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Another Site for Literary Types

Was there ever a site that sucks more than MySpace? I thought not. And yet, I’m there all the time because somehow, it’s become the social site. Who will rid me of this troublesome site? If I see one more error message – that’s being reported to their crack team of support staff, natch – I’m afraid I’ll puke.

In other news, it’s cold here in Houston – and rainy, too. We’re supposed to have ice and sleet tonight, and I find it kind of ironic that here that’s big news, but any Yank worth their salt wouldn’t bat an eye at this forecast. (That salt thing was a pun. You people that get snow on a regular basis understand.) Yet here in Houston, schools and businesses are closing. I believe it’s mostly because hardly any of us know how to drive on this stuff. I know I don’t. By staying home, I’m doing my part to keep my neighbors safe.

Being cooped up in the house gives me the perfect opportunity to visit new sites and write about them, though. (Although, we’ve been having a lot of trouble with our Time Warner Cable connection today. We’re blaming it on the weather.)

I see that the last review I did before my Blogger-imposed hiatus was Myvelopes.com. Sadly, Myvelopes has gone to join – to use one of TechCrunch’s phrases – the dead pool. Myvelopes, an online budgeting site based on the envelope method, had a great idea, but as I mentioned in my review, the payment options left a lot to be desired, especially when you consider the fact that people that take the time to track their money are probably a bit more budget-conscious than their less frugal counterparts.Note: The only thing that’s gone to the deadpool is my brain. Mvelopes.com is still very much alive and doing well. Maybe I should budget for a full neurological exam.

And speaking of frugal, allow me to introduce you to FrugalReader.com, a book swapping site that I was turned on to via LibraryThing. (A fantastic book cataloging site that was reviewed here in August.) Although there are several other book swapping sites (Bookins, PaperBack Swap, Book Mooch, Title Trader, What’s on My Bookshelf) I find I like FrugalReader the best, even if it doesn’t integrate with LibraryThing’s real-time swap status. Part of that is because it’s so easy to use. There are no complicated points algorithms to figure out; generally speaking, paperbacks cost one point and hardcovers two. For example, I currently have ten books on my shelf available for trading – nine paperbacks and one hardcover. This gives me a total 11 points with which to “buy” books. (Plus, if you list at least nine books when you sign up, you’ll get an extra two points.) You can also buy points, or credits, a service that I don’t think any of the other book swap sites offer. This is significant as it allows you to get up and running right away, instead of having to mail umpteen books and then waiting for them to be marked “received.”

Accounts are offered in two flavors; standard and premium. The standard account is free and includes everything you need to get started. The premium account includes extras, like being able to get first dibs on books as they become available, restricting who you’ll trade with, assigning custom points values to your available books, and discounted rates when purchasing credits. For more information, visit their How It Works page.

Note: LibraryThing has another competitor. Shelfari, a slick, Flash-based book cataloging site, boasts a beautiful design and great import features, however, it lacks the depth and friendliness of LT. Still, it’s a site to watch.

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I’m back – maybe?

Well, I think I might be back at Blogger. As you may remember, I was having incredible problems with getting Blogger to work. An incredibly busy schedule made it impossible for me to troubleshoot the rather extensive issues, so I took a hiatus.

I’ve recently switched over to their new format, so we’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, I’ll start working on some new reviews of the coolest 2.0 websites and gadgetry available.

Stay In Budget With Mvelopes

Many moons ago, when I was but a wee freshman in high school, the school district I attended decided to add a “life skills” requirement to our course load. The big attraction for many of us students was that it incorporated sex ed, but it also instructed us in potentially useful talents, such as budgeting. Not surprisingly, I aced the sex ed component of the course, but my performance in the finance & budgeting categories was less than stellar. Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone in my disregard for financial enlightenment. Fully 36% of Americans report that they do not use a budget to manage their family’s expenses, according to Consumer-Action.org. (I personally suspect that this percentage is much higher, based on my observations. This deficit in basic financial planning isn’t limited to the less-educated, either. I know several college-educated people that don’t understand basic household budgeting.)

Conceptually, I understand budgeting and would like to utilize it in the traditional sense. If I dealt in cash, I think the envelopes method would work well for me. (In the envelopes method, cash is divided up into several paper envelopes set aside for certain categories, such as groceries, entertainment, utilities, etc. Money is then spent from the envelopes, making it much easier to know exactly how much money is left for any given “category.” ) My almost exclusive use of cards makes this method impractical for me, though. (I realized yesterday just how infrequently I deal in cash when I remarked to the grocery checker that one of the tens I had must be a new design. Not so, he told me – that design had been around for at least six months. )

I’ve tried using Microsoft Money, but I find their tools to be cumbersome, as the information is compared against the budget after the money is spent. What I need is something that will help me not spend money that’s been earmarked for something else. That’s why Mvelopes sounds pretty appealing.

Mvelopes brings the traditional envelope method online, allowing one to designate money from their funding account to “envelope” spending accounts. They also offer transaction retrieval from over 11,000 financial institution and free online bill pay for up to 15 bills. (Additional bills are .50 each.)

A 30-day trial is offered, but it requires that you provide your billing information beforehand, which I typically don’t mind since most places offer a monthly plan. However, the shortest term available from Mvelopes is quarterly, at $39.60 (US) per payment. Other billing options include the two-year plan at $189.60 (US) and annually at $129.60 (US).

SparkPeople.com Helps with Weighty Matters

SparkPeople.com, a free, online weight loss and fitness application, might truly be the best thing to hit the Internet in a long, long time. SparkPeople launched in 2002 as a FREE way “to help millions of people reach their goals using health and fitness as a springboard to success” but somehow I’ve only found it now, four years later.

SparkPeople was founded by Chris “Sparky” Downie, one of the architects of Up4Sale.com, and Ebay’s first acquisition right before it went public. Presumably this left Chris pretty comfortable financially, and he was able to start development of SparkPeople.com, his long-time passion, when he left Ebay three years later.

SparkPeople boasts a clean, if somewhat dated, design and an intuitive interface, but the sheer amount of information may overwhelm some people. Even though SP advocates taking your time and getting to know the site, it took me over a month to work up the desire to wade through all the information.

A wizard makes the initial set up quite easy, and once your current weight, target weight, fitness level, and nutritional preferences are entered, a meal plan and nutrition and fitness targets are generated. (A note on the nutritional preferences: While I found the options to be quite flexible, i.e. vegetarian, low-cholesterol, etc., I was disappointed that low-sugar/diabetic choice wasn’t offered.)

SparkPeople is so feature-and-content rich that it would be impossible to accurately review it in anything less than a volume the size of War and Peace, so this examination will focus on just the highlights.

Nutrition
In addition to a comprehensive food database that contains over 10,000 entries, including fast-food and name brands, SP includes a food journal to track your daily food intake. From this input, SP will calculate your total calories, fat, carbohydrates, and any other nutrient you’d like to track. If you’re not near a computer at mealtime (who is?) and you own a camera phone (who doesn’t?), you can email a photo of your meal to your account so you can enter an accurate accounting later. Both the food journal and meal planner are flexible and allow you to add your own foods and meals. In addition, a bank of healthy recipes is included and can be added individually to your meal plan.

Motivation & Goal Setting
Goal setting and staying motivated are an integral component to the SparkPeople concept. As mentioned in a SparkPeople article, most diets just tell you what to eat and don’t even address the #1 roadblock to weight loss – lack of motivation. SparkPeople.com counters this obstacle by teaching users to start small and develop effective diet strategies. A thriving user community provides support and encouragement along the way.

The points system provides additional motivation, and of course, the comprehensive progress reports offer great feedback.

Exercise
SparkPeople boasts an impressive library of fitness articles. In addition, there are illustrations and videos that demonstrate the proper technique. Exercises are categorized as beginner or advanced and require little, if any, equipment. (Medicine balls, Swiss balls, and a towel are the three props utilized.) Exercises can be tracked in the fitness log, and like the food log, users can use the prepackaged exercises, or add their own. Reports can be generated from the log results.

Community
This is where SparkPeople really excels. Personalized pages, a la MySpace, allow users to chronicle their weight loss, post photos, and blog. Lively message boards provide a positive place for users to offer encouragement and tips to each other, while the journal feature sets aside some virtual quiet time for reflection. There’s also a Diet Buddy forum where users can partner with another user with similar goals.

Tracking/Reporting
Track nutrition, fitness, and weight goals using SparkPeople’s extensive collection of printable reports, including weight, measurements, water intake, exercise frequency, and goal setting.

All in all, this is by far the most useful fitness site on the web. If you’re looking to lose weight, you can’t go wrong here.

Note: If you do decide to join, consider listing me as your referrer. Even though there’s no reward as such, I really am coveting that next level’s icon (think of it as profile bling) and SparkPeople awards 10 points for each member referred. While you’re at it, add me (daniesq) as a friend. No points are offered for adding friends, I believe, but I’d welcome your company!

Leaving Las Vegas

I’m seriously considering moving from my Blogger account to a WordPress setup. It’s not because I have to re-publish my entire blog every time I add a new post, or that Blogger sometimes won’t even let me add a new post. Not playing nice with other blog software annoyed me and not being able to extend Blogger exasperated me, but that’s not it either. No, what’s really got my panties in a wad is not being able to edit my posts after they’re published.

Invariably, I discover a mistake immediately after publishing the post – and re-publishing the entire blog – that needs to be corrected. But Blogger says it can’t find any previous posts. Not a one. Gone. Into the ether. Vanished. However, my errors have managed to hang in there and are out on the Internet for all the world to see, in perpetuity.

There’s a Word for It

If you’re into word games, then you’re going to love PlayBabble.com. The premise is simple – form words of four letters or more from the grid of 40 letter tiles. However, the word has to be formed from adjoining tiles and the letters must join in the proper sequence. Oh, and you have twenty-four hours to do the puzzle before a new one is posted. This is harder than it sounds – I recommend that you play with a dictionary nearby.

PlayBabble comes in two versions; free and Pro. Pro users, of course, get more features, such as a stats panel (to view your ranking in the community), an online profile, a personal icon, and a graphic of your country’s flag.

Like all good online games, a chatterbox is available so you can “talk” in real time to other players. However, if you’re antisocial, you’ll be fine with the free account. (I use the free account. I don’t want people chattering at me while I’m wracking my brain for a word that starts with C-O-M-F and uses either an “e” or an “s” for the next letter.)

There are a lot of small features, too, that make the game more interesting, such as a points per word feature and a look up the definition icon next to each word you enter. (Although I would presume that you knew what the word meant if you entered it.)

Note: For other games like this one, visit http://www.allwords.com/Word_Games.php.

A Water Bottle You Can Drink To

Forgoing the lattes is starting to pay off. A little over two weeks out and I’m down six pounds. I dared to try on a pair of pants that hasn’t fit me in a couple of months, and they fit! I was ecstatic and proceeded to dance around the living room, frightening the cat so badly that I think she’ll need therapy.

One of the hardest things for me to do while dieting – aside from getting on the treadmill – is drinking enough water. Even though we have no fewer than six gallons of Ozarka in our kitchen, I still seem to forget to drink water – or anything else. So you can imagine my interest when I read about a new, “interactive”, water bottle. Billed as the “water bottle that nags you”, HydroCoach calculates the amount of water you need,  the amount of water you consume, the time it takes for you to drink your water (so you can pace yourself), and your average water consumption. Although it isn’t as quite interactive as the Shockulate Vault that delivers a mild electric shock to would-be diet cheaters (or my personal favorite, the device that delivers a similar shock to snoring spouses), it does seem like a neat idea. Not neat enough for me to part with $30, the suggested retail price, but still – neat.

Now if they would come up with one that would nag my kids to clean their rooms, they’d have my money in a heartbeat.

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