Tuesday, December 30, 2008

'Out of print' has lost its meaning

'Out of print' has lost its meaning

I see the phrase from time to time in book reviews.

"It is out of print and difficult to find."


Reviewers who write stuff like this need to wake up and smell the 21st century.

Here is where you can locate those "out of print and difficult to find" books:

•AddALL— www.addall.com/

•BookHq— www.bookhq.com/

•BookFinder— www.bookfinder.com/

•Abebooks— www.abebooks.com/

I've long since lost count of the number of times I've purchased books that were "unobtainable" for reviewers and writers who said as much.

Must be priceless to see their faces when they open the package.

No matter — for me, it's just something I like doing.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

How to Get Rid of Ants

Few pests are harder to get rid of than ants once they've established themselves in your home. If you're tired of stumbling upon a swarm of ants on a regular basis, you'll need to make a concentrated effort to keep these uninvited guests away. This article will review every course of action available to you--why it works, whether it's safe around pets and kids, and how to do it properly. == Steps == Shut down the ant buffet. The reason ants are coming into your humble abode is because it's a free-for-all (or at least it was at some point in the past, and they're hoping it might be again). The cleaner you keep the house, the less they'll have to eat, and the more they'll look elsewhere for goodies. Wipe down all surfaces. Tables and counter tops should be regularly sprayed and cleaned with a mild bleach or vinegar solution. Sweep, mop and vacuum regularly. Put food in air-tight containers. This has the added bonus of keeping the food fresher. Keep the sink clean: no dirty dishes, no standing water for ants to drink, no food in the drain. Put pet food bowls in a slightly larger bowl and add some water to the larger bowl, creating a moat around the pet food that the ants can't cross (too bad you can't put one of those around your house!). A lone ant brings home the bacon--or in this case, the cat foodSquish the scouts. Colonies regularly send out lone ants to check for food sources. If you see an individual ant strolling across your coffee table, don't let it make it back to the nest alive. It'll tell the colony where you spilled the apple juice. If the scout made it back to the nest and brought back some friends, they'll be following a scent trail, single file. Unless you're ready to bait them as described below, kill them all. Quickly. Spray the trail with all purpose cleaner or a bleach solution, then wipe it up with a wet paper towel. Only do this if you can get them all, however, because spraying like a mad man might encourage them to split up, go home, and establish new colonies.[1] For a less hands-on solution, vacuum them all up, then vacuum some talcum powder or diatomaceous earth to finish them off. Barricade your home. Since ants are tiny, they can find thousands of tiny doorways into your residence. Some of them of are easy to identify; others will only be discovered when there's a parade of ants of marching through them. Seal windows, doors, and any cracks the ants crawl through with caulk. An additional benefit with this is better temperature control and lower energy bills. Plus, it's the least risky method when kids or pets are involved. Line suspected entryways with deterrent substances. Diatomaceous earth is a fine powder that kills ants by pulling all the moisture from their bodies. Since it's so absorbent, however, it's only effective in dry environments.[2] You also don't want anyone in the house (pets included) sniffing it up. Talc in various forms is presumed to deter ants, although the mechanism is poorly understood.[3] Tailor's chalk and baby powder usually contain talc and can be used to create a barrier for ants. Regardless of which form of talc you use, keep in mind that there are concerns about the potential carcinogenicity of talc,[4] although baby powder is used by many parents nonetheless.*Many sources recommend using normal chalk, but this is made of gypsum, not talc, and could be the result of confusion with "ant chalk" (an insecticide that looks just like normal chalk; outlawed in the US in the '90s, but still sold in Chinatowns illegally).*Some baby powder brands are made of corn starch and will not work effectively against ants. Check the ingredients. Cornmeal can be used as a weapon against ants, and it's not poisonous to people or animals. Ants eat it and after consuming water, the cornmeal swells inside their digestive organs, causing them to die.[5] Dried clovesYou can also apply scents and substances that ants simply don't like for various reasons: vinegar, peppermint oil, cinnamon, black pepper, cayenne pepper, whole cloves, and bay leaves. Some of these might be harmful to pets and irritating to curious children. Excavated ants' nestBring down the nest. If ants continue to raid your home, you're going to have to raid theirs--except that you're too big to get inside. If you're able to locate the nest, however, you can pour several gallons of boiling water into it and that'll be that. But if you don't know where they're coming from, your only alternative is to bait them. Commercial bait product at workPick your poison. Mixing boric acid powder or borax with sugar water is the most common bait (that is what a popular commercial ant poison, Terro, basically consists of). Boric acid affects ants both externally (when in powder form; similar to diatomaceous earth) and internally (when ingested).[6] The ants bring the poison (borax or boric acid) with them to the colony and spread it around. If you get the quantity and timing just right, you can wipe out a large colony, but it might take several weeks to a few months.[7] A bait that's too strong will kill the ants before they make it home, and a bait that's too weak will only weaken the colony temporarily, so here are some recipes that people have had success with:*1 cup water, 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons boric acid[8]*3 cups of water with 1 cup of sugar and 4 teaspoons of boric acid.[9] Remove any deterrents (from previous steps) and wait for the ants to show up. Don't lure new ants with the bait; you could attract new colonies.[10] Once there's a trail, place the bait next to it (not on it, or else you'll interrupt their march home). If you have pets and/or children around (see Warnings below) put the bait in a jam jar. Screw the lid tightly and seal with adhesive tape. Pierce two or three small holes in the lid, and smear the outside with a little bit of unpoisoned bait. If you're concerned about the jar getting knocked over and the poisoned bait spilling out, loosely pack the inside with cotton balls.[11] Just to cover all the bases, leave out some peanut butter bait as well (peanut butter mixed with borax or boric acid powder). Ants' cravings vary depending on the needs of the colony (sometimes they want sweets, sometimes they want something oily)[12] so providing both will increase the likelihood that they'll take the bait. Give them as much fresh bait as they'll take, replenishing it as needed, and let them bring it back to their nest (no squishing or killing!). Once they've had their fill, remove all bait; you don't want to attract a neighboring colony.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How to Separate an Egg

Sometimes recipes call specifically for egg whites or yolks; other times you might want to skip the cholesterol in egg yolks. Either way, you should know how to separate the white from the yolk. Here are some ways to do that.

Beaten egg whites
Beaten egg whites
Purchase fresh eggs if you can. The membrane that encloses the yolk weakens over time so the fresher the eggs, the "tighter" the yolk. [1] Also, fresher eggs have stronger proteins, which will make for stiffer whites (if that's what you're going to be using them for).
Ready for cracking and separating
Ready for cracking and separating
Chill the eggs. Since the yolk is less likely to break when it's cold[2] make sure you're working with chilled eggs. If the recipe calls for egg whites or yolks at room temperature, however, you'll need to let them sit after separating, or work more carefully with eggs that are already at room temperature.
3. Use one of the methods described below to separate the eggs.
Put the previously separated whites and yolks in a separate bowl (or individually in half shells in the carton) so that if you end up with a messy crack down the line, you don't get shell shards all over your previous hard work.
5. Freeze any unused whites or yolks in small containers, labeled with how many whites or yolks are stored.[2]

Shell Transfer Method

How to crack an egg. Be sure to place the egg so the middle of the egg hits the bowl's edge.
How to crack an egg. Be sure to place the egg so the middle of the egg hits the bowl's edge.
Imagine a line going around the "fattest" part of the egg--that is where you want to make the cleanest crack you can manage. The key with this method is to avoid cracking the egg unevenly, as this can make it difficult for the yolk to switch to the smaller side.
Hitting the egg against bowl edge
Hitting the egg against bowl edge
Crack the egg open at about the halfway mark. You can do this by hitting the egg swiftly against the sharp edge of a bowl (a curved or round edge will result in a more jagged, messy crack).

You can also crack the egg gently on a flat surface, in which case it's more difficult to get an even break, but you're less likely to end up with small pieces of shell floating around[3] and the yolk is better protected, since breaking the shell against an edge pushes the pieces inwards, possibly piercing the yolk.[4]
The egg is cracked a little
The egg is cracked a little
Hold the egg so that the cracked part is facing up.
Pry open
Pry open
Pry open the egg gently, catching the yolk in half of the shell. Do this above a bowl, making sure no part of the yolk or the shell falls in.
Let white slide in
Let white slide in
Switch yolk to empty shell side
Switch yolk to empty shell side
Let the white slide into the bowl. Take the eggshell half with the yolk sitting in it and switch the yolk to the other half, making sure it doesn't fall into the bowl or "melt". Repeat this about three times, switching from side to side as the white continues to drip into the bowl.

Hand Method

Wash your hands.
Wash your hands.
Wash your hands with soap (preferably non-scented), and rinse. If any of the oil from your hands get into the whites, they will not fluff.[5]
2. Crack the egg over your hand (palm facing up). You might need someone to crack it for you, unless you can crack an egg with one hand.
3. Let the whites drip through the spaces between your fingers until all that is left is the yolk in your hand.

Funnel Method

1. Have someone hold a funnel over a bowl (or put it in a bottle if no one can hold it for you).
2. Crack the egg over the funnel. The whites should pass through the small opening while the egg yolk remains in the funnel.
3. If whites become trapped above the yolk, gently move the funnel around so that the yolk doesn't block the small opening and the whites can slip past it.

Separator Method

Crack into a separator. (This bowl has a wide slot in one side.)
Crack into a separator. (This bowl has a wide slot in one side.)
Carefully crack the egg into the separator.
Pour off the whites through the slot.
Pour off the whites through the slot.
Let the egg separator contain the yolk while the whites pour off through the slot.


* Although you could discard the yolk, a better idea is to use any of the yolks created this way to make an egg dish (like homemade mayonnaise) or for cakes. Try to have two recipes in mind before you crack the eggs open.
* If eggshell falls into the egg whites, scoop it out with a teaspoon or another larger piece of the egg shell.
* If you're beating the egg whites, such as for a meringue, make sure no yolk gets in. Any bit of yolk in egg whites will cause them not to foam.
* Seperator method can be performed with a simple slotted spoon. Just crack the egg on top of the spoon, with bowl beneath to catch the whites, and shake gently.


* Wash your hands before and after handling raw eggs to avoid any possible bacterial contamination. Clean surfaces that come into contact with the eggs.

How to Tell Time Without a Clock

For many people, knowing the correct time is vital to everyday life. If you're in an unfamiliar environment without any kind of clock, however, figuring out the time could be a matter of safety and survival. Without a clock or watch, finding the exact time may not be possible, but you can figure the approximate time using the sun, moon or stars.
[edit] Steps
Sun Position

1. Make note of the position of the sun. If you're in the northern hemisphere, face the south; if you're in the southern hemisphere, face north. (If you don't have a compass, use one of these techniques.) In other words, look at the equator--that is the line the sun generally follows in the sky. It always rises in the east (which is to your left if you're facing south, to your right if you're facing north) and sets in the west.

* If the sun is in the exact center of the sky, it's exactly noon. A nickname for this is "high noon" because the sun is at its highest at noon and the time will be 12:00 PM, but this assumes no daylight saving time, and that you're in the middle of your time zone. For instance, in Salt Lake City, Utah (US), "high noon" is actually at 1:30 PM in the summer because there's an hour added by daylight saving and another thirty minutes added because the city is that time distance (west) away from the center of the time zone.[1]
* If the sun is not in the exact center, you will have to do more figuring. If it is morning, the sun will be in the eastern half of the sky. If it is afternoon, the sun will be in the western half. You can use fractions to divide the sky into hours, and find the approximate time.
2. Estimate the number of hours between sunrise and sunset. This varies depending on the season and location. Winter days are shorter than summer ones: about ten and fourteen hours, respectively. Spring and fall days tend to be about twelve hours long, especially close to the equinox (late March or late September).
3. Divide the sun's path into segments. If you're looking towards the equator, you can imagine the sun following an imaginary arc from east to west, beginning and ending at the horizon, even if it's obscured. Visualize dividing that arc into equal segments; the number of segments should equal the number of hours in the day. If you know there are twelve hours in a day, you would divide the arc into twelve equal parts, six on the eastern half and six on the western half.

* If you're having trouble visualizing the sky in segments, you can use your hand or fist to "measure" segments. Going hand over hand, count the amount of fists from one end of the arc to the zenith (the highest point of the sky). Take that number as half of a day. For instance, if you counted 9 fists, and you know the day is 12 hours long, nine fists would be equal to six hours. To figure out how much time each fist represents, divide the number of hours by the number of fists. One fist, then would equal 6 divided by 9 - or about 2/3 hours (40 minutes). This is your hours-per-fist.
4. Determine which segment the sun is in. Starting in the east, count how many segments there are before you get to the segment that the sun is in. That will tell you how many daytime hours have passed. The segments that the sun hasn't touched yet indicate how many daytime hours are remaining. If you know the time of high noon, sunrise, or sunset in your area, then you can approximate the current time.

* Using the Salt Lake City example given earlier, let's say there are fourteen segments (because it's summer) and the sun is on the ninth segment (from the east). The eighth segment (right after the highest point) begins at 1:30 PM. The ninth segment begins one hour after that, so if the sun is in the ninth segment, it's probably between 2:30 and 3:30 PM. If the sun was in the sixth segment, the time would be between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM. With practice, you'll be able to estimate time without consciously dividing the sky.
* If you used the fists method, count the number of fists from the eastern end of the arc to the sun. Multiply that number times the hours-per-fist measurement. Let's say you counted three fists from east to west. Three hours times forty minutes equals 120 minutes, or two hours. So it's been two hours since sunrise. If you know the time of sunrise in your area and season, you can approximate what time it is.

Reading the Moon[2]

1. Find the moon. If the moon is full, stop here and follow the instructions for telling time based on sun position. If it's a new moon (i.e. you can't see the moon) this technique will not work.
Imagine the moon is a circle divided into vertical strips. The number of vertical strips equals the number of hours in the night, with the first hour at the right edge and the final hour at the left edge. As discussed earlier, the number of nighttime hours can vary by season and location. Let's assume twelve hours, beginning at 6 PM and ending at 6 AM, for now.
3. Read the moon from right to left, following an imaginary horizontal halfline. Look for where that line intersects the border between light and dark. Make note of which strip that intersection is in. If as you read from right to left, the moon goes from light to dark, that strip where the intersection is located tells you when the moon will set in the west (moonset). If the transition is from dark to light, then you can determine when the moon will rise in the east (moonrise).

In this instance, the intersection is at 8 PM, and the transition from right to left is from light to dark. This tells us that the moon will set in the west at 8 PM.
This moon will set at about 7-8 hours after sunset. If sunset is at 7 PM, you can expect moonset at 2-3 AM.
* If the moon is just a tiny sliver on the right, it sets within an hour or two since the night began. If you see it, you're probably within the first hour or two of nighttime, since the moon hasn't set yet.
* If the moon is just a tiny sliver on the left, it rises within an hour or two before dawn. If you see the moon in this phase, you can expect the night to be over within one or two hours.
4. Observe the moon's position in the sky. Divide the moon's path into segments, as described for the sun above. For the purposes of this example, let's assume twelve equal segments for twelve hours in the night.

* If you know the moonrise time, estimate how many hours (segments) it already passed since it rose in the east. Add those hours to the moonrise time to get your current time. If you know the moon rose at 9PM, for example, and it's right in the middle of a 12 hour path, that means it's completed 6 hours since it rose at 9 PM. 6 hours after 9 PM is 3 AM.
* If you know the moonset time, estimate how many hours (segments) it has to go before it sets in the west. Let's say you know the moon will set at 2 AM in the west. If the moon is positioned about 2 segments away from the western end of the arc, that means it has two hours before it sets. Two hours before moonset (2 AM) is 12 AM (midnight).

North Star Clock

1. Locate the Big Dipper constellation. You'll only be able to do this in the northern hemisphere and if the skies are clear. In the summer, the Big Dipper will be closer to the horizon.
2. Determine the raw time. The two pointers in the Big Dipper (the two stars furthest away from the handle) are in line with the North Star (Polaris). This line is like a clock hand, with Polaris at the center of the clock; as you look North, 12 is at the top of the clock, and 6 is at the bottom. When you imagine this clock, what time is it? Let's say the "hand" falls at 2:30. This is the raw time.

3. Add one hour for every month after March 7. Likewise, subtract one hour for every month before March 7. If it's May 7, two months after March 7, then you'd add two hours to your raw time, making it 4:30. To be more exact, add or subtract two minutes for every day after or before the 7th, respectively. If it's February 2, it's one month and five days before March 7, so you'd subtract one hour and ten minutes from 2:30 (making it 1:20).

* The reason we focus on March 7 is because the star clock always reads 12:00 at midnight on this date, so this is our "base" date, and we have to "adjust the clock" for any other date.
4. Double the time.
5. Subtract the time from 24. If the time from the previous step is more than 24, then subtract it from 48. We do this because the clock actually goes backwards (counterclockwise) and this subtraction corrects for that. The result will be the real time, given in military time. That means that if your result is more than 12, you can convert it to PM.
6. Correct for daylight saving time and time zone variation. If daylight saving time is in effect, add an hour. If you live close to the western edge of your time zone, add a half hour. Likewise, if you live on the eastern edge of your time zone, subtract half an hour. Now you know the time!

[edit] Tips

* If you have the time and materials, you can build a temporary sundial with which to tell time.
* Telling time based on the position of the sun becomes more difficult if you are in a region where the difference between daylight hours and nighttime hours can be dramatic, such as if the sun doesn't set at all for part of the summer. Scandinavians and tribes in the Americas used "daymarks"--they associated the position of the sun in relation to a fixed landmark with a certain time of day.[3]
* Don't forget to correct for daylight saving time.
* Don't stress out about exact numbers. Because of latitude and longitude, the numbers might not be exact anyway. Just use this as a handy estimation tool when you're on a hike or out in your backyard.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

How to Chill a Drink Quickly


Take the temperature of the drink. This step is optional; once you open a can, this method won't be as effective. If this is your first time trying it, though, it may be interesting to record how drastically the temperature can change.
Fill a bowl with water and add ice to it. Add as much ice to the water as you can, but not so much that it prevents the entire beverage container from being submerged into the water. A 50/50 mix of ice and water is a good rule of thumb.
Add table salt to the ice. A small handful should do. Adding salt lowers the melting temperature of the ice.
Place your drinks in the ice water solution and rapidly stir them all around. By stirring, you're using forced convection to speed the transfer of heat out of your drink and into the ice water solution.
Wait two minutes. Take the temperature of one of the drinks - the temperature should have fallen dramatically in a very short time. If it needs more time chilling, stir the remaining drinks in the salted ice water for another minute or two.
Enjoy your cold drink. It should now be about the perfect temperature to quench your thirst.

* This will work with just about any drink, in a conveniently sized can or bottle.
* This method is amazingly better than merely adding ice cubes to the glass of warm coke. Placing ice cubes directly into the drink causes it to become diluted and lose its fizz and snappy flavor.
* Smaller containers will chill more rapidly than large containers because the smaller ones have much more surface area in contact with the cold water per unit volume.
* If you don't have salt, then plain water plus ice is still more effective than ice alone at chilling containers. This is because the liquid water is a better heat conductor than air (many times better), and the ice by itself can't cover much of the container's surface.
* If you want a cold drink immediately and happen to have an extra CO2 gas fire extinguisher laying around, there is another, faster way. By blasting your can of soda with the extinguisher for only a few seconds, your drink will be icy cold. This only works with CO2 extinguishers which leave no residue as others will leave you with nothing more than a drink covered in fire retardant powder, stale water, or a mess of foam. However, it is recommended that you save your extinguisher for a true emergency.
* If you do not have extra clean water available, using ice alone and stirring it and the drinks around in the ice is still better than just putting the drinks in an ice chest with ice still in the bag with the drinks sitting on top or in a refrigerator. Air which is less dense than water can not absorb and conduct as much heat away from the containers compared to water.
o So to have cooler air circulating among the pieces of ice, try putting the bowl in a bag and tie it closed, and then swirl the bowl a little every 15 to 30 seconds to stir the drinks.
* Make sure to at least rinse the can top in clean, potable water before you drink the beverage. The salt that may be left on the can lid may cause the beverage to taste very salty.


* Carbonated cans may become pressurized after rapidly stirring in the ice water. Opening cans before the carbonation has a chance to settle may cause an overflowing mess.

Friday, June 20, 2008

7 Simple Rules For How to Take A Nap

Birds do it, bees do it (we think), even educated monkeys do it. So let’s do it, people. Let’s fall asleep. (The musical portion of this blog is over; thanks for indulging.) But seriously: we’ve talked about the whys of taking naps on the blog before — they improve mood, creativity, memory function, heart health, and so much else — but never, to my knowledge, have we discussed how to take a nap. In fact, whenever we write about naps, we always get a few comments from people claiming they’re unable to nap during the day; they just can’t fall asleep, or when they do nap they wake up groggy and unable to work. In that case, read on, my sleepy friends.

The first thing you should know is, feeling sleepy in the afternoon is normal. It doesn’t mean you had a big lunch, or that you’re depressed, or you’re not getting enough exercise. That’s just how animals’ cycles work — every 24 hours, we have two periods of intense sleepiness. One is typically in the wee hours of the night, from about 2am to 4am, and the other is around 10 hours later, between 1pm and 3pm. If you’re a night owl and wake up later in the morning, that afternoon sleepiness may come later; if you’re an early bird, it may come earlier. But it happens to everyone; we’re physiologically hardwired to nap.

Naps provide different benefits depending on how long they are. A short nap of even 20 minutes will enhance alertness and concentration, mood and coordination. A nap of 90 minutes will get you into slow wave and REM sleep, which enhances creativity. If you sleep deeply and uninterruptedly the whole time, you’ll go through a full 90-minute sleep cycle, and recoup sleep you might not have gotten the night before (we’ve all heard it a million times, but most of us don’t get enough sleep at night).

Try not to sleep longer than 45 minutes but less than 90 minutes; then you’ll wake up in the middle of a slow-wave cycle, and be groggy. I used to hate taking naps during the day for just this reason — I would always wake up in a fog. My problem was I hadn’t yet perfected the art of the 20-minute catnap.

Find a nice dark place where you can lie down. It takes about 50% longer to fall asleep sitting up (this is why red eye flights usually live up to their name), and be armed with a blanket; you don’t want to be chilly. You also don’t want to be too warm, which can lead to oversleeping. (There was a kind of urban legend circulating when I was a kid: don’t fall asleep in the sun, or you’ll never wake up. Not true — but you might wake up three hours later with a ripe sunburn.)

White noise can help you fall asleep, especially during the day when construction crews, garbage trucks, barking dogs and other noisy awake-world things can conspire to destroy your nap. Keep a fan on, or turn on a nearby faucet for a pleasing rushing-river sound. (Just kidding about that last one.)

Don’t nap too close to bedtime, or you might not be able to fall asleep later. Remember, your inbuilt sleepy window is sometime in the early to mid-afternoon — try to nap then.

Quit that silly job where they don’t let you take naps during the day.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Safety: Check your tires

This is very important. Please watch the video.

Aged Tires: A Driving Hazard?
ABC News went undercover and found retailers selling aged tires as brand new. Learn how to decipher the code on your tires to determine its real age.

I urge you all to take the time to look at this 9 minute video on tires and share with others.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How Long Can You Store Gasoline?

Q: I have several five gallon cans of gasoline in my garage that are to be used in a generator in case of a power failure. They have been there for several years as well as a tank full in the generator. Can this gas go stale?
-- C. S. Legum,
Norfolk, Va.

A: Gasoline does degrade or become "stale" during storage. How long it remains viable depends on several factors including the container and conditions in which it has been stored. The gas in your garage is long past its due date, though, especially if it was stored without the addition of a chemical stabilizer.
[Me and My Car storing gasoline]
Associated Press
Many folks store gasoline, as seen here after Hurricane Katrina. But gas can go stale after a few months.

I know it is tempting to use the fuel, especially with prices so high at the pump. Indeed, many times I have poured gasoline of questionable vintage into the tanks of cars, motorcycles and of course, the lowly lawnmower. Several years ago I inherited a roto tiller with a tank that had been half full for years. Of course, it started on the first pull and has run well ever since. Still, the instructions for outdoor power equipment like mowers, snow blowers and chain saws often recommend draining the tank if you don't plan to use the machine for a several months.

The American Petroleum Institute recommends taking old gas to an approved disposal facility after, at most, two years of storage. But the gas may have degraded beyond safe use by then. To be safe, the trade group says, you should avoid storing gasoline from season to season. For example, if you fill the gas can in the spring you should use its contents before the end of the year.

I haven't had any fuel-related problems. But I have heard enough tales of woe from people who have that I now avoid storing gasoline for more than a few months and always add a stabilizer to the container.

Monday, June 9, 2008

How to choose a pineapple

Nobody really knows how to tell if one is ripe — you see people sniffing and pressing them, and listening to how they sound when thumped.

Now comes Jean Paul Polo of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the "Quick Tips" feature of the latest issue (July/August 2008) of Cook's Illustratedmagazine, with the following advice:

"With one hand, gently tug at a leaf in the center of the fruit. If the leaf releases with little effort, the pineapple is ripe. If the leaf holds fast, choose a different pineapple. Conversely, avoid pineapples with dried out leaves and a fermented aroma — the fruit may be overripe."

FunFact: Pineapples do not continue to ripen once they've been picked.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Credit card rewards are a real rip off

What has your rewards card done for you lately? Not much most likely.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- You got burned with frequent flier miles, which were nearly impossible to redeem and hardly worth the hassle, so credit card issuers turned to other kinds of incentives to entice you to charge more. But most rewards programs aren't much better, and consumers are still eager to sign up for them despite the same old traps.

About 85 percent of U.S. households participate in at least one rewards program, according to a study released Monday by Consumer Reports. And though rewards do spur consumers to spend more, the study found that confusing rules and restrictions make most reward cards more trouble than they're worth.

"They make it 100 times more complicated," said a former marketing executive at CitiCards, referring to the popular rewards programs. For example, when you read the fine print, you might find that some rewards are limited to certain brands, or expire if not used within a certain timeframe.

Of the different reward cards available, the most popular programs are cash back, where customers receive a percentage of expenditures back in either a check or money off of their next bill. Other reward cards rack up "points" which can be redeemed for various items, or offer people discounts at certain hotels, stores, restaurants and gas stations.

And while cash back, gas and grocery rewards credit cards can offer some relief for costly essential items, they often carry higher annual percentage rates than traditional credit cards, Consumer Reports said. Looking at some of the more generous credit card rewards programs, the study found that rates varied from 9.74% to as much as 19.99%.
What do you think of your credit card rewards?

"If the rates are high, the cost to carry a balance will often erase any savings the rewards program may offer," said Amanda Walker, senior project editor at Consumer Reports.

Some reward cards also carry annual fees, making it even less likely that consumers will come out ahead. And even the more generous programs have limits on how much consumers can earn in rewards, not to mention looming deadlines by which the rewards must be used.

And in addition to the complicated rules, fees and higher interest rates, customers are leaving unused rewards on the table. More than 41 percent of reward cardholders either rarely or never even bother to use their rewards, said a 2006 survey by GMAC Mortgage and Harris Interactive.

To avoid the pitfalls and get the most back from your card, Consumer Reports offers these tips:

Consider where you shop. Opt for cards that will earn rewards at stores and services you use most often, or offer savings on items that you actually buy regularly. Airline and hotel discounts, for example, are not particularly useful for those who aren't frequent travelers.

Project your spending. Figure out how much you're likely to spend, and translate that into cash back or points, depending on which program your card uses. For points, figure out how many you need to get the rewards you want. Make sure to subtract the annual fee, if your card has one. If you realize that you'd have to spend a small fortune to earn only a tiny reward, try another card.

Favor cash back. Points often end up unused - a plus for the credit card companies who got you to spend more without having to give you anything in return. But cash back accumulates without you actually having to do anything. Plus, Consumer Reports found that cash back cards tend to offer better rewards than point equivalents.

Skip credit if you carry a balance. If you don't pay your bills of in full, you may want to pass on the rewards cards altogether. Because rewards cards often have higher interest rates, you may end up paying much more in interest than you reap in rewards.

Do the math on do-good programs. Do-gooders might be enticed by cards that give rewards to charity. But they usually pay very low rates - about 25 to 50 cents for every $100 you charge. You're probably better off going with the cash back, and then sending money to a charity yourself. You'll end up with a larger donation - and a tax deduction.

Use airline miles fast. If you do still use airline miles and manage to save up enough for a trip, make sure to use them right away. Airlines are always changing their redemption rules, and considering how much the big carriers are struggling these days, holding onto unused miles can cost you.

Avoid temptation. Research has shown that credit card customers are tempted to charge more in order to earn points toward a reward such as new digital camera or set of golf clubs. But overspending for a "freebie" often doesn't pay.

Five Secret Japanese Tricks to Make Life Better

In Japan, there's an organic, non-commercial cure for almost anything. It's a tradition that blossomed in the post-WW2 era when people had to save money and space for economic reasons. Today, this habit of utilitarian thriftiness paired with a quirky national sensibility has spawned a phenomenon called urawaza—a collection of offbeat life hacks and unmapped shortcuts. It's also the subject of my new book, Urawaza: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan. Keep reading for excerpts on how to silence a crying baby, get rid of splinters, swim backward, make grass greener, and easily clean up egg yolk... all using common household objects.

1. How to make a baby stop crying
Dilemma: Sure, the baby's cute. But why won't he stop crying?
Solution: The secret to stop a crying baby lies in making the sound you produce during the mouthfeel stage of wine tasting.
Why this works: When babies are still in the womb, the noises they can hear are limited to those in the 6000-8000mHz range. The sound you make when you slosh the liquid behind your lips during wine tasting takes place at about 7000mHz, reminding the baby of a time when the world around was peaceful and the whirs and stirs inside Mommy's tummy soothed him back to a sleepy state.

2. How to get rid of surface splinters
Dilemma: You have dozens of little splinters in your hands and arms from helping your little brother with his secret wooden fort. Isn't there a way to get rid of them without having to pluck each and every one out with tweezers?
Solution: Dip your finger in a tub of liquid glue and smear it all over the problem area. Once it dries, peel it off, just the way you used to when you were a bored little kid in arts-and-crafts class. The splinters will come right out along with the peeling glue!
Why this works: Surface splinters are hard to get out not because they're deeply embedded but because they're tiny and hard to grasp even with the daintiest of fingers. The sticky glue serves a function similar to a lint roller when the glue is applied evenly across the splintery surface of your skin. Plus, it's super fun to peel glue off your hands.

3. How to clean up spilled egg yolk
Dilemma: The egg was supposed to crack in the pan—not on the floor. Now there's gook all over the linoleum.
Solution: Sprinkle some table salt on the spilled egg and wait ten minutes for it to soak in, then sweep the egg yolk right off the floor with a broom.
Why this works: The salt dissolves the lipoproteins in the egg yolk, which changes its texture from gooey to nongooey, making it easier to clean. (Bonus: Brian Lam of Gizmodo shows us how.)

4. How to make the grass green again
Dilemma: You got a new puppy, and now your once beautifully green lawn has bare brown patches all over it from dog pee.
Solution: Pour some beer on the problem areas, making sure the foam's covering all the naked spots. The grass will be greener in no time.
Why this works: Beer has fermented sugars in it, which can act as natural fertilizer. The dying grass will feed on these sugars, detrimental fungi will die, and your lawn will start looking normal again.

5. How to swim backward
Dilemma: Your breaststroke is weak, your dives all end up as belly flops, and you can't even do half a somersault without getting water up your nose. You need some kind of skill that will set you apart from the rest of the pool party this summer—but what?
Solution: Learn how to swim backward! When you flex your feet instead of pointing them while holding onto a kick board, your body will chug through the water in reverse gear.
Why this works: The direction you advance in the water depends on which way you're kicking. When you kick away from your body—which is essentially what you appear to be doing when you flex your feet—you reverse the body's inclination to go forward. It takes a little bit of practice, but once you perfect it, the whole party will be wide-eyed with wonder at your newfound skill.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Become the Memorial Day Grill Master [Grilling]

Memorial Day marks the start of the serious grilling season, and there's no better weekend to try your hand outdoor cooking, or bolster your established grill master game. Luckily, mastering your outdoor culinary skills is a lot more simple than it seems, given the right tools, a little preparation, and a few tips on technique. Take a look at some tips on getting the right gear, turning out great meals, and even preparing for uncooperative weather, after the jump. Photo by Another Pint Please....
Get the right tools

* chimney_starter_scaled.jpgLump charcoal or briquettes?: This is one of those endless, both-sides-are-right-and-wrong debates (kind of like Mac vs. PC), but there is some fairly common ground. As The Virtual Weber Bullet puts it:

The general consensus is that lump tends to burn hotter than briquettes, but not as long or as consistently. Some lack of consistency is to be expected, given that the content and piece size varies within an individual bag and between bags.

Personally, I recommend briquettes for anyone just starting out with their grill, as lump can be finicky in lighting. Of course, you can save yourself a lot of effort and frustration by investing in a chimney starter, which you can also use for flash-cooking. Photo by Joshua Thompson via WikiMedia.
* Choosing a gas grill: Ignore the BTUs and heat for the most part—unless you really need to cook a whole bird or roast this weekend, most grills have got your steaks and burgers covered. Consumer Reports' blog recommends bringing a magnet with you to gauge the quality of steel used to contain the heat. If the magnet sticks, it's likely a cheaper grade that will rust more easily. Feel free to give a test model a few shoves and shakes, as an unstable grill is a recipe for serious problems.
* grilling_tools_scaled.jpgMulti-use utensils: The three-tool grilling sets you see at big-box stores have all you'll need for basic grill work, with long-handled versions of a spatula, tongs, and a carving-type poker. A long-handle brush would be your next purchase, and then a grilling basket and skewers when you start branching out. Make sure your tools feel heavy and firm in your hands, as clumsy handling create the kind of BBQ stories you don't want repeated. Photo by rick.

Getting ready

* Clean that grill: If there's black crust on the grill bars, you need to get it off to ensure no-stick cooking and easy food flipping. If you're feeling strong, wad up some aluminum foil and go to town on that stuff. For seriously stuck grime, you could also try popping the grill in the oven to bake off the stubborn bits.
* homemade_sauce_scaled.jpgMake your own sauce: Most of the pre-bottled sauces you see on grocery shelves are over-sweetened, and none match the taste of homemade. Making your own isn't that difficult, either. Use one BBQ Recipe Secret's three sauce bases as a starting point, and build your own flavor ideas into them. It'll give you something to talk about while you're waiting for the ribs to finish. Photo by Jason McArthur.

Hone your technique

* Use a cheat sheet: Experience is the best indicator for knowing the precise moment to yank your food off the rack, but Real Simple offers a super-helpful cheat shet you can print and bring to this culinary test (Original post). Here's a sample that covers the basics of red meat and sausages:cheatsheet_scaled.jpg
* grilled_chop_scaled.jpgBBQ Chicken: As my fellow editor Adam can attest, eHow's technique for grilling whole or partial chicken results in some juicy bird. The basics: Oil the grill, cook the chicken uncovered slightly off the heat center, and, for Pete's sake, don't put your sauce on until the last few minutes.
* Perfect burgers: Our commenters don't necessarily agree on cooking great burgers, but they do have some common wisdom to share. Use meat that's as close to room temperature as possible for even cooking. Don't press them on the grill, unless you like your meat dry. And the best "secret" to great burgers is buying good meat, preferably ground by a butcher while you watch.
* steak_osmosis.jpgSeriously salt your steak: Got filet mignon dreams for the weekend, but only a Quarter-Pounder budget? Buy a cheap cut of "choice" meat, then salt, salt, salt the heck out of that thing—for only one hour before grilling, and then pat it dry. By doing so, your salt is breaking into your meat and loosening some of its protein strands, making it hold flavor better and cut like the steakhouse commercials of your dreams (Original post).
* Let it rest: You'll be eager to slice open your tender steak or succulent chicken, but you'll lose a lot of juicy flavor if you do so. As the food techies at Cook's Illustrated point out, cutting into your food right off the grill releases a significant amount of juice, which would be re-absorbed for better succulence if you let it sit a few minutes.

Recover from a rain-out
All that planning, cleaning, and purchasing, and Mother Nature calls an audible on your perfect grill day? You're not finished yet. As the New York Times' food guru and cookbook author Mark Bittman points out, your oven broiler can sub in for your grill with a little prep-work, with results almost as satisfying. Brown your meat in the pan, roast or braise it slowly, then use the broiler to give it that grill-like finish. Check out his oven-based pork ribs or brisket recipes if you need convincing.
Document your success
grilled_chop_scaled.jpgWhen you've put all this effort into creating a great fire-cooked feast, you'll want more than just compliments to remember it by. Break out your digital camera (or pass it off to a trusted friend) and follow these tips to take some great grilling shots

Friday, April 25, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Try Brokered CDs for Higher Rates

Try Brokered CDs for Higher Rates

By Mark P. Cussen on certificates of deposit

By Mark P. Cussen
First Interstate Bank

Thanks to the FDIC, millions of Americans are able to sleep peacefully at night, knowing that their savings are protected by government-backed insurance. Since the thirties, certificates of deposit have become synonymous with safety of principal. Bank customers who shop for CDs concern themselves only with the rates and terms that are available.

Unfortunately, the safety that comes with FDIC insurance comes with a price. Will Rogers once said, “It’s not the return on my money that concerns me, it’s the return of my money.” This famous saying exemplifies the attitude of many bank customers. While CDs are among the safest types of investments available, their rate of return is correspondingly low. If interest rates are around 5%, then that is about what you can expect a short term CD to pay. While longer term and jumbo CDs can pay slightly more, it is very difficult to see much real growth from them over time.

However, there is another option available for those seeking higher rates on their guaranteed investments. Unbeknownst to many CD buyers, many brokerage and investment firms offer CDs that are every bit as safe and secure as those found in banks. While these CDs do differ from their cousins in the banking system in some respects, they are still FDIC insured up to $100,000 per CD owner. Furthermore, this type of CD generally pays a higher rate than bank CDs, and they often contain other features, such as put or call options that allow either the buyer or the issuer to redeem the certificate prematurely without penalty. For example, a brokered CD with a 20-year maturity could be “puttable” at a premium, such as $105, after five years, if the buyer so desires. That means that five years from now, if rates have gone up and the buyer wishes to move the money in this CD to another one, then he or she will receive $1,050 in return for each thousand dollars that was originally invested. Therefore, a $100,000 CD holder will see a return of $105,000 on the principal-in addition to the five years of interest the holder received. Call features give the issuer the same privilege. Brokered CDs can also be bought and sold in the secondary market like any other type of bond. However, the FDIC guarantee will only apply for investors that either hold their certificates to maturity or redeem them in a put or call transaction. If the certificate is sold prematurely in the secondary market, then the owner may receive more or less than his original investment, depending on market conditions. But those who hold their CDs to maturity or call will be safe.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Remove Pet Hair from Anything [Cleaning]

Remove Pet Hair from Anything [Cleaning]

By Tamar Weinberg on Pets

hairball_kitty.jpgIf you've got hairy pets in the house, you know what it's like to live with a permanent coating of fur on everything. Web site wikiHow suggests ways to clean and remove pet hair—at least until your pet comes around again. One tip is to use water and the palm of your hand:

Lightly dampen the palm of your hand. Wipe the pet hair off in a downward motion. The hair will ball up and stick to your damp hand.

Rubber gloves or latex gloves are also great pet hair removers, as well as a spare FedEx pouch.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Busting Myth, People Turn More Liberal With Age

Busting Myth, People Turn More Liberal With Age

By Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Staff Writer

posted: 2008-03-10 9:20 a.m. ET
New research has debunked the myth that people become more conservative as they age. Credit: stock.xchng
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New research has debunked the myth that people become more conservative as they age. Credit: stock.xchng

The stereotype of a cranky old man, set in his ways, getting more conservative by the day, is an enduring one. But new research has debunked the myth that people become more conservative as they age.

By comparing surveys of various age groups taken over a span of more than 30 years, sociologists found that in general, Americans' opinions veer toward the liberal as they grow older.

"All the evidence we have found refutes the idea that as people age their attitudes become more conservative or more rigid," said Nicholas Danigelis, a sociologist at the University of Vermont. "It's just not true. More people are changing in a liberal direction than in a conservative direction."

Detailed study

Danigelis and collaborators Stephen Cutler of the University of Vermont and Melissa Hardy of Pennsylvania State University analyzed data from the U.S. General Social Surveys of 46,510 Americans between 1972 and 2004. While the surveys did not provide data for the same individuals at different stages, they represented snapshots of the changing attitudes of respondents in different age cohorts over time. The researchers corrected for the fact that the age groups at different survey times are made of up new members with unique baseline opinions.

The surveys assessed attitudes on politics, economics, race, gender, religion and sexuality issues. In some cases, such as racial issues and questions of civil liberties for communists, the researchers measured a greater change toward liberalism in older people than in younger people.

"What we believe has happened, at least for the race relations, is that the older group, starting out at a position of significantly more negative feelings, had further to go," Danigelis told LiveScience.

If people really become more liberal as they age, why does common wisdom hold the opposite to be true?

People might find an average 60-year-old to be more conservative than an average 30-year-old, Danigelis said, but beware of extrapolating a trend. The older person, for example, might have started off even more conservative than he or she is now.

Danigelis also blamed the misconception on pervasive negative attitudes toward the elderly in our country, and stereotypes that depict seniors as rigid, ornery and set in their ways.

"If you look at any greeting cards about getting older you’ve got a wonderful lecture about age stereotypes," he said. "My colleague continues to cut out cartoons about getting old and trying to teach old dogs new tricks."

The study was published in the October 2007 issue of the journal American Sociological Review.

In the future, the researchers hope to investigate whether similar trends occur in other cultures and societies.

"There are international surveys that might allow you to do a similar study," Danigelis said. "Our gut feeling is yes but we haven’t tested that and we hope to."

Excellent Attorney's Advice


Read this and make a copy for your files in case you need to refer to it someday. Maybe we should all take some of his advice! A corporate Attorney sent the following out to the employees in his company.

1. Do not sign the back of your credit cards. Instead, put "PHOTO ID REQUIRED."

2. When you are writing checks to pay on your credit card Accounts, DO NOT put the complete account number on the "For" line. Instead, just put the last four numbers. The credit card company knows the rest of the number, and anyone who might be handling your check as it passes through all the check processing channels won't have access t o it.

3. Put your work phone # on your checks instead of your home Phone. If you have a PO Box use that instead of your home address. If you do not have a PO Box, use your work address. Never have your SS# printed on your checks. (DUH!) You can add it if it is necessary But if you have It printed, anyone can get it.

4. Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Do both sides of each license, credit card, etc. You will know what you had in your wallet and all of the account numbers and phone numbers to Call and cancel. Keep the photocopy in a safe place. I also carry a Photocopy of my passport when I travel either here or abroad. We've all heard horror stories about fraud that's committed on us in stealing a Name, address, Social Security number, credit cards.

Unfortunately, I, an attorney, have firsthand knowledge because my Wallet was stolen last month. Within a week, the thieve(S) ordered an Expensive monthly cell phone package, applied for a VISA credit card, had A credit line approved to buy a Gateway computer, received a PIN number From DMV to change my driving record information online, and more. But here's some critical information to limit the damage in case this happens to you or someone you know:

5. We have been told we should cancel our credit cards immediately. But the key is having the toll free numbers and your card Numbers handy so you know whom to call. Keep those where you can find them.

6. File a police report immediately in the jurisdiction where your credit cards, etc., were stolen. This proves to credit Providers you were diligent, and this is a first step toward an Investigation (if there ever is one).

But here's what is perhaps most important of all: (I never even thought to do this.)

7. Call the 3 national credit reporting organizations Immediately to place a fraud alert on your name and also call the Social Security fraud line number. I had never heard of doing that until advised by a bank that called to tell me an application for credit was made over The Internet in my name. The alert means any company that checks your Credit knows your information was stolen, and they have to contact you by Phone to authorize new credit.

By the time I was advised to do this, almost two weeks after the theft, all the damage had been done. There are records of all the Credit checks initiated by the thieves' purchases, none of which I knew about before placing the alert. Since then, no additional damage has been done, and the thieves threw my wallet away this weekend (someone turned it in). It seems to have stopped them dead in their tracks.

Now, here are the numbers you always need to contact about your wallet, etc., has been stolen:

1.) Equifax: 800-525-6285
2.) Experian (formerly TRW): 888-397-3742
3.) Trans Union : 800-6807289
4.) Social Security Administration (fraud line): 800-269-0271

How to Fly Through Airport Security

ly Through Airport Security
From Wired How-To Wiki

You might as well check your dignity curbside. Soon you'll be shoeless and flustered, spilling comics across the floor as you dig your MacBook from the depths of your duffel. But take a deep breath, frequent fliers: It is possible to pass security with your ego intact. Here's how.

1. Do recon online. Security delays vary widely by concourse and terminal. Go to tsa.gov to find average wait times. If you're not checking bags, print your boarding pass at home and head to the fastest line. (Be sure your gate is accessible from that security checkpoint.)

2. Carry a messenger bag. The topside flap gives easy access to your laptop and Ziploc of liquids and gels while the pockets provide plenty of storage for alarm-trippers. As soon as you get in line, tuck your belt, wallet, keys, watch, and phone into the sack.

3. Wear laceless shoes. And holeless socks. Just think of all the foot fungi of travelers past. Or don't.

4. Go! After you pass ID screening, make a beeline to the shortest x-ray queue. Don't wait to be directed, and don't hesitate to bypass dawdlers. Not only will you get there faster, you'll keep the whole line moving.

5. Use only two bins. Place shoes, coat, and toiletries in the first bin; laptop in the second; followed by the messenger bag. Keep the roller on the floor, where it's easy to manage, until the last minute.

6. Dress strategically. Don your coat and shoes while waiting for your bags. Put on your belt and watch at the gate.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

It's never enough... teachings!

It's never enough... teachings!

By Alla Staroseletskaya

One of my coworkers sent me a message with a HIGH VALUE teachings. Please try all of them.

1. If you peel a banana from the bottom you won't have to pick the little "stringy things" off of it. That's how all the primates do it.
2. Separate your bananas when you get home from the store. If you leave them connected at the stem, they ripen much faster.
3. Store your opened chunks of cheese in aluminum foil. The cheese will stay fresh much longer and not mold!
4. Peppers with 3 bumps on the bottom are sweeter and better for eating. Peppers with 4 bumps on the bottom are firmer and better for cooking.
5. Add a teaspoon of water when sautéing ground beef. It w ill help to pull the grease away from the meat.
6. To make terrific scrambled eggs or omelets add a couple of spoonfuls of sour cream, cream cheese, heavy cream, or Fat Free Half and Half before beating them.
7. For a super brownie treat, make brownies as directed. Melt Andes mints in double broiler and pour over warm brownies. Get set for a wonderful minty frosting.
8. Add garlic immediately to a recipe if you want a light taste of garlic and add at the end of the recipe if your want a stronger taste of garlic
9. Leftover snickers bars from Halloween or Christmas make a delicious dessert. Simple chop them up with the food chopper. Peel, core and slice a few apples. Place them in a baking dish and sprinkle the chopped candy bars over the apples. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes! Serve alone or with vanilla ice cream.
10. Reheating Pizza Heat up leftover pizza in a nonstick skillet on top of the stove, set heat to med-low and heat till warm. This keeps the crust crispy. No soggy microwave pizza. I saw this on the cooking channel and it really works.
11. Easy Deviled Eggs.Put cooked egg yolks in a zip lock bag. Seal, mash till they are all broken up. Add remainder of ingredients, reseal, keep mashing it up mixing thoroughly, cut the tip of the baggy, squeeze mixture into egg. Just throw the bag away when done for an easy clean up.
12. Expanding Frosting. When you buy a container of cake frosting from the store, whip it with your mixer for a few minutes. You can double it in size. You get to frost more cake/cupcakes with the same amount. You will also be eating less sugar and calories per serving.
13. Reheating Refrigerated Bread. To warm biscuits, pancakes, or muffins that were refrigerated, place them in a microwave with a cup of water. The increased moisture will keep the food moist and help it reheat faster.
14. Newspaper Weeds Away Start putting wet newspapers in your plants, work the nutrients in your soil. Put layers around the plants, overlapping as you go. Cover with mulch and forget about weeds. Weeds will get through some gardening plastic but they will not get through wet newspapers.
15. Broken Glass Use a wet cotton ball or Q-tip to pick up the small shards of glass you can't see easily.
16. No More Mosquitoes Place a dryer sheet in your pocket. It will keep the mosquitoes away.
17. Squirrel Away! To keep squirrels from eating your plants sprinkle your plants with cayenne pepper. The cayenne pepper doesn't hurt the plant and the squirrels won't come near it.
18. Flexible Vacuum To get something out of a heat register or under the fridge add an empty paper towel roll or empty gift wrap roll to your vacuum. It can be bent or flattened to get in narrow openings.
19. Reducing Static Cling Pin a small safety pin to the seam of your slip and you will not have a clingy skirt or dress. Same thing works with slacks that cling when wearing panty hose. Put a pin in the leg seams of your slacks and -- ta da! -- static is gone.
20. Measuring Cups Before you pour sticky substances into a measuring cup, fill with hot water. Dump out the hot water, but don't dry cup. Next, add your ingredient, such as peanut butter, and watch how easily it comes right out.
20. Foggy Windshield? Hate foggy windshields? Buy a chalkboard eraser and keep it in the glove box of your car. When the windows fog, rub with the eraser! Works better than a cloth!
21. Reopening Envelope If you seal an envelope and then realize you forgot to include something inside, just place your sealed envelope in the freezer for an hour or two. Viola! It unseals easily.
22. Conditioner Use your hair conditioner to shave your legs. It's a lot cheaper than shaving cream and leaves your legs really smooth It's also a great way to use up the conditioner you bought but didn't like when you tried it in your hair.
23. Goodbye Fruit Flies To get rid of pesky fruit flies, take a small glass fill it with a 1/2 inch of Apple Cider Vinegar and 2 drops of dish washing liquid, mix well. You will find those flies drawn to the cup and gone forever!
24. Get Rid of Ants Put small piles of cornmeal where you see ants. They eat it, take it "home," can't digest it so it kills them. It may take a week or so, especially if it rains, but it works & you don't have the worry about pets or small children being harmed!
25. INFO ABOUT CLOTHES DRYERS The heating unit went out on my dryer! The gentleman that fixes things around the house for us told us that he wanted to show us something and he went over to the dryer and pulled out the lint filter. It was clean. (I always clean the lint from the filter after every load clothes.) He told us that he wanted to show us something; he took t he filter over to the sink, ran hot water over it. The lint filter is made of a mesh material - I'm sure you know what your dryer's lint filter looks like. well,...the hot water just sat on top of the mesh! It didn't go through it at all! He told us that dryer sheets cause a film over that mesh that's what burns out the heating unit. You can't SEE the film, but it's there. It's what is in the dryer sheets to make your clothes soft and static free -- that nice fragrance too, you know how they can feel waxy when you take them out of the box, this stuff builds up on your clothes and on your lint screen. This is also what causes dryer units to catch fire & potentially burn your house down with it! He said the best way to keep your dryer working for a very long time (and to keep your electric bill lower) is to take that filter out & wash it with hot soapy water & an old toothbrush (or other brush) at least every six months He said that makes the life of the dryer at least twice as long! How about that!?! Learn something new everyday! I certainly didn't know dryer sheets would do that. So, I thought I'd share!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

How To Block Caller ID

How To Block Caller ID

Information on blocking and un-blocking your Caller ID Number when dialing out

* Summary
o Per-Call-Blocking
o Permanently Block Caller ID
* Federal Legislations
* Per-Call-Blocking
* Permanently Blocking Caller ID
* Blocked Caller ID and Toll-Free Numbers
* Software to block calls on caller id information



* USA: Dial *67 before you dial the number. If you have Caller ID blocked permanently, dial *82 to unblock for a given call.

There are many software products on the market that can block certain calls depending on their Caller ID information. We have information about around ten such products, some of which are free. Click here to see the list.

How Retailers Trick You in to Buying Stuff You Don’t Need (and How to Fight Back)

Consumers shopping habits have been put under a microscope and analyzed by the retail industry in order to maximize sales.

Shoppers have been as thoroughly studied as lab rats and the research has resulted in scientifically proven approaches to influence shopper’s emotions, to heighten their insecurities and to trick them in to buying things they don’t need or want.Joe Consumer has put together 10 of the most common retail tricks, along with tips for how to avoid being taken in. While some of these things may seem like common sense, each is a reaction to a specific tactic retailers use to get you to buy just one more thing.
My, that’s a big basket you’ve got there

retail-tricks-shopping-carts.pngStores have hundreds of enormous shopping carts parked conveniently at the entrance. Once you have selected something, you’re more likely to “find” additional items - after all, that empty space in the cart is just begging to be filled, you must have something else you can buy, right?

Tip: If you can skip the cart and make do with a basket, you’ll reduce the temptation to over buy. If you can get by without the basket, even better!
Mirror, mirror on the wall…

Vanity mirrors slow you down and keep you looking, but there is more than meets the eye. Most people can’t help but check themselves out, and who’s 100% satisfied with what they see? Making you more self-conscious helps you see new items as a solution. You are more likely to buy, when you’ve walked out of the house in something less flattering than what’s on the rack in front of you.

Tip: Wear something that looks good on you while you shop, and avoid mirrors unless you’re already trying something on. Not only will you feel more confident and buy less, you’ll generally get better service too.
Buy in bulk and save?

retail-ticks-buy-in-bulk.pngMisleading bulk sales are another retail favorite. There’s no difference between $5 each and the four for $20 on sale, except that you just might end up with three more than you wanted. Also, products sold in different volumes and weights often have prices that are chosen to confuse you. Shoppers tend to look at $10.49 for 48 ounces and think it’s the equivalent of $4.99 for 24 ounces even though it’s not -you’re paying more for less! Most grocery stores and pharmacies are required to provide per unit pricing signage, but these often don’t reflect sale prices.

Even when it is actually cheaper per unit to buy in bulk, it doesn’t mean you should! Do you really need a gallon of mayonnaise, or 1000 clothes hangers?

Tip: Compare unit prices, use that calculator on your cell phone, and don’t buy more than you can use, no matter the “savings”.
How did they stack all those boxes like that?

Those towering displays of intricately stacked boxes are called power displays, and they are meant to be speed bumps to slow you down and distract you from finding what you came for. Stores like Ikea have taken this to a whole new level. Their layout is specifically designed to require every shopper at least momentary exposure to every major showroom and floor, which increases the chance that you’ll come out with more than what you came in for.

Tip: Look for shortcut signs to areas of choice & beeline to the checkout.
To get to the cheese, you have to get through the maze

retail-ticks-hide-the-essentials.pngMilk, bread, restrooms — all the essentials — are all in the back of the store, because they’re staples that everyone needs, and relatively low margin. Putting them there forces you to check out other merchandise along the way. Getting them first can help you stick to your list.

Tip: Beeline to the back and work your way forward.
Bargain bins and going-out-of business sales

We all love feeling like we got a good deal, but don’t be fooled! While some stores pay their clerks to be obsessive about precisely-folded sweaters on display, others actually pay them to make sure the displays are just a bit little messy, because shoppers interpret that (often unconsciously) as a cue that other people thought it was a deal too. Others retailers are known to have annual moving sales, year end sales and re-opening sales that just amount to taking their leftovers off hangers and dumping them into clearance bins.

Tip: Evaluate the value of a “bargain” objectively, not by how wrinkled it is.
Oooh, something smells amazing!

retail-tricks-something-smells-amazing.pngStores and restaurants love to stimulate your appetite with provocative sights and smells. Grocery stores capitalize on hungry consumers by offering free samples, but this isn’t charity any more than the smell of freshly baked bread is an accident. These are signals to excite you and tempt you into buying foods that are likely no better for your financial health than your physical health.

Tip: Eat before you shop, or if you’re out shopping for the day, pack a water bottle and a snack!
Save even more with our charge card!

There’s a reason why department stores so cheerfully help you afford that overpriced indulgence with a discount on with a store charge card - they make the money later. You’re much more likely to buy big impulse items if you don’t have to count the dollars out the wallet you are holding.

Tip: Pay in cash. Going to the ATM and physically seeing your bank balance gives you that extra time to consider.
Retailers love to put children to work “helping” you find things

retail-tricks-kids-help-you.pngManufacturers advertise to children aggressively, so kids are primed to seek out products they have been exposed too. Stores know that catching a kid’s attention is a great way to get distracted parents to fork over cash for an impulse buy, and they purposefully put colorful, fun, shiny items within their reach.

Tip: Try to leave the kids at home, or have someone watch them. People tend to shop more efficiently without partners and friends, too.
Checking out? One last thing…

Drinks, candy, gum, media – all right by the checkout counter. This section is convenient in part because it is compact and limited, but it also means you can’t compare prices, and may not get your favorite brand.

Tip: Ask yourself if you actually need it, or if it’s worth your place in line to compare prices.

How to Read Music

How to Read Music

It's certainly possible to play music without being able to read it, just as it's possible to be able to speak without being able to read or write. In both cases, the person who cannot read or write is missing out on an opportunity to comprehend and communicate better. Learning to read sheet music can improve your grasp of music theory, enable you to play music you've never heard before, and allow you to more easily relate your musical ideas to others. The skill can take a while to master, but the basics are laid out for you here. == Steps ==..... Study the staff. There are five lines and four spaces, each of which represents a single note. The space above or below any given line corresponds to the note above or below it on the scale. Identify the clef. The first symbol written on a staff (the five lines on which the notes are written) is the clef, and it tells you which lines and spaces on the staff correspond with which notes. The two most common clefs are the treble clef and the bass clef. Treble or G clef with G noteTreble clef: The treble clef, also known as the G-clef because it circles the line for the G note) is used in writing music for most musical voices (soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, and tenor), most woodwind instruments, stringed instruments (violin, guitar) and high brass instruments such as the trumpet. It also typically corresponds to the notes played with the right hand on the piano. The notes played on the lines of the treble clef staff are, from bottom to top, E, G, B, D, F. The order of these notes can be remembered with the use of mnemonic phrases such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. The spaces between the lines, from bottom to top, correspond to the notes F, A, C, E, a sequence which, obviously, spells "FACE." Bass clef or F-clef with F noteBass clef: The bass clef, also known as the F-clef because it defines the line for the F note between two dots, is used for lower-pitched instruments such as the bassoon, the bass, and low brass instruments such as the trombone and tuba. The piano part played by the left hand is also usually written with a bass clef. The notes played on the lines of the bass clef staff are, from bottom to top, G, B, D, F, A. This order can be remembered with the aid of phrases such as Good Burritos Don't Fall Apart. The spaces between the lines, from bottom to top, correspond to the notes A, C, E, G. The mnemonic device All Cows Eat Grass may help you remember the order of these notes. Determine the key signature. Directly to the right of the clef there may be one or more flat or sharp symbols before the notes begin. This group of symbols is called the key signature. If there are no so such symbols, then the key signature is "natural" (neither sharp nor flat). Key signature in A-flat-major and f-minorA flat symbol on a line or a space tells you that all notes on that line or space should be played flat (one semitone lower than they would otherwise be played.) Thus a flat symbol on the line of the staff that corresponds to "B" would indicate that all "B" notes in the piece should be played as "B-flats," which are halfway between "A" and "B". The symbols that look like lowercase letter "b"s are flats. Key signature in B-major and g-sharp-minorA sharp symbol tells you that all notes on that line or space should be played a semitone higher than they would otherwise be played. The symbols that look like number or pound symbols are sharps. The key signatures progress in what is called the "circle of fifths"; that is, each key is a musical interval of one fifth from its neighboring key. In key signatures containing flats, the name of the key is the flat to the left of the last flat. A key signature with four flats, B, E, A, D, for example, is the key of A flat. The exception to this rule is the key of F, which has only one flat. In keys containing sharps, the name of the key is one step above the last sharp; for example, if there are three sharps, F, C, and G, the name of the key, one step above G, is "A". Notes can also be designated flats or sharps by flat or sharp symbols placed right before them within the piece of music. In this case, only the corresponding notes in that measure (see next step) are modified. Natural signs cancel a flat or a sharpIf the key signature tells you that all "B" notes, for example, should be played as "B-flats," a natural sign can be used before a single "B" note to indicate that that particular note and other "B" notes in that measure should be played as "B," not as "B-flat." Time signature highlighted in blueObserve the time signature. To the right of the key signature, if a key signature is present, will be the time signature (also known as the meter signature). The time signature typically consists of two numbers, and it looks like a fraction. It may stay constant throughout a piece of music, or it may change from time to time throughout a piece. A bar line or measure lineThe top number determines how many beats are in a measure or bar (a measure is defined by vertical lines, or bar lines, that run perpendicular to the staff). For instance, if the time signature is 3/4, there are three beats in a measure. The bottom number in the time signature determines what kind of note gets one beat. This number is most commonly 4, which means that a quarter note (see next step) gets one beat. It may also be 2, which means that a half note gets one beat. 4/4 time is so common that it is sometimes designated with the letter "C" ("common") in the time signature instead of with a fraction. Likewise, 2/2 time is sometimes designated by the letter "C" with a line running down through it. More complex time signatures may have an 8 or some other number on the bottom, but these are beyond the scope of this article. Play the notes and rests in relation to the time signature. Now that you know which lines and spaces correspond to which notes (thanks to the clef), you can read the piece from left to right. The symbols will either represent notes or rests. Rests indicate silence, so they do not designate any pitch; they are typically always placed in the same position on the staff. A variety of symbols are used to indicate the duration of a note or rest relative to other notes or rests.Notes:Rests: A whole note or semibreve appears as a circle on the staff in a measure and generally is worth as many beats as the measure contains. Thus when there are 4 beats per measure (as in 4/4 time) the whole note is worth 4 beats, while in 3/4 time, which has 3 beats per measure, the whole note is worth 3 beats. You will notice when you read the sheet music that generally if there is a whole note in a measure, there aren't any other notes, because the whole note takes up all of the beats available in that measure. An exception may occur in irregular time signatures, such as 5/4, where a whole note may designate five beats unless it is accompanied by another note or notes--typically a quarter note--in the same measure, in which case it would be worth 4 beats. Whole rests look like dark rectangles hanging down off the second line from the top of the staff and are worth the same duration as whole notes. You can remember that whole rests come DOWN from the line because it's like a hole was dug. Half notes or minim are worth 1/2 the duration of whole notes. They appear as an empty circle with a straight line dropping down off the left side or going up off the right side. In 4/4 time, a half-note receives two beats. Half rests look like dark rectangles sitting on top of the third line from the top of the staff and are worth the same duration as half notes. These can be differentiated from whole rests because the half rest looks like a top hat--hat and half sound similar. Quarter notes or crotchet are worth 1/4 the duration of whole notes. They look like solid circles with a straight line coming off of them (as in the half notes). In 4/4 time, quarter notes are worth 1 beat. Quarter rests are designated by a unique symbol that looks something like a bird flying sideways. They are worth the same amount of time as quarter notes. Sometimes they are represented by a symbol that is the mirror image of an eighth rest, shown later. Eighth notes or quaver are worth 1/8 the duration of whole notes. In 4/4 time, they are worth half a beat, so two eighth notes equal 1 beat, the equivalent of a quarter note. A single eighth note looks like the quarter note, but has a single "tail" that drops straight down or straight up and then curves back up or down toward the solid circle. Two or more eighth notes together are connected by a single bar at the bottom or top, instead of having "tails." Eighth rests look a little like a leaning stick figure person cut in half vertically and holding his head in his outstretched hand. Or like a stylized number 7 with some kind of growth--hopefully it's benign--on its top left end. They are worth the same duration as an eighth note. The one in this picture is actually a sixteenth rest, therefore having two bars on the top. Sixteenth notes or semiquaver are worth 1/16 the duration of whole notes.In 4/4 time, they are worth a quarter of a beat (four of them together make a single beat). A single sixteenth note looks like the eight note, but with two "tails" instead of one. When they're connected, it's with two bars, not one. A dot next to the note or rest means that it should be lengthened half of the note's duration. A dot next to a whole note means that the note should be played for the duration of a note and a half (depending on the time signature; if the whole note is four beats, then a whole note with a dot next to it is held for six beats). A dot next to a half note means that the note should be held for the duration of 3/4 of a note.[1] There are notes and rests of shorter durations than eighth notes and eighth rests, and these are designated by other symbols. Rests longer than whole rests may also be designated by a bar running through more than one measure with a number on top. The number indicates the number of measures of silence and does not necessarily correspond to the number of measures through which the symbol actually runs. Pay attention to how the notes are played together or in succession. D-minor triadFrequently you will see two or more notes "stacked" on top of each other on the staff. This is a chord, and indicates that all the notes should be played at the same time. Chords may only be played on polyphonic instruments (instruments on which you can play two or more notes independently or as a chord) such as the piano and guitar. If there is an arc connecting one note's circle to another note's circle, this is a tie, a slur, or a phrase mark. A tie occurs between two notes of the same pitch, and means that the notes are connected and should be held out for the total duration of the tied notes. A slur occurs between two (usually) different notes, and means that the notes should be voiced or articulated as little as possible. A Phrase mark generally is used over a series of notes, and means that you should play them continuously without a break in the musical thought. This is can also be referred to as legato.[2] If you see notes with dots over or under them (not next to them) play or sing them in a shortened fashion, leaving some silence between the notes so that they are detached from one another. This is referred to as staccato.[2]

Sunday, March 2, 2008

VOIP: lower phone costs on Net

Say hello to lower phone costs on Net

Internet calling has improved so much and become so inexpensive, it's a good time to try some of the services
By James S. Granelli, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
The cost of phone calls has been dropping for years, but there's still a lot of room to push prices down to pocket change -- if you're not afraid to make calls through your computer.

A growing number of calling services take advantage of the technology known as voice over Internet protocol, or VOIP. Thanks to continuing technological improvements, the plans are easier to use than ever and can save you a boatload of money on long-distance and, particularly, international calls.But don't rely on the plans as your only phone service: Most don't provide emergency 911 calling, and there can be other drawbacks as well.

You might not know it, but you're probably already using VOIP: It's the same technology that AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. use to handle your long-distance calls, and it's the backbone in the so-called digital-calling plans offered by cable TV giants like Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc.

The cost savings of VOIP has allowed upstart phone-based firms, including Vonage Holdings Corp. and Packet8, to compete against the big players, even though they don't own the lines to your home.

VOIP technology breaks up voice into data packets and sends it, like e-mail, over high-speed lines without the need for a lot of expensive hardware that phone companies use.

Scores of computer calling operations -- Skype Ltd., SightSpeed Inc. and Gizmo Project among them -- don't think those entrenched phone companies are passing the true savings of VOIP on to consumers.

And such companies as Mobivox Corp. and ISkoot Inc. believe that's especially true in the higher-priced mobile-phone industry, so they are bringing the same free and low-cost calls to cellphones.

"Costs of calling are dropping to free," said Andy Abramson, an industry and marketing consultant who has tested all the major VOIP operations.

Consumers might pay a basic access charge -- "an admission fee," Abramson called it -- for a connection or a basic calling plan, but they don't have to pay more just to talk to someone around the corner or around the world.

Neal H. Shact, chief executive of telephone services company CommuniTech Inc., recalled a visit to Paris two years ago when he spent $1,000 on cellphone calls.

"Two weeks later, I went to Sweden and used Skype through my laptop for even more calls and I didn't spend the whole $12 I had paid for," he said.

But the VOIP companies are businesses too and have to make a profit to continue offering service.

They typically make their money by selling extras, such as voice mail, extended voice and video recording, and international and nationwide calls to nonmembers.But even those prices are low: $30 a year for Skype customers to reach any number in North America and about 2 cents a minute for most providers to reach home phones in many countries.

The growing popularity of the programs has helped persuade two mainstream cellphone carriers -- T-Mobile USA Inc. and Britain's Mobile3 -- to create ways to let customers make calls and send messages without using their minutes.

T-Mobile uses software that links to high-speed Wi-Fi networks for free calls, messaging and data, and Mobile3 joined Skype on a new phone to allow free Skype-to-Skype calls on the cellular network as well as unrestricted Skype Chat messaging.

"All of these services give you a glimpse of what we are capable of doing if those who control the high-speed pipes into our homes aren't limiting access to what we want to use," said Marcelo Rodriguez, CEO of Voxilla Inc., a San Francisco company that provides information on Internet technologies.

For computer phone plans, the costs are so low that it's worthwhile to play with a number of them to see how they can cut your long-distance and international bills.

And with Skype, SightSpeed and a few others, free video is thrown in, as long as you want to sit in front of a computer and a webcam.

Setting up the calling programs is usually easy.

For the most part, you need only what many folks already have: a computer, an Internet connection and a headset with a microphone. Depending on the service, you might not need the computer or the headset once the programs are set up.

Skype, SightSpeed, Gizmo and others can be downloaded free from their websites. You'll have to register a user name and a password, much like you do for online banking and other services.

Some drawbacks

Sound quality can fluctuate from excellent to so-so, and calls can be dropped, albeit far less than with cellphones.

If you're looking for free calling, you'd better get your friends and relatives to use the same program you're using because nearly all of them allow free calling only among members.

Some drawbacks may be more in the eye of the beholder. If you spend a lot of time in front of the computer, then it may not be much of a stretch to use it to make a call.

If you have a laptop, you can take your calling plan with you. Computer-based calling plans usually don't offer mobile service. For that, you need programs like Mobivox and ISkoot.

If you want to see your grandchildren across country, then you'll be happy to sit by the computer as you talk to them and watch them. Video also can be used with a webcam on a laptop to walk around a house and show relatives -- or prospective buyers -- what it looks like.

But with some exceptions, video quality is poor. SightSpeed has won awards for its delivery, and Skype is close behind. Other services can give the impression of old-time movies: You hear "hello" well before you can see a grainy hand waving at the other end of the connection.

Other drawbacks to computer calling plans come with the high-tech territory. Voice is, after all, a program, much like Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat, so glitches can occur.

Some employers may have firewalls that block workers from using the programs at the office. And getting help can be difficult: Most companies don't even have a phone number to call for tech support, leaving you to the mercy of online forums, chat rooms and help sites.

Growing market

Though VOIP has been around for a few decades, the founders of Skype Technologies, now owned by EBay Inc., gave it mass appeal four years ago. The world's most popular Internet calling program says it has an average of about 10 million users online at any time and 30 million to 40 million members who use the program daily.

The overall VOIP market just for cable TV companies and independents like Vonage soared from 6.5 million households in mid-2006 to 11.8 million at the end of June, representing more than 10% of the total telephone market, according to TeleGeography Research. By the end of the year, phone-based firms should have 15.2 million customers.

TeleGeography estimated that Skype alone has 17.8 million registered U.S. subscribers, about 5.3 million of whom are active users. Free Skype-to-Skype calls accounted for 28 billion minutes of talking, half of which were international calls, and the operation handled 4.1 billion minutes of paid Skype-to-phone calls worldwide.

"There's no question that Skype is moving a ton of calls," said Stephan Beckert, research director at TeleGeography. "But the incumbent phone companies shouldn't lose any sleep over it. There were 300 billion minutes in total of cross-border traffic in the industry this year."

Though Skype and similar services aren't threatening the major phone and cable companies yet, they are "pointing to the direction of future phone service," Beckert said.

Shact of CommuniTech agrees, saying, "Skype really was a game changer."

The key? It was simple to install and easy to use. And it introduced the concept of free calling worldwide.

Through numerous upgrades, Skype remains one of the easiest programs to install and use. Just go to the company's website and download the program for either Microsoft or Apple operating systems. Create an account with a user name and a password, and you're ready to make calls.

You can use the program to search for friends and family already using Skype, or you can buy credit online and make calls to conventional phone lines here or abroad.

SightSpeed, Gizmo and others work similarly.

Jonathan Bernstein is such a big fan of SightSpeed that he's now a beta tester with ideas on how to develop the program for business use.

Bernstein signed up this year to call his son in Florida but wound up instead using it more for his Sierra Madre-based crisis management firm, where it has become a videoconferencing tool that lets him train clients and provide other help. SightSpeed can replace expensive conferencing hardware, he said.

"In a crisis, all the written words you put out in press releases are not as good as an effective speaker who can be seen in a video right after a crisis hits," he said.

Rates for calls

For basic calling, there are no "gotchas." The programs won't let you use services that cost additional money without prompting you to buy credit first.

But you still have to be on the lookout, especially for the costs of calling folks in other countries who are using conventional phones. The sites typically have a detailed list of how much you'll pay.

Though rates may start as low as 1.9 cents a minute to land lines in Canada, China, Germany, Britain and other developed nations, they are much higher elsewhere. Gizmo Project, for instance, charges 33.4 cents a minute for a call to land-line numbers in Afghanistan.

You also have to be careful about calling cellphones in foreign countries, most of which charge the calling party for the entire cost of the call. In the U.S. cellular world, the caller and the person being called share the costs. VOIP calls reflect those rates.

SightSpeed, for instance, charges 2 cents a minute for calls to U.S. and British land-line numbers and to U.S. cellphones, but the price for calling a cellphone in Britain is 22 cents a minute.

Those international cellphone calls are where Mobivox, ISkoot and a host of others -- such as Jajah Inc., Raketu Communications Inc., Rebtel, TalkPlus Inc., Jangl Inc. and Jaxtr Inc. -- can make a mark.

A few, particularly ISkoot, work mainly with smart phones, those more-expensive business-oriented handsets like BlackBerrys that are gaining fashion with consumers. That's mainly because you need a cellphone that allows you to download needed software.

But Mobivox, Jajah and others can be used with most cellphones or land-line phones.

Los Angeles resident Angela Choi said she used Mobivox regularly to call her boyfriend in Toronto.

"My phone bill used to be $400 a month, and now it's down to $100," she said.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

10 Things Your Tax Preparer Won't Tell You

10 Things Your Tax Preparer Won't Tell You
by Janet Paskin
Thursday, February 21, 2008
provided by YAHOO NEWS

1. "A big name doesn't always mean better service."

Roughly 135 million Americans file tax returns, and of those, two-thirds pay for help. While solo acts like CPAs and so-called enrolled agents have plenty of clients, almost 20% of taxpayers go through a big franchise like H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt or Liberty Tax Service to get their refund — last year an average $2,255 per return. Problem is, tax preparation and advice depend on the preparer, and in a system of franchises, that means thousands of seasonal employees and limited quality control.

The results can be dangerous. When staffers from the Government Accountability Office went undercover to get returns done by the big chains, they found "nearly all of the returns prepared for us were incorrect to some degree," according to the report. Worse yet, recently filed lawsuits allege that the owners of 125 Jackson Hewitt franchises cost the government $70 million in tax fraud and created an environment "in which fraudulent tax-return preparation is encouraged and flourishes," according to the Department of Justice. Jackson Hewitt says it stands behind its compliance procedures as well as its nationally standardized educational curriculum.

2. "You wouldn't believe what I get away with."

Complaints about tax preparers, including allegations of inaccuracies and returns that weren't filed on time, are up 80% in the past five years, says the Council of Better Business Bureaus. But when it comes to the IRS policing problem preparers, "the lifeguard is asleep," complains Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who took the agency to task for inaction last April. (The IRS had no comment.) Less than 1.5% of returns get audited, and while that may pacify nervous taxpayers, audits are the primary way to catch bad tax pros. The GAO found that a year after it reported poor preparers by name to the IRS, the agency had failed to audit a single one.

Professional organizations, like the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the National Association of Enrolled Agents, pack even less of a wallop because they often wait for the IRS to act. Then the AICPA will strip membership and report bad accountants to the relevant state-licensing group, says Tom Ochsenschlager, the association's VP of taxation. How to find out if your CPA's been disciplined? Visit the agency's web site at aicpa.org/TheCPALetter.

3. "You'd be better off without me."

Maybe you're hiring a tax preparer because you've got better things to do with your weekend or numbers make you dizzy — more power to you. But if you're hiring a pro because you think he's smarter than you, think again. On average tax preparers make more mistakes, and costlier ones, than Josie Taxpayer does. According to a study of IRS data, 56% of professionally prepared returns showed significant errors, compared with 47% of those done by the taxpayer. And audited taxpayers who used preparers owed an average of $363, while those who filed themselves owed $185.

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Of course, tax preparers often see more-difficult returns, which could lead to more errors. But the bottom line? "For one W-2, mortgage interest and a couple of kids, TurboTax is just fine," says Kerry Kerstetter, an Arkansas CPA. If, on the other hand, you're attaching a schedule for self-employment income or capital losses, consider getting help. And even then, if a return is made complicated by a one-time event — say, the birth of a child or the acquisition of a rental property — you might need only one year's worth of advice. "If nothing changes, you should be able to copy it from year to year," says Ochsenschlager.

4. "What are my qualifications? Well, I'm real good at Sudoku."

Every April, Sen. Grassley calls IRS officials before the Finance Committee to grill them on taxpayer protection. He's increasingly concerned about unethical, unlicensed tax preparers and what he calls "sharks in the water." "Anyone can call himself a tax preparer," Grassley laments. Many do. There's no mandatory national licensing, and Oregon and California are the only states that require tax pros to take a test. That means as many as 600,000 tax preparers are unregulated, according to the National Taxpayer Advocate, the taxpayer assistance wing of the IRS. Some may set up shop in a local real estate office, but many work for the big chains: H&R Block alone hires 120,000 people to prepare returns through tax season.

Translation: There's no universal standard for qualification. Licensed preparers, who are usually CPAs or enrolled agents, are tested and must meet ongoing education requirements. Unlicensed preparers do neither. In general that's fine — no harm, no foul. But in the worst case scenario — say, a tricky audit — only a pro with a license (or a lawyer) can represent you before the IRS. At stores like H&R Block, you'll pay extra for representation.

5. "If it's February, you're too late."

A savvy tax pro may be able to cut your tax bill or juice your refund. But don't expect to find one come Feb. 1. From that point through April, tax pros are generally too busy to talk to new clients. So if you don't already have a preparer lined up, by the time you actually have your W-2s in hand, "you're not going to get good service," says Frank Degan, an enrolled agent in Setauket, N.Y. "In the fall, though, tax preparers will give you their full attention." That means you should be talking to tax preparers in October and November. They'll have time to answer questions, look over your old returns and suggest changes.

Not only that, but talking to a tax pro in the fall means you still have time to plan. If you wait until you have all your W-2s, you've locked in all your income for the year. But in the fall a good preparer can help you figure out ways to manipulate your income by increasing your 401(k) contributions, deferring a bonus until the new year or taking taxable losses. Wait until spring and a professional can help you make small decisions, like whether to itemize or think about different deductions, says Bob Scharin, an analyst with Thomson Tax and Accounting, but you've lost most of your flexibility.

6. "You hired me, but your return is being done by some guy in India."

Some accounting firms have begun outsourcing return preparation, says Rich Brody, a University of New Mexico accounting professor. That means your data might be sent as far away as India — or as close as a local H&R Block, since the chain contracts with CPA firms to do returns. Either way, your accountant isn't obliged to tell you. "It's very scary," Brody says. "Your most sensitive information may have gone halfway around the world, and you have no idea." Indeed, sending Social Security numbers, names, addresses, birth dates and account numbers overseas electronically makes some people uneasy. For while the origins of identity theft are often hard to pinpoint, says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, returns contain so much "in one bright, shiny package — that's a great gift to the identity thief."

The number of outsourced returns is still small, but they're becoming increasingly common. An overseas company can process a return overnight for as little as $50, much less than a CPA's hourly rate. CCH, which provides such services, estimates that 240,000 returns will be outsourced in 2008 — up 20% from 2007.

7. "Taxes, shmaxes — let me see what else I can sell you."

The real money in tax prep has nothing to do with 1040 forms and W-2s. For the big-chain preparers, as well as your local accountant, the register really lights up only when they persuade you to take a loan, open a retirement account or buy insurance.

Chances are you don't need what they're selling, but the sales pitch may blur the issue. GAO staffers reported that when they visited the big-chain tax preparers, loans were described as "options" or "bank products"; on one visit a customer was asked to sign a loan application without being told what it was. Worse, these extras can do more harm for consumers than good: More than 80% of those who opened an "Express IRA" at H&R Block, for example, paid more in fees than they earned in interest, according to a lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general. (H&R Block says most Express IRA accounts opened between 2001 and 2005 have yielded "positive net tax savings benefits and interest earnings," even as the company "has lost money operating this program.") CPAs, too, are in the sales game, ever since the AICPA allowed members to sell insurance products. When commissions can be $20,000, says Terry DeMuth, an insurance wholesaler in California, "it's easy to get greedy."

8. "If I screw up, I'll pay up."

Worried about an audit? H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt are happy to ease your mind — for a price. Both offer the option of buying a souped-up guarantee that promises to cover any back taxes you owe, plus interest, fees and penalties. Here's what they don't say: You don't need the extra protection. If it turns out you owe back taxes, the big chains' basic (read: free) guarantee already covers fines, penalties and interest. Many CPAs and enrolled agents will do the same; they often have insurance for that very purpose. Just be sure to ask about it before one does your return.

But what about the back taxes? True, they could amount to a bigger expense than the fines and penalties, which may be why some chains can sell that extra guarantee. But H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt will cover you only up to $5,000 and exclude the most complicated returns. If you're tempted, know there may be an unintended consequence: If someone pays your taxes, the IRS considers that taxable income. In other words if you buy the guarantee, and H&R Block ends up paying your back taxes, expect to get a 1099 next January.

9. "Tax preparation is an art, not a science."

A recent law tightened penalties for tax preparers who play fast and loose with the tax code, taking far-fetched positions because they know 99% of returns never get audited. That said, for anyone with a complicated or unusual financial life, there's still lots of wiggle room, says Kerstetter, the CPA: "It's about 10% black, 10% white, and everything else is in the middle."

Chances are good you have room to maneuver if you have income in a category the tax code treats flexibly — you're self-employed, for example, or own rental property. Ditto if you've earned big capital gains or incurred high or unusual medical expenses. In short, Kerstetter says, if you're attaching a schedule to your return, a good tax preparer will pay for himself.

Now, that may mean raising a red flag with the IRS, and a good preparer should explain if he's taking risky positions, says Fred Giertz, of the National Tax Association. If you can't stomach the specter of an audit, you'll want a pro to err on the side of caution. And think twice before paying someone to look for loopholes if your income picture is relatively simple. "If you've got one W-2, you don't need someone fancy," says Kerstetter. "There's not a lot we can do for you."

10. "You could find a much better deal if you'd only shop around."

There's no standard price for doing taxes. Some preparers charge by the hour, others by the form; either way the cost depends on where you live, the complexity of your situation and the qualifications of your tax pro. Consider: The average H&R Block customer pays about $150; a CPA may charge 15 times that. Jay Adkisson, a California lawyer who specializes in helping people protect their assets, says, "People rely too much on word of mouth; they don't shop prices." If they did, they might be surprised. A licensed local pro may not cost much more than a national chain. Nadine Smith, an enrolled agent in Florida, charges by the form, and a simple return could cost just $200 — not much more than what you might pay at a big chain.

Even among franchises prices vary. The return that cost $90 to prepare at one big store cost more than three times that at another, according to the GAO study. To be fair, it may be hard to know what your return will cost before the preparer actually spends time on it. Ask for estimates using last year's return — that'll give you a point of comparison to find the best price.