Monday, November 30, 2009

The White House

www.whitehouse.gov - Everything you need to know about what goes on in our Executive Branch of the federal government. President Obama was adept at using the Internet during his campaign in 2008, and his staff has not slowed down since he took office. There is a ton of information on the White House website. For instance, right from the front page you can:

  • see videos and pictures from recent events
  • get information on health care reform
  • follow the blog

The front page also has recent legislation plus a long list of related information at the bottom of the screen. If you want to stay on top of the news through other means, you can friend the White House on Facebook, get speeches on iTunes, watch videos on YouTube, or follow tweets on Twitter.

Use the tabs at the top of the screen to find information on all kinds of issues; to see more videos; to read speeches and remarks made by the president, first lady, and members of the administration; to get some biographical information on members of the cabinet as well as past presidents and first ladies; and to find out how the three branches of US federal government work together to keep the country running.

Students looking for introductory material will find quite a bit here, and citizens wanting to keep current on the issues in the news will certainly not be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book Review: "The Gathering Storm" by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

(excerpted)
This may be an obvious observation, but if you haven't been reading the series, this review isn't going to mean anything to you. But you can join in on the fun if go you to your local library or used book store and find book one, The Eye of the World. Then get your hands on the next ones, and by the time you get up to this current one, which is number twelve, it'll be out in paperback and you can then consider yourself all caught up.

Readers who enjoy high fantasy should definitely give this series a try. Robert Jordan has created a world that seems so real it's easy to get lost in it. He has numerous people groups, each one unique, with their own customs and governmental system. There are certain similarities to particular groups in the real world, but nothing is based entirely on any one people or place. There's just enough to make them seem familiar, but then he adds in magic (called "the One Power") and otherworldly creatures (like Trollocs) and you realize you're dealing with an intricately detailed location that has its own rules and problems.

The characters are strong and generally well-developed and the plotting is complex, so even if you're not into fantasy as a genre but you enjoy good storytelling, try the first book and see if you don't get hooked. Naturally some books in the series are better than others, but overall this series is a deeply satisfying read.

The first few times we see each character include some backstory explication, so if you didn't get a chance to do any re-reading, it's okay. Some phrases or paragraphs seem a little pendantic, but mostly (for me anyway) it was a good reminder of where everyone was and what they'd been doing at the end of book eleven. You do need to be familiar with terms and previous events in order to fully appreciate this volume as Sanderson (and/or Jordan) wasn't that explicit, but if you've totally immersed yourself in this series and can reel off trivial facts and names at will, then you might feel like you're in remedial class for a while. However, skim over those parts and get ready to dig into the meat of this story. The only part that will disappoint you is the last page, because then you'll realize you have to wait many months to find out what happens next.

Read my entire review >>

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Finding a Lawyer Online

If you are ever in need of a lawyer, finding one may be the hardest part. Where do you start? How can you find someone you can trust? If you try a general Internet search you'll get tons of results, but which ones are reputable?

Lawyers.com is a good place to begin your search. It was created by Martindale-Hubbell, the industry giant that's been rating lawyers and providing people with information for years, and which powers the lawyer locator on the American Bar Association's website. Lawyers.com is for the layperson while martindale.com is more for professionals. You can find similar information on both, but if you're just doing a search or if you're curious about everyday subjects like adoption, divorce, writing a will, or personal injury, lawyers.com is the better choice.

Start your search right in the middle of the homepage. You can search by name or firm if you know that, or if you're not sure who you want just yet, you can browse by area of expertise or by location.

Once you have a list of names, click either the name or the "More Info" button to get address, phone number, education, and possible rating information. You can create a list in order to compare lawyers. You might want to read the disclaimer at the bottom of the homepage before contacting any lawyers.

The homepage has tons of useful information, so even if you don't need a lawyer right now, spend some time browsing. There's sure to be something there that you'll want to know about. Use the tabs at the top of the screen for more stuff, like legal documents (under "Legal Help & Resources") or a Q&A section (under "Discuss Your Legal Issue"). There's also a blog with even more information. You might have to create an account to use some features of the site, but it should be free.

If you live outside the United States, check the links at the bottom of the homepage to see if there's a similar service for your country.

For a basic search, try attorneys.com. It's also provided by Martindale-Hubbell but there's none of the extra information, like documents and forms or how-tos.

Martindale.com is a networking tool for lawyers. You can still search for a lawyer by name or by area of expertise, and the information provided is similar to what is in lawyers.com. If you have a chance, spend some time with all the sites mentioned here and see which one(s) suits your needs. the best.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Book Recommendations About Convents, Vivaldi and Venice

(excerpted)
Fans of historical fiction and/or stories set in Italy should pick up at least one of these books: Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick, The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi's Venice by Laurel Corona, and Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant.

Vivaldi's Virgins and The Four Seasons take place in the Ospedale della Pieta in eighteenth-century Venice. The ospedale takes in orphans, and the girls are given music lessons, either in voice or on a stringed instrument. For a time Vivaldi, also known as the Red Priest, was the maestro and composer. Anna Maria is the main character in Vivaldi's Virgins, and she has taken up the violin and will become one of Vivaldi's best students. Anna Maria's story alternates between letters she writes as a child to her unknown birth mother and reflections on her life as she looks back on her years spent teaching at the ospedale.

The Four Seasons focuses more on two sisters, Maddalena and Chiaretta, also orphaned. Maddalena becomes a violinist, and Chiaretta has been blessed with a sweet voice. They grow up in the ospedale, then take two very different paths: One stays, the other marries. Corona has less mystery in her story than does Quick, but the details of convent life and Venetian life in general are fascinating. Both books address the question of identity and what it means to grow up without knowing one's parents or family history. Music is an ever-present factor in these two novels, how it was written and performed, how students were taught, and even how it shaped the girls' identities.

Dunant's book is also set in an Italian convent, but she chose Ferrara in the sixteenth century. The characters rarely step outside the grounds, although they do hear news from beyond their walls. The time is before Vivaldi's birth, but music is still a large influence in the lives of the nuns. Serafina's father brings her to Santa Caterina to get her away from her lover. She has a beautiful voice, but once inside she refuses to use it. Suora Zuana, the convent's apothecary, tries to take her under her wing, but Serafina has her mind only on escape. Serafina causes quite a disturbance in the ordered life of the sisters, and Zuana has to decide between what she knows is right and what the abbess wants.

All three of these books are wonderfully detailed and take the reader to an exciting time in Italy's history. The sights, sounds, and smells are rich and vivid. The characters are complex and interesting, including Vivaldi himself. Their struggles and the choices they must make are timeless, and the authors have crafted every aspect of their lives beautifully.


Read my entire review >>

photo courtesy of Flickr

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Comparing Hospitals

If you've ever needed to know the best place to get certain kinds of treatment or you want to find success rates or procedure costs, try Hospital Compare, from the US Department of Health and Human Services. It's also used by Medicare. (WARNING: This site does not seem to work in Firefox. You'll probably need Internet Explorer to see it.)

You can search by hospital name or location, so you can see information on one particular place or perhaps see all the hospitals within a certain ZIP code or town. Some states, like Texas, are broken down by region, and US territories are included. You can compare up to three hospitals at once.

The homepage has lots of explanatory information as well as a link on how to use the site (it opens a new window). When you're ready to search, click the "Find and Compare Hospitals" button on the homepage. There's quite a bit of useful information here, and it's nice to have it all in one place.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

AARP

AARP is generally for persons over age 50, and their website, which is newsy and informative, focuses on issues of interest to senior citizens.

There are blogs and news items on topics such as travel, health, money, and politics. You can register for a free account and join the AARP online community. Chat in the forums (groups), follow discussions, or sign up for the newsletter in your email.

Click the link at the top of the homepage to see selected articles from the AARP magazine. Not all the articles are available online, but quite a few are there. Use the drop-down menu on the right to see past issues back to 2003. If you see something you like, you can print it or email it.

For more news articles, click the Bulletin Today link at the top of the homepage. Here you can get articles plus diversions such as sudoku puzzles. Use the "In Your State" link to get local information.

To get statistics and research information, click the "Research" link at the top of the homepage. The research section can be searched separately from the rest of the website by using the search box on the left. If you want to search the entire AARP website, use the box at the top of most screens.

Want to join AARP or renew your subscription? You can do that on their website as well. The link is generally at the top of the screen.

The link AARP Segunda Juventud takes you to the online version of their magazine with news focusing on issues facing Hispanics. Articles from the print version are searchable, and this website is also available in Spanish.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book Review: "True Blue" by David Baldacci

(excerpted)
True Blue starts with Mace Perry, a former policewoman for the District of Columbia, coming to the end of her two-year jail term. She swears she was set up in retaliation for infiltrating a drug ring, but since she was convicted she is no longer eligible to rejoin the police force. She is at odds for a while on what to do next, but soon enough a case ends up in her lap. A lawyer is murdered and found in the office fridge, and a US attorney is also murdered and stuffed into a Dumpster. Are the cases related? Who else might be on the hit list? Mace's sister Beth is the chief of police, so Mace has some leeway plus lots of former contacts. She figures if she can solve the murders on her own, the force will have to hire her back. Mace is assisted by Roy, the lawyer who found his colleague in the fridge, and the two of them set out to answer all the questions of who and why. Mace, Roy, and Beth use their wits and muscle to follow the clues and to stay alive. They quickly find out who they can trust and who they can't.

Fans of Baldacci's books about former Secret Service agents Michelle Maxwell and Sean King will most likely enjoy this one. Maxwell and King (Split Second, Hour Game, Simple Genius, First Family) also felt they had something to prove to their former employers, and they ended up partners on the job and in their personal lives. Will the same happen with Mace and Roy? Begin with this latest book, and read and find out.

Read my entire review >>

Monday, November 9, 2009

Book Review: "The Weight of Silence" by Heather Gudenkauf

(excerpted)
Two seven-year-old girls, Calli and Petra, disappear from their homes in the wee hours of the morning. The girls are best friends, so their families assume at first that they must have gone somewhere together. But what really happened? Did Calli's dad actually go on the fishing trip he'd planned? Who caught Petra's attention while walking by her house? Calli knows the woods behind her house extremely well, but is she too scared to find her way back out? Can her big brother Ben find her? Oh yeah, the situation is more complicated because Calli doesn't talk.

If you like suspense stories with well-drawn characters, pick up this book. If you enjoy getting inside people's heads and figuring out why they do what they do, this book is for you. No one knows how they will react in horrific situations until they happen, but this story shows a few possible options. Relationships here are deep and messy, just like in real life, and sometimes, as in real life, true love just might win out.

Other books about missing children you might like:

The Deep End of the Ocean and its sequel No Time to Wave Goodbye by Jacqueline Mitchard
Place Last Seen by Charlotte McGuinn Freeman

Read my entire review >>

Social Security Administration


This site for Social Security is not just for senior citizens, but they probably are the ones most likely to need it often. The homepage is filled with information on Medicare, disability and retirement benefits, and office locations.

Anyone needing a new Social Security card can look here to find out to get one. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is here. If you need a form or you want to check on your earnings, that's all here. Survivors of persons eligible for benefits can figure out what to do here. If you're self-employed, there's a section for you on the "Group" drop-down menu. Basically, if you're reading this blog post, go to this website and look around. It's packed full of useful, easy to find information, and even if you don't need it now, you will at some point - guaranteed.

The site is also available in Spanish and several other languages. See the links in the top right corner of the screen.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Seniors.gov

Attention, seniors! (Not high school students but persons of a certain age - you know who you are.) Did you know the federal government has a website just for you? At seniors.gov you can find all kinds of information geared toward your particular circumstances in life. With topics like raising grandchildren, health issues, advance directives, age discrimination, and travel, there's sure to be something here that will apply to you at some point.

Caregivers can also find information here, such as how to choose a nursing home or getting support for yourself. Whether caring for a parent or spouse, there's some good stuff for you.

The links on the left are for the entire US government website, so concentrate on the ones in the center and on the right. If you need larger text, click the "A" near the top right of the screen until the page is comfortable to read.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

If You Love King Arthur Stories, Check Out These Five Authors

King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Guenevere, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake. Tristan and Isolde. Sir Kay, Sir Galahad, Sir Bors. If you love the legends surrounding Excalibur, Camelot, and Avalon, get your hands on these books and settle in for a trip back in time when chivalry was alive, when the knights wore armor and the damsels may have been in distress but were certainly capable of taking care of themselves.

Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell wrote a trilogy about Arthur and company (The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur) and now is writing a series called The Grail Quest. On his website he says that The Warlord Chronicles were his favorite. He includes lots of battles and lots of blood and guts. None of these books is for the faint-hearted, but if you want a realistic picture of what life was like in the early days of Britain, you'll find that here. The Grail Quest takes place in the fourteenth century in England and France and follows a fellow named Thomas of Hookton as he searches for the Holy Grail.

Stephen Lawhead, Pendragon Cycle

There are five books in this series, beginning with Taliesin. Taliesin is a bard of unknown origins who falls in love with Charis, a girl from Atlantis, and they become the parents of Merlin. Author Stephen Lawhead writes beautifully, setting the scenes so well that you'd swear you were actually living with the characters. Merlin gets the second book in the series, and Arthur gets the others. The books are filled with the colors, sights, and sounds of battles, songs, the countryside, bad-tempered villains, and heroic good guys. Lawhead uses Welsh and Gaelic spellings for some names, which should appeal to language lovers. Most of the legendary elements are here, although the final book, Grail, feels a bit tacked-on, like Lawhead realized he'd left out that part of the story and went back to include it. At least read the first three books. If you like them, read the fourth, which goes back to fill in glossed-over areas. Only if you absolutelylove those should you read Grail. The series is enjoyable enough without it.

Rosalind Miles

If you like your female characters to kick butt, try Rosalind Miles' Guenevere trilogy. Taking her from girl to queen, Miles presents Guenevere's side of the legend. Lancelot is here as well as Arthur's bastard son Mordred. How might Guenevere have felt about each man in her life? Miles shifts her focus for another set of books, turning to the minor (and sometimes non-existant) character Isolde. Isolde is heir to the throne of Ireland but falls in love with Sir Tristan, one of Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. This legend is not as well-known and so if you've read everything else about Arthur and Guenevere, try this one about Isolde. Even if you don't continue, at least get the first one, Isolde: Queen of the Western Isle.

photo courtesy of Flickr

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Better Than Wikipedia?

Are you a lover or a hater of Wikipedia? Do you turn to it first thing, or do you distrust it with a passion? How many topics listed there show up in the top ten results when you do a Google search? Wikipedia sure is popular, even though debate continues on whether it can be considered reliable and authoritative.

How about an alternative?

How about Encyclopedia.com? They do have a short "About Us" page, but just look at their homepage to see what kinds of credible sources they have. There are general encyclopedias, biographies, medical sources, dictionaries...over 100 sources. And the best part? It's all free!

There are some ads and sponsored sites from Google, but navigation is pretty easy. You might also get some Flickr pictures or YouTube videos. Under the encyclopedia results you'll find magazine and newspaper articles (but keep reading to see how to access these).

Depending on the topic you might only get a paragraph of information, but Wikipedia articles aren't usually very long either. Also, Wikipedia doesn't do keyword searching. It only brings back a match if someone has written an article specifically on your search terms. Encyclopedia.com does do keyword searching, so even if there isn't an article just on your topic, it'll bring back related articles.

Encyclopedia.com is run by Cengage Learning, a publishing company that puts out the sources used in the website. Cengage has partnered with HighBeam Research to give you access to the magazine and newspaper articles. (You may have come across HighBeam if you've ever tried looking for a magazine article through a Google search.) HighBeam offers a free 7-day trial to read its articles*.

Try a few searches in both Encyclopedia.com and Wikipedia. Which one seems to have more comprehensive articles? Which one is easier to use? Which one do you trust to be true? (Since "anyone" can edit Wikipedia at any time, there's no guarantee what you see today will be there tomorrow.) Encyclopedia.com may not have the scope of Wikipedia, but give it a chance the next time you're looking for some basic information.

*Or you could, you know, go to your local library. Chances are your librarian can find you that article or a similar one for free. And he or she can also show you how to find more while searching from home in the middle of the night in your pajamas.