran a round-up of new, crowd-sourced food sites. The hook of this site, founded by two food writers, is that every week there’s a theme-based competition; after a year of these contests, the winning recipes will be collected in a book. Any registered user can compete in the competitions, the founders select finalists and post slideshows of them testing the recipes, and then users vote for a winner. The focus of the site is the contests, and all recipes submitted for the contests are accessible, but registered users can upload any type of recipe. Although there is a pretty sizable diversity of recipes on the site, I most often use it when I’m looking for inspiration to try something new, not when I have a few keystone ingredients I’m trying to hang together.

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Serious Eats is another curated food community with some social features, including a set of forums, and original video content in addition to a large collection of recipes. Recipes come largely from featured cookbook writers and chefs, but also the wider community base (in the forums). It’s more inclusive than Food52, because of its forums, and it’s more polyphonous because its cast of contributors is quite long and revolving. However, it’s less inclusive in the sense that the Recipes section of the site is limited to those curated by contributors (mostly recipes from featured books and chefs).

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Foodbuzz is a network of foodbloggers (more than 10,000). They offer a set of services for “featured publishers,” including ad management and other perks, as well as several social networking-type features for individual users. Foodbuzz is one of the few sites I’ve found that actually aggregates recipes from across the web. You can submit links to recipes to be indexed, and you can also submit recipes for direct publication at the site. It displays some characteristics of a curated site in as much as it highlights recipes from members of its featured publishers network, but overall it’s quite open since anyone can submit a recipe or recipe link.

Epicurious, Cookstr, Food52, SeriousEats, and Foodbuzz are my favorite recipe aggregators. To reduce my search load even further, I’ve created a custom Google search engine that queries these sites in addition to a few of my favorite individual sources.

-- Camille Cloutier  



Caretaker Gazette

I’ve used the Caretaker Gazette to live rent-free for the past three years. A friend told me about this publication, which has been around since 1983, and I’ve used it to find positions living as a caretaker in California and Idaho. In exchange for my accommodations, my duties have included keeping trespassers off the property, taking messages, mowing the lawn, cleaning the pool and generally watching over the home when the owners are away.

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My subscription includes PDF listings online, weekday e-mail updates and a print version (same as the online PDF) mailed out once every two months.

-- Jane Smith  

The Caretaker Gazette
$30/year online subscription
$44/year online and postal subscription

Available from CareTaker.org

Sample Excerpts:

ALASKA
CARETAKER NEEDED late September to May on a self-sufficient comfortable Aleutian homestead. Free housing and stipend. Orcas, eiders, sea otters, caribou, hydroelectric power, Internet, loom, hot tub. Writers and naturalists have prospered here. Please call (907) XXX-XXXX.

*

HAWAII
CARETAKER(S) NEEDED. Responsible, competent single man or couple, with one child OK, with strong body and alternative minded. Must be enthusiastic about rustic jungle life, experience with off-grid living and solar equipment. No tobacco or alcohol users please. Maintenance of 2-acre homestead in a beautiful coastal jungle area in an eclectic, but rootsy, neighborhood on the Big Island. Care for orchards, garden, and cats. Small but comfortable cabin provided. Please send a letter explaining why you are interested in this opportunity, to: XXX XXXXXX, XX-XXXX Napoopoo Rd, Captain Cook, HI 96704.

*

BELIZE, CENTRAL AMERICA
HOUSESITTER WANTED during owner’s absence. You can explore the jungle, fish, snorkel in the coral reef, or take some canoe trips. I need a housesitter for the month of June. Have your own bedroom, living room and bath on 3rd floor overlooking the Caribbean. Pay for telephone, electricity, and your own food. Please write to X. XXXXX, XXXX SW 138th Avenue, Miami, FL 33186 or call (305) XXX-XXXX.

*

CALIFORNIA
HOUSE GUEST(S) wanted to occupy a mountain cottage(s). Full time. Located in the foothills, one hour from Sacramento. Bottom of canyon. Four miles from freeway. You can fish off the porch. Keep all gold found in the river. Must love outdoors, remoteness. Pets permitted. References required. No job. No addictions. Please leave a message, including your name and phone number at (916) XXX-XXXX.




Free

Free is tricky. Free is great for consumers but difficult for business and creators. It is becoming a serious economic force (thanks to digital technologies and automation) but no one is really sure how to use free to, well, make money. Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired, offers the best utilitarian knowledge about the economics of the free I’ve seen yet. I believe this book will clear up many misunderstandings about this “radical price” and assist creators (that’s us these days) in pricing our offerings in a world of “freeconomics.”

The hardcover book costs $27, but of course if Anderson is serious about what he is saying the book should be free somehow. And it is, in many versions. You can get free versions on the Kindle, you can get a free unabridged audio version on iTunes or Audible (but note the shorter abridged edition is not free. Time is money!). There are free ebooks on Google, and on Scribd. You can get a free paperback version in the UK. Some of these offers are time limited (that is called a “freemium”, free first pay later), others are indefinite. New free versions will be announced on the author’s blog at The Long Tail.

You need to take the free seriously. Pay attention to this book, and to Anderson’s experiments in practicing what it preaches.

-- KK  

Free: The Future of a Radical Price
Chris Anderson
2009, 288 pages
$27

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:
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In Denmark, a gym offers a membership program where you pay nothing as long as you show up at least once a week. But miss a week and you have to pay full price for the month. The psychology is brilliant. When you go every week, you feel great about yourself and the gym. But eventually you’ll get busy and miss a week. You’ll pay, but you’ll blame yourself alone. Unlike the usual situation where you pay for a gym you’re not going to, your instinct is not to cancel your membership; instead it’s to redouble your commitment.

*

Commodity information (everybody gets the same version) wants to be free. Customized information (you get something unique and meaningful to you) wants to be expensive.

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As Lee puts it, “This large audience acts as a powerful motivator for continued contribution to the site. People like to contribute to an encyclopedia with a large readership; indeed, the enormous number of ‘free riders’–aka users–is one of the most appealing things about being a Wikipedia editor.”

*

Piracy accounts for an estimated 95 percent of music consumption in China, which has forced record companies to completely rethink what business they’re in. Since they can’t make money from selling music on plastic disks, they package it in other ways. They ask artists to record singles for radio play instead of albums for consumers. They serve as a personal talent agency for the singers, getting a cut of their fees for making commercials and radio spots. And even concerts are paid for by advertisers brokered by the labels, which pack as many of their artists on stage as they can to maximize the revenues from sponsors. The main problem is that the singers complain that the endless touring, which provides their only income, is tough on their vocal cords.




Mint

This web-based dashboard gives me an elegant overview of all my financial accounts in one screen. I’ve been using Mint for the past 6 months and it is marvelous. It is super friendly, quick, and illuminating. It makes me smart.

Mint will aggregate any money or spending account with online access — which is basically all financial accounts by now. In ten minutes or less I added our bank, credit cards, mortgage, cars, 401k, credit union, checking, and Etrade accounts to Mint. That’s the last input I ever had to do. From then on Mint automatically updates all the accounts, sucking in their data with the correct passwords, and integrates this diverse information into a single unified realtime snapshot of our finances. At once glance I can see where we are spending too much, or how we actually allot our income. I no longer have to hunt for my password and numbers for different accounts, say checking our bank balance, or a credit card purchase. It is much much easier, and far more pleasant, to simply log into Mint, where I can see everything. There, in clear presentation far superior to most banks, are all my accounts informing each other. One window to watch them all!

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Mint is a read-only interface. There is no way to move money, or reconcile accounts, or pay bills, or calculate taxes (for now). That is also why it is safe. In fact it is probably safer than most banks because fancy algorithms at Mint similar to credit card fraud detection software will alert you when your finances show an unusual pattern. This is one of its cool features. It will gently inform you (at your choice) that say, based on your past months’ expenditures, you’ve overspent your grocery budget this month. It also makes a fairly good guess at categorizing your expenses on its own. It can then make comparisons of how your budget stacks up to other aggregate users in your area, and offer budget suggestions (which we have not followed). We rarely use cash for anything so Mint gives us a very complete picture.

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Some people will not be convinced by any reasoning or proof that having a single window into your entire financial situation is safe. If you are of that type, don’t use Mint. But for the rest, who long ago realized that using credit cards online is far safer than using one in a store, Mint is a fabulous cool tool. And it is free. Available anywhere the web lives.

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There are a couple of similar sites, such as Wesabe and Geezeo, which emphasize sharing budgets, sort of like a Weight Watchers for finances, but I find their interfaces far less elegant. However this niche is evolving fast, and features expand. Mint has a good head start, a winning design (I love the pie charts!), and a sizable user base, so I think it will be around for a while. (If it did disappear, no loss because it does not store any unique data.)

-- KK  

Mint
Free



Ikea Nail-Driving Utensil

I am an engineer, so I admire the way Ikea consistently uses a small set of fastening systems, all suitable for untrained labor. Ikea has even invented this tiny plastic device to protect customers from smashing their fingers with tack hammers.

A pinch of the clever friction-grips opens a small crevice in this utensil, and it neatly grips any small nail. Place it against a wall, tap the nailhead, and the nail goes in quite straight. Remove it and you are ready to safely hang a picture. The ergonomics are brilliant, the understanding of process is good, the operative results are excellent, and many innocent fingers go unsmashed. A real triumph of Swedish design!

Best of all, this plastic utensil is so cheap that it’s as free as hotel matches. In fact, if you venture into Ikea and talk knowledgeably about Ikea things you have built, and then ask for them for fasteners, they will commonly hand them over for free. And they’re good components, too: you can build whatever you want. Please don’t wreck this good deal for the rest of us by abusing Ikea’s patience.

-- Zarko Vujovic  

[Since Ikea is Ikea, this tiny plastic widget must surely have a cute Swedish name and some parts number, although it costs nothing. Does anyone know that data? Please tell me. Even "Ikeahacker" is stumped. -- BS]

Zarko’s Favorite Utensil
Available at Ikea for nothing