Sunday, February 28, 2010

Weather

Checking weather online is mostly a matter of preference. You can usually get it from your local TV station's website, or you can use one of these sites. All but one provides national (US) and international weather, and all but one are supported by ads.

Who is AccuWeather.com? This is from their "About" page:
AccuWeather, established in 1962, is the World's Weather Authority. We provide local forecasts for everywhere in the United States and over two million locations worldwide. We also provide our products and services to more than 175,000 paying customers in media, business, government and institutions. Our headquarters in State College, PA, is home to the greatest number of forecast meteorologists in one location anywhere in the world.

AccuWeather.com recently changed their website, so if you haven't seen it in a while, you might want to stop by and see if you like it. Searching is easy: just type in your location and click "Go." If you need a location outside the US, use the "World," "Canada," or "UK/Ireland" links at the top left.

The homepage has maps and articles - scroll down to see them. You can also mouse over the menus for more options under "Forecast," "Radar & Maps," "News & Video," and more.

Click the "Downloads" link at the bottom of the screen for widgets and phone apps. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs the National Weather Service (also www.weather.gov). This website is the only one of the four mentioned here that does not have ads and that only has US weather. The graphics are not as slick, but they have the familiar look of many TV stations. See the links on the left for warnings and forecasts. To keep you informed on the go, they offer RSS feeds for warnings and forecasts, and you can sign up for text messages.

The Weather Channel has a website, simply weather.com (not to be confused with the NWS site, weather.gov). It looks slightly redesigned since the last time I used it, so give it a try if you haven't seen it recently. (It used to be video-intensive, which slowed loading time.) Although this cable TV station is shown in the US, the website offers world locations. The menu across the top offers "News," "Travel," "Driving Conditions," and more. There are some news items and articles on the homepage.

Forecasts are given in various spans of time, from hour-by-hour to 10-day. You can also see yesterday's weather information plus averages and historical information.

Scroll down to the bottom of the screen for widgets and browser extensions. You can also get text alerts and RSS feeds.

 Weather Underground says it was "the first Internet weather service" (see their About Us page for a history). There is no separate link for international weather - just type your location into the search box. This one tends to be my default because the 5-day forecast in the form of graphics and a short blurb is right on the results page. You can click for more information, but I like the quick show of information. I also like having the ability to see the moon phases and a star chart if I want. They also provide historical weather info and averages.

There are not as many articles here as on AccuWeather, but there are a few. You can upload your own photos and videos to share, and you can follow them on Facebook and Twitter. They also have RSS feeds as well as widgets and phone apps (click "Download" in the upper right).

I've mentioned Twitter in a couple of write-ups, but there's one more site I want to mention: Severe Weather Alert System (SWAS). (Thanks to TechCrunch for the blog post.) Follow the steps outlined on the homepage to sign up for local weather alerts, delivered to your Twitter account.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review - "Lullaby" by Claire Seeber

Jessica Finnegan is sitting in the coffee shop of London's Tate Museum with her infant son, waiting for her husband. A vaguely familiar woman approaches and gets a little too close to baby Louis, setting Jessica on edge. Her husband Mickey finally returns to his family, and the three begin wandering through the exhibits. Mickey and Louis get ahead of Jessica and eventually she realizes she can't find them. Thus begins a harrowing two weeks for her--Mickey turns up in the hospital, beaten and suffering amnesia, but Louis is nowhere to be found.

Jessica and Mickey met through work, and the sparks flew immediately. She got pregnant quickly, and they married a couple of months before her due date. Jessica feels as though she doesn't know her husband very well, but she thinks they have plenty of time to get used to each other. She also didn't take to mothering instinctively, but she has come to learn how to love her son fiercely and will do anything to get him back. Mickey has an ex-wife and Jessica has a younger brother, both of whom show up in the story and become tangled in the search for Louis.

Lullaby doesn't read like a crime novel, nor is it a character study of a mother with a missing child. Events unfold slowly, and in between clues there is a lot of crying, puffing on asthma inhalers, and drinking booze. The narrative is first-person, so we do see into Jessica's mind and can feel her emotions, but somehow she isn't an entirely sympathetic character. She does have a backstory that gets told in fragments as the plot continues and that colors her wariness towards the police, but there isn't much suspense. It's like author Seeber couldn't decide whether she was writing a thriller, a mystery, or something else. The police are involved; in fact, one female officer is dispatched to essentially babysit Jessica throughout her ordeal. Jessica has daddy issues, but the DI in charge of her case proves himself trustworthy, which helps her overcome her suspicion of the police in particular and men in general. However, that aspect of the story is somehow secondary to Jessica's own inner turmoil and her need to be active in the hunt for her baby. She goes off on her own a lot, trying to guess where he might be and sometimes following her brother Robbie in an attempt to find out what he might know.

Since the setting is London and the author is from there, the vocabulary is very English. It's not a major hindrance for American readers, but those unfamiliar with certain slang terms may find them a little distracting. Just be prepared to do a lot of contextual reading if you're not used to British-isms.

It's not that I don't recommend this book, but I do review it with caution. The description I initially read about it made me think it was a suspense novel or perhaps a mystery. If you don't go in with that attitude, maybe you'll enjoy it more than I did. If you're looking for more of a character study, try The Weight of Silence. (The link is for my review.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Advanced Medical Directives

What's the difference between an advanced medical directive, health care proxy, and a living will? Check out Nolo, a publisher of layman's guides on a variety of legal topics. They have a nice article explaining each term, but also look at other articles on similar subjects, particularly the one called Create a Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney in Your State. Each state handles these issues differently, and Nolo provides an easy way to find out what your state requires.

Beware the link pointing you to buy software. Choosing to buy or download is certainly an option, but before you shell out some cash, check with your local library and see if they have the Nolo books with forms inside. You can make photocopies and fill in the information yourself. Also try a Google search for your state's law library and see if someone there can point you to free forms. The law librarian should also be able to direct you to more information specific to your state.

Estate Planning - Where to Start?

Setting up a will is something everyone should do, but how do you get started? What's the difference between a will and a living will?

Nolo is a publisher of all kinds of layman's legal guides, and they have a helpful page on getting started. There's a FAQ plus a list of articles explaining various aspects of wills, living wills, and power of attorney. If you need more information, check with your local library. Chances are they have Nolo books on these and related topics. Not only is the information written in terms most people can understand, the books also have forms inside that you can photocopy and fill out yourself. It's possible you might want to purchase something to have at hand whenever you need it, but you can use the library books as test drives, so to speak, reading through several to determine which one(s) will be best for your situation.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Review - "The Postmistress" by Sarah Blake

It's 1940. The United States is doing its best to ignore events in Europe, though there are a few men who can't wait to join up and go fight. Iris James is the postmistress in Franklin, Massachusetts, a tiny town on the far tip of Cape Cod. Emma Fitch is the new wife of town doctor. Both women tune their radios to hear news from "over there," and one of those voices belongs to Frankie Bard, a young American woman working in London for Edward R. Murrow. Frankie does her best to tell stories of what life is like during the Blitz, and she finds herself frustrated that she doesn't seem to be making a difference. The US is determined to stay out of war, no matter what atrocities are occurring.

Emma's husband Will has a horrific experience delivering a baby, and he decides he can be of better use helping the wounded in London. Emma waits for word from him, trusting Iris to deliver any news both good and bad. Meanwhile, Frankie goes to Berlin to try to follow the Jews as they leave Germany and attempt to get to Lisbon, where the Germans are not yet in control and where they might have a chance to get to America and other places promising freedom. She takes along a portable recorder and captures the voices and stories of her fellow travelers. She is deeply moved by the idea that those people could be alive one minute and dead the next. She enjoys broadcasting the news from Europe, but she is at a loss as to what else she can do to bring the truth of the coming Holocaust to her listeners and to make them see that they need to get involved.

The women's stories entwine in a powerful way about halfway through the book. Frankie ends up with news of Will, and though she does not know Emma she resolves to deliver that news. Will had left a letter with Iris to give to Emma in the event of his death, but Iris isn't sure she'll be able to follow through. Emma just wants to know what's going on.

The book explores the question, What if? What if a radio journalist can't stay objective? What if a postmistress can't do her job? What if people sit on the sidelines or turn a blind eye when confronted with evil? The questions don't only address how the lives of Emma, Iris, and Frankie might have been different or whether the outcome of World War II might have been different had the US gotten involved sooner, but the questions are also relevant today. What can we as individuals do in the face of poverty, war, disease, injustice, not only around the world but also in our own neighborhoods? Is simply doing our jobs enough or is there more we can and should be doing?

This book is beautifully written, interweaving the lives of the three women while also giving them their own space to develop as characters. Author Blake never uses the word "holocaust," but anyone familiar with history knows exactly what is happening and what else will happen. Emotions, reactions, small towns, and the 1940s are all drawn in such a way that you feel like you're there. If you like characters who seem real, if you like stories that are not afraid to explore big issues, or if you like history brought to life, pick up this book. But be prepared to be challenged.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Online Tools

Here's a list of over 100 online tools. There are old standards such as Google and TinyURL, but new ones also make an appearance. From searching to chatting to dictionaries to collaborating, you'll find all kinds of sites to try. I don't see an index to all the categories so you might want to use the pull-down at the bottom to see 100 items on one page,then just scroll and browse.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Topographic Maps

Finding topographic maps online is not hard, but it can be difficult to print readable ones. Here are three sites to try:

Digital-Topo-Maps.com - This website uses Google Maps to pinpoint your US or Canadian location. Zoom in as much as you like, then click "MyTopo" to see the topographic view. Scroll down for the printing option (landscape or portrait). You can also purchase topo maps by using the links on the right. Scale may vary, or you may have to print several sheets in order to get the detail you want.

MSRMaps - This site is called Microsoft Research Maps and seems to be powered by Microsoft's search engine, Bing. Finding a US location is easy - just type in the address (as much or as little as you want) or latitude and longitude. You can also click the tiny map on the left to zoom in. Adjust the map size with the little boxes on the top left of the viewing area. You can see an aerial view or a topo view (or in some cases other options such as Urban Areas). You're allowed to download, email, or print maps. If you choose to print, it'll open a new window and give you options for resizing and changing paper size.

You can also click "Famous Places" at the top right of the screen and get a list of all kinds of places from sports stadiums to airports to landmarks such as Alcatraz or the Pentagon. Even if you're not looking for anything in particular, it's a neat site to browse.


USGS Store - On the right side of the screen is a link to "Download" Topo Maps Free. (If you click the link for "Topo Maps" you'll get an explanation of the different kinds of maps available.) Follow the instructions for finding a US location and for downloading. (I'm not finding this site easy to use. I don't know if it's because I'm using Firefox or because I'm just not patient enough to play with it, but I suggest trying one of the other sites mentioned here first. However, if you want to place an order to purchase a map, this is a good site.)

The US Geological Survey also has maps for sale and you might be able to see some really cool maps on their website, but printing may not be available.

If you're outside the US or you need a map for another country, do a Google search on your location of interest and add "topographic map." Most countries should have some kind of geographical department with maps available. You might not be able to print one for free, but you can probably purchase what you need.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Olympics Online

TechCrunch has organized a list of links to follow Olympic action as it unfolds from Vancouver, so I'm going to let their post speak for itself: A Guide to Following the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Take Classes Online - For Free

Ever wanted to sit in on a lecture but didn't want to formally enroll in a college course or couldn't afford tuition? You won't get college credit, but here are some ideas for furthering your education (or just learning for the heck of it).

You might first try searching YouTube, but quickly you'll probably find that it's not easy to get right to the lectures. How about using a site that searches YouTube for you? Apparently Bill Gates Hearts Academic Earth. Academic Earth is a fairly new site that gathers videos from across the Web - including YouTube - and organizes them by subject, by university, and by instructor. You don't have register in order to watch, but if you do create an account you can keep lists of favorites and participate in the site's community, like assigning a grade to each video.

You can also search Google for "free online classes" or something similar. If you're interested in a particular topic, add that to your search words. You might try searching by college or university to see if a certain school offers classes. Look for results that include .edu as part of the domain name. Colleges and universities have their names or initials in their URLs so it's usually pretty easy to identify the right websites. If you're not necessarily interested in college classes, just make sure the websites you do look at are authoritative so you know the information offered is trustworthy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book Review - "The Hidden" by Tobias Hill

This book is not a thriller, despite what the back cover says. It goes much deeper than that. Traditional suspense or thriller novels move at a fast pace and have clearly identified bad guys and good guys. The characters may be rather flat, although there is enough detail about the good guys to keep you interested in their fates. This book moves slowly, and the main character is a three-dimensional, well-formed person. He's probably someone you've come in contact with, although you might not call him a friend exactly. You probably feel like you don't know him all that well, though you like him. He's not really the kind of person you'd hang out with, but he seems nice enough.

Ben Mercer is that guy in the book. He's young--only twenty-five--but he already has an ex-wife and a little daughter. His ex has basically moved in with one of his professors, so he can't even find respite in his academic life. In fact, the reason he is in Greece is because he wanted to get away from England for a while and process the divorce and other changes. For a few weeks Ben works in the kitchen at a bar, but a colleague from Oxford happens to stop in one night and in the course of conversation, Ben finds himself discussing a job with an archaeological dig in the region once known as Sparta.

Upon arriving at the dig--soaked to the skin after an extremely long walk in the rain because his promised ride never came--Ben quickly realizes that there is something going on with some members of the dig, including his colleague. He feels like he's been dropped into a game already in progress with no idea of the teams or of the rules. In the end, Ben must decide how far he will go to be a full member of the group. He must decide if he truly even wants membership in the first place.

The dig itself is only a shallow layer of what is really going on with Ben's new coworkers. It's kind of a cover for their true activities. Ben wants them to trust him enough to tell him what they're up to, but at the same time, he never feels quite part of their group. The book itself is full of layers, with characters hiding things from each other and possibly from themselves. There are levels of guilt, greed, acceptance, friendship, loneliness, courage, belief, and love.

Interspersed among the chapters detailing Ben's activities are what the author calls "Notes Towards a Thesis." The thesis is Ben's, and he works at it with varying degrees of interest. By the end of the book, his notes are more like diary entries concerning the dig; his focus has shifted away from the past towards his present. You'll get a lot of Spartan history in these notes, which help explain some of the finds at the dig. You'll also get some Greek history, which color the extracurricular events Ben stumbles upon during the group's nights off. It's all interesting, and it presents another layer in life: how much does the past inform the present and how do present decisions affect the future?

Read this book if you have several days to digest it. Even when you have to close the covers for a while, you'll be thinking about it and about Ben until you have a chance to open it again. You'll get inside Ben's head though maybe not his heart. You'll feel his loneliness and his longing to be accepted, but there is still a layer of him that you won't quite see even at the end, because he only begins to see it himself.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Used Car Prices

Whether you're looking to buy or sell a used car, you probably want to check its value to make sure you're getting a good deal. You could go to your local library and ask about the Kelley Blue Book or the NADA Guide or possibly even the Edmund's book, but you can also check all three online. I'm going to focus on used cars, though you can look up new cars on all three as well.

The Kelley Blue Book is well-known. The book itself is small and comes out monthly. The website is updated weekly, although not every make and model will see changes that often. Prices depend on the market.

The site is easy to use. You can search in a variety of ways, but the most direct when looking for a particular car is probably by year, make, and model. KBB will show  you trade-in value, private party value, suggested retail value, and certified pre-owned value. It offers explanations of each so you know which one to choose, then depending on which option you clicked, you might be asked for mileage, equipment, and condition. KBB has prices for cars about twenty years old or newer. If you need a price for an older car or if you need to know what a car was worth on a particular date, check their FAQ for the information.

The NADA Guide is also well-known. The book is also small and comes out monthly (though older car values are published three times a year), and the website is updated at least that often.

Click "Pricing & Information" to get started. You'll be asked to select make, model, and year, then mileage and equipment. You'll then get rough trade-in, average trade-in, clean trade-in, and clean retail prices. For explanations, click each one and a small window will pop up.

You can find cars around twenty years old and newer. There's a tab on the top of the screen for classic cars, plus tabs for motorcycles, boats, and RVs. For historical prices, click "Help/FAQ" at the bottom of the screen. There's a link with instructions on how to obtain such information.

Edmunds may be unfamiliar, but the website is similar to the other two. They concentrate only on autos and have various tools for figuring out financing or listing a car for sale.

To start, click "Used Cars" at the top of the screen, then click "Appraise a Car," also at the top. (There is a link on this page for getting historical prices.) Choose your make, model, and year, then click "Appraise Your Car." Scroll down to input the options, then click "Get Pricing Report." The condition choices range from outstanding to damaged, so read the descriptions to figure out which one fits your car. For prices, you'll see trade-in, private party, and dealer retail values. Click each one to see an explanation.

You can also click the "True Market Value" link on the homepage and select  your year, make, and model. Then click "Appraise Your Car" and enter your equipment options to get the price.

Edmunds doesn't have information on older cars (at this point, older than 1990), so it suggests looking at local ads to get an idea on price. It also does not have historical information for cars older than 2000, but if you need such information, you are directed to the Contact Us form.

So which site is the best? NADA says it has access to the most information. Edmunds focuses only on automobiles. Dealers probably will use Kelley's or NADA. All three offer Carfax reports, but read the screens carefully in case there is a fee. It really comes down to which one you feel comfortable with.