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!