Monday, April 24, 2017

Born Again Website

I have recently begun to consider WordPress as just another web development tool alongside my go to app, Concrete5, instead of being the spawn of Satan. I mean, I really, really liked Concrete5, but have begun to feel that the newest version isn't getting the support from the both the people who developed it and the wider developer community. In that light, I have used WordPress to rebuild the website of my local church, trying to mimic the current design and feature set. I was pretty happy with the results.
  1. Template - Templates are a part of most of the web development apps in one way or another, WordPress being no exception. The current trend is toward template platforms – by that I mean templates that provide design tools rather than a fixed design. The Divi theme from is a perfect example. Using a module-based interface, you can build pretty much any design you can think of.  And it comes with so many modules, you might not need any others for some projects. And with a child theme (a theme based on a parent theme), you can make further modifications without losing them when the parent theme is updated.
  2. Slideshow - a simple slideshow module built into Divi. All I needed. Done.
  3. Form - I was having an issue with our registration form for our summer camp program. I was trying to link it to PayPal and the available form addons in Concrete weren’t doing it for me.  Doing a plugin search in WordPress yielded me a bunch of options, and I decided on Form Maker. I was able to build the multi-part form and link it to our PayPal account easily.
  4. Protected Pages - to protect sensitive content from the public eye, I used the Restrict Content plugin and set the appropriate pages to Subscribers Only. Done!
  5. Maps - Map display provided by Google Maps through a setting in Divi. Neat.
  6. Security - There almost wasn’t a need for security in Concrete5, most hackers go for the big targets – MS Windows, WordPress, etc. But since using WordFence, I am pleased to say that none of the WordPress sites I have currently using it have been hacked, even if they were hacked previously.
  7. Caching - WP Super Cache takes the place of the built-in settings found in Concrete5 and may even be a little better in terms of features. That, plus free basic Cloudflare functionality from the web hosting service Dreamhost goes a long way to keeping things up to speed.
These next three features could have been easily managed by any number of individual plugins. But one enterprising pastor from the UK built his own Church Admin plugin, and it’s just a fabulous solution. You could probably even use it for non-religious groups, just by avoiding the church-specific features.

A word about the plugin. This plugin manages all of its data on the admin pages and then uses simple shortcodes to add the features you want where you want to use them. A shortcode is just like it sounds – a brief line of code usually in brackets [like this], that has hooks linking to the actual data in the admin section. Many plugins offer this feature.
  1. Calendar/Events - You just add the events to the Calendar tab in Church Admin, set colors, categories, and repeat intervals for them – just like the big boy calendar plugins. Then via shortcode, you can drop a full-page calendar or even a featured events list anywhere you want. You can even filter for the events you want to display.
  2. Directory/Membership - This is a powerful feature, allowing for individual entry as well as the ability to import CSV files if you maintain members in a spreadsheet or even in another application. You can then associate them with varies ministries (think committees) and group types. Again, using shortcodes, you can spit out directories and filter them for these ministries and groups, or lump them all in a single page. He also includes a link to download a PDF of the directory for off-line use.
  3. Sermons/Media - list, play, search Part of our site has the pastors's weekly sermons uploaded as MP3 files. In Concrete5, I had been using the blogging feature and an addon that created the listing with a built in player. But I had to maintain the blog landing page and all the monthly archive pages, which was time consuming.
  4. Built-in security - you can add a switch to the shortcode to prevent viewing by people who aren't subscribed, but it still needs a little work, which is why I went with the Restrict Content plugin mentioned above. But it does work.
  5. There are many more features to this plugin that I am not currently using, make sure to check out the link above to read about them.
Not all plugins are created equal. Some have very elegant UIs, some don’t but still get the job done. Almost all of them have a free version and pro/paid versions with more features. Most of the time, the free versions do the job.

I was able to get 98% parity with the original design and even squeezed a couple of features I didn’t have or weren’t available under Concrete5. The site has been born again and is ready to grow as needed. Hallelujah! Can you say amen? Check it out .

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Time Enough at Last

While not exactly like Burgess Meredith in the iconic Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last, stacking books all around him to read at his leisure, we do have the ability to read pretty much anything we want when we want especially when using our phones, tablets and eReaders.

Even our libraries have gotten into the act, by allying with services such as Overdrive, Freading and others to make ebooks and audiobooks available to their members for free, so now has never been a better time to become a member of your local public library. I’ve been on a graphic novel kick lately and found that there is no better way to read them than on an iPad. However, I discovered that these services aren’t always so friendly towards sharing with portable devices. That’s a darned shame.

But after some searching, I was able to find a way to accomplish it. Now I can read Hellboy in peace. Pretty much all of these services offer ebooks using some kind of digital rights management (DRM) that allow you to read something on your computer or mobile device for a limited time, much akin to borrowing a book from the library. The advantage is that you never have to go to the library to take the book out or return it, it simply expires and you have to take it out again. On Overdrive, some ebooks are always available, others have limited copies and you need to reserve them. On Freading, you’re allocated a certain number of tokens a month, and you can spend them how you like. I’ve come across ebooks for 1 or 2 tokens typically, but some are more. Both require an account, either a library account or an Adobe ID, both of which are free, which allows the DRM to work.

So here was my dilemma. I was able to access Hellboy on my desktop. Freading said this was the only way they allow access to this specific item. Why? Who knows. But I wasn’t going to settle for that. Reading graphic novels on the computer was b-a-d bad. Especially on a laptop, where the orientation was all wrong. Plus the Adobe Digital Editions software required to read them was awful. Slow as anything. So like I said, I did my research, and found BlueFire Reader. It’s available on iOS and Android. It allows you to use your Adobe ID to manage the content you access from Freading and allows access to ebooks from Overdrive.

The problem? Getting digital books into BlueFire. Solution? DropBox. If you don’t already use DropBox, get it. It’s a great way to sync information between devices (mobile and desktop) and many applications already offer it as a default location to save your files. It’s also is a great way to store and share your photos. So create a folder on DropBox and copy your DRM protected files from Adobe Digital Editions or from Overdrive into this location. Then open DropBox on your mobile device. Select the title you wish to read and say “Open in...” Then simply choose BlueFire. It copies it into the Library and then you can open them and enjoy. Make sure to store your Adobe ID in BlueFire, otherwise it won’t let you read the imported file. Once the books are copied into BlueFire, you can delete the files from DropBox, since it’s just a copy you made from it’s original location on your computer.

Another method you could use is email, attaching the file and opening it the same way as mentioned above, but if you’re planning to view graphic novels, the files will be way too big to send that way, hence my suggestion to use DropBox.

If you’re a comic book fan, there are many sources of comics both free and available for purchase. Take a swing by the Digital Comic Museum and read some of the public domain and copyright-free classics, lovingly scanned and posted by it’s members. Free to use with a cap on the speed, or uncapped with any donation. Also try DriveThru Comics, who claim to be the first digital download store. Their products are all PDFs you can download to any device. Or if you’re inclined towards a more professional take, check out Darkhorse Comics and Comixology, both of whom offer their own readers and give you access to many current and popular brands. Comixology also offers an Unlimited subscription service, giving you access to thousands of issues for a $5.99/month fee.

Get with the Program

In case there is some confusion here, these digital comics come in different formats and may require different applications to read them. The traditional format is .CBR or .CBZ which is simply a series of sequentially numbered JPG files stored in a single compressed ZIP file. Then there are PDFs and ePub versions for eReaders. As mentioned above, some services have their own readers and document managers, but for the ones that don’t, I recommend the Bluefire Reader for PDFs/ePubs and ComicFlow for .CBR/.CBZ formats.

What do you like to read on your portable device? Which device and application do you prefer to use? I'm sure other readers would like to know. Add your comments below.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Bitten by the (Sun) Bug

It’s almost been two full years since we’ve installed solar and I’ve had this in my pending posts lists for almost as long. Sorry for that, but it’s still worth the read.

We’re pretty frugal. We keep the lights off when we can (sometimes so much I feel like I live in a cave), use compact fluorescent bulbs (now experimenting with LEDs), and keep the thermostat at 64° during the winter (and wear a sweater). We use natural gas for heating, cooking, hot water and drying. We recycle our trash and generally tend not to waste things. Doing pretty good overall. We use National Grid as our energy supplier and they send notices once in a while telling us about our energy usage compared to our neighbors and we are almost always using less energy (probably because we’re just two people in the house most of the time). Some people in our church have begun to go beyond that, however. Some are investing in solar energy, some in electric vehicles, some both. The idea of solar power has always intrigued me, but even with the rebates, there was a pretty steep investment (depending on how you do it) to be made.

Then one day I was looking at my electric bill. Really looked at it. Here is what I saw:

Delivery Service
  • Customer Charge (We need to pay to be a customer?)
  • Distribution Charge
  • Transition Charge
  • Energy Efficiency Charge (What the heck?)
  • Renewable Energy Charge (What the heck?)
Supply Service
  • Basic Service Fixed
What I discovered is that the cost of the Delivery Service was almost the same amount as the Supply Service, meaning I was paying almost as much for the “delivery” as I was for the actual electricity! That really bothered me. Then my daughter came to me and said, “Dad, you need to think about going solar. These rebates aren’t going to be around forever.” So I went to my wife and told her about the bill and the rebates and asked her what she thought. I barely had the words out of my mouth and she said we should do it! She is way more in tune with the world of politics than I am, so in addition to what I discovered, she was hearing that in our current political climate, the cost of electricity was also likely to increase (by 35%, which was made official by National Grid a very short time later). That cinched it. We were going solar.

My friend Paul had recently gone through this experience with a national company called SolarCity. Their arrangement with them was that the panels would be installed for free and they would pay a discounted rate for electricity and they energy they generated would pay down the cost of the panels, but they wouldn’t be able to accrue SRECs (more on that later). Paul passed my name onto them, but even after I tried contacting them, they never responded. I probably would have gotten better results if I went through official channels, but it still wasn’t very professional. My daughter and her fiance once again came to our aid, because they love learning about this stuff. They suggested we look at SunBug Solar, a local company. “Dad,” she said, “they have such a cute website!” And well, they did, but they had much more than that.

I filled out a form online and they contacted me promptly about setting up an evaluation. Mike Ozog was the sales person, and I could tell from listening to him that he was enthusiastic in regards solar energy as well as SunBug the company. He explained the whole process, was patient with my questions and never once did I feel I was being pushed or led to commit to anything. He checked my downstairs, attic and roof to make sure there were no potential problems and did a shade projection based on our roof’s orientation and surrounding structures/trees.

Bakhu and his team were scheduled later in November, but we were lucky and someone cancelled their install and they showed up the very next week. The work was completed professionally in two days. Bakhu made sure that I was kept informed of each step of the process. Also I want to give special nod to the electrician who came up with the perfect location for the inverter which kept it out of site and produced the least noise, we never would have considered it. There was one miscommunication regarding the documents which were to have been left in my mailbox after the install. They weren’t and there was a little confusion on my part as to whether I needed to get them prior to the electrical inspection by National Grid. But no worries, Matthew brought the papers with him and the inspector was very impressed with the work they had done and signed off without complaint. Nice job!

Mike came back to close the deal, bringing us a packet of brochures and warranties that covered the components of the entire system. We went over few more questions and also discussed SRECs and the business of selling them. We signed up with SRECTrade and now just need an energy audit from MassSave which we scheduled in early January to finish off the application. Unfortunately, I wasn’t made aware of that earlier in the process, which would have allowed me to schedule it sooner.

We are generating about 7.5 kilowatts a year, each kilowatt generating one SREC, each SREC generating about $300. Plus, we’re building up credit with National Grid for when we actually need to pull from the grid. The downside from being on the grid is when the grid goes down, we lose all electricity, even the solar. That’s due to safety concerns for workmen and others on or around the property. The only other complaint is that you can’t store energy, which with new technology developments like the Tesla Powerwall, may be in our near future.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stand and Deliver

I have been encouraged over recent months, along with all the other supporting info on the interwebs, to look into a standing desk. When I had setup my home office about 25 years ago, I had to fit a lot of stuff into a 9.5' x 13' space (think person-sized lasagna pan). Desk, filing cabinets, bookcase, storage cubes, shelving, etc. The best place for my main workstation was in the far left corner. I was able to order a decent corner office workstation at the time, that even boasted a riser for a monitor, which was neat, but which I never used. I have another long flat table on the opposite wall with a printer, PC, and portable phone base station as well as my Ooma.

Most of the offerings I researched were rectangular, wouldn’t fit the space and hugely expensive. Others were smaller, but wouldn’t fit the corner space. I needed something that would not require me to rejigger my office setup, wasn't too expensive and was easy to use. Enter VariDesk. It checked off all the important points for me. 1.) It fit the space. It’s a standing desk topper, sitting on top of the existing desk, which doesn’t upset my office’s feng shui. 2.) Easy to use. With its weighted base and pneumatic articulation, moving the desk up and down is easy and doesn’t require the arms of Popeye, simply grab the releases on each side and pull toward you to go up, push away from you to go down. 3.) Inexpensive(ish). Seeing how some of these desks ran past the $1,000.00 mark, I think the $375.00 price tag (with free shipping) was more agreeable. 4.) Perks. Comes with velcro straps to organize your cables and a sticker!

It’s a heavy beast when you take it out of the box, fully assembled and well packaged. It really feels like you’re getting something for the money. Position it on your desk, add computer, keyboard, peripherals and toys and you’re all set to go. I like the lower deck for the keyboard and mouse and even mail or working docs, while the upper deck handles the peripherals and my Star Trek Micro Machines collection. I also found it to be extremely stable, working on it or moving it up and down doesn’t upset the balance of my starships on their stands. The Borg may wish to assimilate this technology.

Health benefits? There is a lot of discussion about the benefits of a standing desk. Having the ability to switch it up, stretch the legs, move around, sit when tired can’t be worse than sitting one’s backside the entire day, which I had been prone to do. Oh, one more thing. Make sure to acquire a good anti-fatigue mat like the CumulusPRO from Imprint, your feet and legs will thank you. Do you use a standing desk? What has been your experience?

Flat on the desk.
Standing height.
Flat with the mat, by Dr. Seuss.
Standing tall.
Just the mat, and that is that.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Oh, (Scan)Snap!

That's what my daughter tells me when someone has gotten the best of me (again). But in this case, I have gotten the best of something else. 15 years of paperwork! Collecting dust on my shelves, in boxes and overflowing filing cabinets. Poof! Gone. In 3 days. How?

I had emailed my tax person Ron last week and was going to invite him over for a bonfire and s'mores as I did away with years of paperwork. What else could I do with these papers? And then as luck and timing would have it, I had run across an ad on Evernote that spoke about a hardware/software bundle to relieve the burden of all the paperwork. And it spoke about the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500. Oh. My. Gosh. I don't think I have really fallen for a piece of hardware like this before.

Of all the computer joints in all the towns in all the world, she was delivered into mine. By Fedex. She was small and sleek, black with faux chrome accents and a saucy blue LED that just lit up her face. She was demure, belying her speed and intelligence. But man, went she went to work, she went to town! I fell for her right there and then, fell hard. No way was I ever gonna let her go. She could manage my documents any time.

This little baby, combined with Paperless from Mariner Software, software to organize your scans, made doing (non)paperwork almost fun. Almost.

It's voracious, consuming pages of color and b/w documents via the sheet feeder, scanning, converting to text and saving. A ten page document is completed and saved in Paperless in about 30 seconds. You can setup the scanner with defaults, like scan to an application and scan and convert front and back. Once in Paperless, you can title your document, place it in a category, store it in a folder, etc. Plus the application reminds you to backup your resulting database of stored info which I do using my DropBox account, so I always have a version off site, in addition to my Time Machine and Cash Plan backups (you can never have too many backups).

What kind of documents can it scan? Pretty much anything you throw at it, from financial reports to the smallest of purchase receipts. And Paperless can usually identify the title, date, amount and even basic document type as well as remembering repeated document sources like the grocery or your investment reports! After using it for a couple of years, it has rarely eaten a document fed through the sheet feeder, no matter how crumpled or folded and the resulting scan is sometimes even better than the original. Searching become a breeze when the contents are all OCR’d and organized to your liking. Best of all, you can take those paper documents and toss them. My yearly tax folders are now half the size they used to be because I no longer have all those receipts in there.

Want to clean up your act? Get one of these. I got mine with Paperless, which you can purchase for a discounted fee through Mariner when you buy the iX500. The cost of the scanner is $450.00 which not only is well worth it, but tax deductible as a business expense. Bonus!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

If it ain't broke, don't fix (or upgrade) Windows.

Windows 10 – the Grand Revolution. All the features you want (that Apple already had). Cortana (the name and voice of the AI in the videogame Halo, developed by ex-Mac programmers), multiple desktops, integrated apps and features, huzzah. All new. Well my PC told me that Windows 10 was ready to install. The previous week I had made a clone of the SSD drive to a backup SATA drive using Macrium Reflect 5. Worked like a charm. I was ready. I could install Windows 10 without worry and revert if I need to. So I did.

The install had downloaded the files already and it was just setting up. So I watched it go for a bit, then I returned to work. There was a big percentage readout on the screen telling me how much was left. Then it said it was “cleaning up a few things.” Then this curious message. “This is taking a little longer than expected, but we’re almost done.” Then the desktop appeared with a big black box around it, like it was no using the full resolution of the screen. Ha, I said, I can fix that.

Then I tried to go to the Start menu. Nothing. Clicked in the Taskbar. Nothing. Search box? Nope. Icons on the desktop seemed to respond to clicks so I launched Chrome. Opened up. But I still couldn’t access anything at the bottom... Maybe I wasn’t waiting long enough. But the hype said Windows 10 would be faster. Didn’t seem so here. Maybe I need to restart. So I did. And lo, it was better. A little. The display was up to full resolution, and the Search box yielded a popup. Once. Then was silent. The speed hadn’t changed much.

Did a search (on my iMac), and found others with a similar problem. Microsoft said there might be a software conflict and to try a clean boot by disabling the startup files. Except I couldn’t get to msconfig because the Search wouldn’t respond. I found I could right click on the Start menu icon and get a contextual menu, and there were some options I was able to use to get to Start Up tab and disable some stuff, but it wasn’t msconfig so I didn’t think it would prove useful. I was right.

Then... then I had a thought. I opened the Disk Management app and looked at the hard drives. Um, what? Windows 10 had gone ahead and upgraded my backup on the SATA drive, not the SSD drive. Huh? What was I gonna do now? I powered down and disconnected the SATA drive. Booted back up and voila! back in Windows 7. Grrr. Well, that was a waste of time. I will have to reclone the SSD drive and then disconnect the SATA drive in order to try again. If I want to. Maybe I don’t. I was having no issues with Windows 7, and now that I did the upgrade once, I can do it again should I choose. It would be interesting to see how it runs on the SSD. And even if I compared the Win 10 install on the SATA to Win 7 on the SATA, I might be inclined to say it may have been faster. But I will have to choose wisely...

So, to sum up, if it ain’t broke, don’t go installing Windows 10 – especially without a backup, a disconnected backup. Perhaps wait until the first Service Pack... Hope Apple’s upcoming El Capitan OS X upgrade fairs better.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Gimme Some Ooma

In a continuing effort to reduce our cable bill, I recently decided to switch our home phone service to VoIP service. A long time ago, I tried Vonage, and was not happy at all with the service – voice quality was bad and it didn't work with my security system, not to mention it wasn't much of a cost savings. It left a bad taste in my mouth, so I didn't even consider trying them out again. But once again, Pete, my daughter's boyfriend, stepped up and recommended an alternate service called Ooma.

Now you may recall, Pete also was the one who recommended the Republic Wireless cellular service, which I am still happy with. And I don't want you to think that I consider each syllable that leaves his tongue to be golden. However, past experience did suggest he may be offering another worthy nugget.

My phone service was provided by Verizon Digital Phone and came with all the standard features like caller ID, call waiting and voice mail. It was offered at the price of $30.00/month, but as part of the TriplePlay bundle, it was essentially free. But I wanted to get rid of my TV subscription as well, leaving only the internet. Well, that was the plan, anyway.

The Ooma service works with a network enabled box called Teleo. It's $129.00, but you can find discount coupons and signup offers or even refurbished models that will bring the price down by up to $40. And that's about all you pay for, other than taxes and fees, which for me was under $4.00/month. That's it. Plug it into your network, plug your phone system into it, and you're done.

Although you can't take advantage of the existing house phone wiring, most phone systems are wireless anyway and you can add several additional phones if you want. I think our systems supports 6 phones, right now we have 2, one for upstairs, one for my office. What I was really surprised with was how easily the phone adapted to Ooma. All of Ooma's functions worked perfectly through the phone. Voice message notifications, menu items, caller ID, call waiting, it all worked with zero modifications.

Of course, you need to place the phone system in proximity to the Teleo and a network connection, so unless you have a hardline in your kitchen or a powerline connector, you need to have the Teleo and the phone base unit near your router. This was fine for me, everything was in my office already.

Voice quality was very good. There seems to be a very slight delay at times, and you quickly adjust to it. I have had one or two call drops, but can't ascertain whether it was the other party's fault or Ooma's. They seem to be rare in any case. So far, I am fairly pleased. Be aware of the 911 emergency call guidelines for this type of service, there are some occasions where it may not function appropriately, and they recommend a cell phone for emergency/backup use.

Back to the money saving part. After I got Ooma up and running, I transferred my existing number over to it (cost $40). This took about 2 weeks. When it was completed, Verizon sent me an email saying that I should call them to review my current package in the light of the removal. So I did, and come to find out, my bundle was still intact, even though I removed a service, which was cool, I thought I was going to have to pay a $230 bundle cancellation fee. However, when I spoke to them regarding the removal of the cable TV, they said that if I dropped that, my internet service would be $89/month – more than I was paying now! If I kept local TV and internet, it would drop to $69/month about what I was paying, and a further $12/month could be gained by returning my cable box.

Net result, when I return the box, I will be saving $12/month. Seems like a lot of effort for little return, but I guess it all adds up.