A Review of Scribd’s Subscription eBook Service

Photo of a Hallway with Bookshelves Against One Wall and Lights Hanging from Ceiling

Introduction

[ This review replaces an earlier and much more positive review I had written about Scribd. ūüôĀ ]

I love books! I frequent libraries and bookstores and love the books I keep on our shelves at home. I’m also a big fan of subscription services and have been using some of them since their earliest days (Netflix, Dollar Shave Club). So when you offer me (e)books in a subscription format I’m eager to give it a try.

In the past I’ve subscribed to Amazon Kindle Unlimited (at least twice) but found that while the collection is huge the quality is lacking. Sure, there are tons of good books, but for every good book there seems to be a dozen worthless ones. I just haven’t had good luck finding books I wanted to read with Kindle Unlimited.

NOTE: I read almost exclusively nonfiction, so for those looking for fiction volumes, Kindle Unlimited may be a good choice, I just can’t speak from personal experience!

The Good

Where Scribd hits it out of the ballpark for me is in the quality and number of books on topics I’m interested in. For example, their religion/theology section is AWESOME.

And from a cursory glance Scribd seems to hit most of the core functionality needed in an ebook service:

  • Accessible via the web.
  • Dedicated mobile app.
  • Create lists of ebooks.
  • Create highlights and notes.
  • Remember last page read.
  • Robust search.
  • Browsable library.

In addition Scribd offers access to a significant library of audio books and magazines and while not my primary concern, this is certainly a nice feature!

The Bad

Unfortunately, as I’ve spent more time with Scribd, I’ve found the service has a few really significant faults. While I’m still subscribed at the moment I’m planning to cancel soon. I hope they’ll rectify these issues in the near future and I’ll be happy to resubscribe. It is a service with so much potential!

Lists That Forget

I love making lists – so I make lists of books I want to read. I began doing so on Scribd but ran into a problem. When I hit ~500 books on my lists, Scribd begins silently dropping the books I added first to the list! There is no warning, it just happens.

I’ve confirmed with Scribd that this is the service functioning as expected and while they are considering changing this, I haven’t seen any change in the months I’ve been using the service nor have I heard that there are definite intentions to do so.

Highlighting Limitations

If you need to highlight text on a single page things work well but if you want to highlight across multiple pages to create a single continuous highlight you can’t. You have to create multiple highlights. This is basic functionality included with Amazon’s Kindle and something I’ve come to expect, its lack is quite frustrating…though if this was the only problem with highlighting, I’d make do.

To the above you can add issues with memory utilization on mobile. If you make multiple highlights using the Scribd app it becomes progressively slower and more difficult to highlight. Exiting the app and reopening it resolves this issue, but this occurs fairly quickly and if you are doing highlighting with any frequency you will be closing and reopening the app regularly.

Perhaps I could live with both of these, but when combined with a third issue – the inability to see highlights/notes in a single place – I’m just not willing to deal with that many problems (and with such basic functionality)!

Goodbye Highlights/Notes When Book Expires

Highlights/notes seem to be tied specifically to each volume, so when a book is removed from the service one loses all the highlights/notes associated with the book. This is absolutely unacceptable.

In addition, I am concerned about whether Scribd also silently deletes highlights/notes after some magical number as it does with saved lists. Are highlights/notes being silently deleted as I make new ones?

There are some services such as Suprada Urval’s Exifile which allow you to export notes/highlights and I’m incredibly thankful for Suprada creating such a utility, but even this utility requires us to go into each book we have highlights/notes to perform an export. This isn’t Suprada’s fault, its part of the limitations of Scribd mentioned above.

Is It Worth It?

I was quite excited about Scribd when it was first released, but I’m pretty disappointed now. Depending on the sort of reader you are, Scribd may still be a good choice – for me though it has fatal flaws. I’m hoping Scribd will resolve these issues and I’ll be able to write a glowing review in the near future.

What do you think? Do you use Scribd? Have you found another subscription service you prefer?

Photo by Janko Ferlińć on Unsplash

Zoho Mail and Its Limitations For Free Accounts

Screenshot of Zoho Mail

There once was a company called AdventNet that created IT software – network monitoring, help desk ticketing, etc. Eventually they started this fledgling division called Zoho which seemed to me (at the time) like a distraction from their IT business. But Zoho grew and grew and eventually AdventNet changed its name to Zoho. Zoho still makes a line of IT software, but it is their Zoho Suite that more people are familiar with.

Screenshot of Zoho Mail

I’ve always liked their software, though sometimes it has been a bit rough around the edges. Part of this is because they usually offer free versions with a fairly robust featureset for those who only need a few users or to monitor a few systems.

In general I haven’t found these limitations to be too much of a nuisance, but I recently started using Zoho Mail and have been frustrated by the number of features which are only available in their paid version. Granted, the paid version isn’t bad – $28/yr. per user – but it isn’t what I’ve come to expect from Zoho.

I figured it would be helpful for others who are considering Zoho Mail as a solution for their needs to have a concise list of some of the more notable of these limitations…as the 25 free users offer is quite attractive at first glance. Without further ado, here is my list of functionality not available in the free version:

  • Mail Forwarding – Want to setup an email address [email protected] and forward it to [email protected]? You can’t on a free account. (Granted, you can create an email alias for an account).
  • POP/IMAP/ActiveSync – These are all methods of retrieving mail from Zoho’s server and are used by email client software like Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, or Mailbird. (Zoho does have a robust web interface, similar in functionality to Gmail’s, so this is only a deal breaker if you use a software email client).
  • Email Routing – Want to have emails sent to [email protected] routed to a third party helpdesk like Zendesk or Freshdesk? You can’t, it’s a premium feature. (That said, you can probably setup these and other services to access the account automatically and pull the emails).

Besides these limitations, Zoho Mail seems full-featured, the user interface is quite nice, and one can customize things with one’s custom domain rather than having @zohomail.com emails.

What alternatives do you have? At the price of free I’m not aware of many with any robust implementation. I’m luckily enough to be grandfathered into a G Suite account from back in the day when Google was still handing them out for free. ūüôā

The only other completely free solution I’m aware of (at least for a few users) that offers similar functionality to Zoho Mail (e.g., custom domain email rather than @provider.com email) is Bitrix24, but I’ve never personally used them (interestingly, they also have a decent suite of applications and offer a free phone number as well – though it doesn’t appear to come with any minutes, but per minute pricing is cheap). Do you have suggestions for alternatives?

If we look at paid alternatives things begin to open up a bit for us we can add Google Suite, Microsoft Office 365, Rackspace, and so on to the list. Yet Zoho Mail’s prices still seem to be among the best.

Its also worth noting that most web hosts I’ve used (e.g. Bluehost, SiteGround) offer free email hosting as well. These services tend to be fairly full-featured but really lacking in the UI department.

Finding the Best Medical Professionals Using the Internet in Six Steps

Image of Medical Professionals Research Spreadsheet

Introduction

This topic is close to my heart. There are those I love who really really need to get medical attention but have been frustrated by the ineptitude of some medical professionals. I’m writing this for you – yes, I really mean you! Pretty Please???

I’m also writing this to you, passing traveler on the information highway, because I want to see you find the medical care you need as well. I know you may be frustrated by multiple negative experiences, but I hope you’ll try using the method I outline below – I have been repeatedly satisfied with the results.

1. Finding Medical Professionals Covered By Your Health Insurance

The first step is to pull up your health insurance website and find the directory of providers covered by your insurance.[1] Here are links to those directories of providers on several of the largest health care insurer’s websites:

To get accurate results you’ll need to enter information about the health insurance plan you have (see your health insurance card) as well as the geographical locale in which you live. You should see a list of providers once you have provided the necessary information. Found it? Great!

2. Creating a List of Medical Professionals

Your next step is to create a list of medical professionals covering the sort of care you require. At this point I recommend creating the list without concern for who will be best or worst – instead, look at how close they are geographically to where you live.

I find that it’s best to add all of these individuals to a spreadsheet, and I’d recommend using Microsoft Excel,[3] Google Sheets, or AirTable. I’ve created a list provider spreadsheet template/example you can use.

Image of Medical Professionals Research Spreadsheet

In the first row you can place your column headings, which describes what will go in that part of the listing. I recommend starting with Provider Name, Distance (from your location), and Location (city).

Once all of the potential medical providers are listed in the spreadsheet, we are ready to move on to the next step…

3. Adding Health Professional Reviews to Your Spreadsheet

The next step is to go to a search engine (Google and Bing both work well) and to type in the title and then name of one of the providers followed by the city they are located in. This helps ensure that you get results for the correct practitioner – oftentimes multiple providers share the same name – even unusual ones!

In the image below you can see the results I received when entering “dr michael looney delmar” into Google. Notice how there are stars next to some of the results? These are the ratings the people on these review sites have given Dr. Looney–just like a product review on Amazon! You can visit the sites to see more details, but usually what we need is available right on the search results page. We are looking for the name of the review site, the rating the provider received, and the number of reviews the average is based on.

Image of Google Search Results

Now the spreadsheet you’ve created will need additional columns- two for each health review site we want to use. I have found the following to be among the most helpful review sites:

  • Healthgrades
  • Vitals¬†
  • Zocdoc – The nice thing about this one is that you can set up appointments through the web and there tend to be numerous reviews for doctors who participate in Zocdoc.
  • RateMDs
  • UCompareHealthCare
  • Wellness
  • PatientFusion – Good resource, but reviews seem to be largely limited to practitioners who use PatientFusion.
  • WebMD – They got into the game quite late, and while I expect them to continue to grow in quality, it’s hit or miss whether there are reviews of any given practitioner.

Here is a screenshot of the example spreadsheet I mentioned previously:

Image of Medical Professionals Research Spreadsheet

Note what I’ve done:

  1. I’ve shrunk the size of each column relating to the review sites as small as I can. This allows us to see all/most of the relevant rating info at once instead of needing to scroll right and left.
  2. I’ve shrunk the names to fit within the columns by using an abbreviation.
  3. I’ve created a column on the far left that explains the abbreviations I’ve used, for example, HG means HealthGrades.
  4. For each review listed on the Google Search results, I added the rating to the first column for that review site and then the number of reviews to the second column for the same review site.
  5. I also created another column that covers sites that I’ve found don’t usually have reviews of practitioners, but when they do can be a helpful source of information – in this case Facebook and Yelp.

I usually look at the first 2-3 pages of results to see what review sites/ratings show up. You’ll note that a number of the review sites columns are empty – this is because the review site/rating did not appear in the search results I’m seeing. That is perfectly okay!

You’ll then repeat this process for each provider on your list.

4. Picking the Best Medical Providers from Our Spreadsheet

Once we have our spreadsheet filled in we can begin to analyze the list of providers. Look for those with the highest scores across the most sites and from the most people. Soon you should have a few stand-out choices. If you don’t come up with any good choices, you can go back to the health insurance site and look at other providers further away. I know that isn’t what you want, and in most cases you shouldn’t need to, but it does happen sometimes – especially if you live in rural areas.

A couple tips on choosing the best providers:

  • I like to bold scores / number of reviews that are particularly high, this helps certain providers to stand out – especially if they have good reviews across several sites.
  • I like to italicize reviews that are particularly low, especially if they come from a high number of reviews. Again, the providers who have consistently poor scores across sites should begin to stick out as well.
  • While searching you may notice news articles or other helpful sites outside of review sites about a given provider, these can be of significant value.
  • Because you are looking at the consistently highest rated providers you may run into a few who have full schedules or for some other reason can’t see you, that’s okay, just move to the next person on your list.

5. Additional Things to Consider When Choosing Healthcare Providers

  • Don’t abandon the tried and true ways of finding a provider – talking to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors! Their advice can be golden and you can then validate their recommendations by adding them to your list. You may find there is significant overlap between who people local to you recommend and who seems the best based on online reviews.
  • Don’t forget to talk to any medical providers you currently have that you do like. They are often more than willing to make referrals to other providers who can meet your needs. Once again, you can validate the recommendations by adding them to the spreadsheet and comparing them to the providers you have looked at on your own. Hopefully you’ll see significant overlap!
  • Remember that we humans tend to review services we feel strongly about – positively or negatively. Just because a doctor has some bad reviews doesn’t mean they are a bad provider overall. This is why I recommend looking across multiple review sites. In general, the more data you have, the more accurate the results (which providers are best) will be.
  • In my experience, some professions have generally lower scores than other professions. For example, you may find pediatricians who have 5 stars on multiple sites from multiple reviewers, whereas for psychiatrists or oncologists you might find that the highest scores are 4’s. There are various reasons for this, one being that some professions deal with more intractable problems than others.
  • Just because the reviews say so, doesn’t mean the medical provider is perfect or infallible. Use your own best discernment to determine whether the provider is a good fit for you.
  • Some really good practitioners are eccentric or abrasive. You have to decide if their particular type of eccentricity / abrasiveness is something you are comfortable with. For me, I don’t mind a practitioner who lacks social graces and is a bit abrupt at times, but this may not work for you – and that is okay.

6. Getting the Care You Need at the Appointment

Some medical professionals will walk you through the care process from beginning to end. Others will do so only if you specifically point out to them the issue you are having. Yet others will be effective in their particular niche but won’t provide any sort of overall support when multiple providers are involved. I think all of these types of providers can be good providers – but the way you approach them needs to be different. Don’t assume that the doctor knows what you need or want, tell them the information you believe is relevant (try to be as concise and specific as possible).

If the provider recommends a medication or treatment and there is another you’d prefer, tell them so, and ask them if that would be okay or if there are specific reasons they are recommending one course of treatment over another. Providers oftentimes have a “go to” treatment/medication that they have seen success with, but if you mention another treatment of equal quality, they’ll oftentimes be willing to start you off on that medication/treatment.

Don’t be afraid to leave a provider that you feel is not meeting your needs, or who is not willing to work with you to get those needs met in some practical way–even if other people have had a good experience with that provider. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and that’s okay–but it shouldn’t hold you back from receiving the care you deserve.

Your Thoughts?!

What are your thoughts on this article and process? How do you find quality medical care providers? Is there anything unclear in the article? I look forward to your feedback!

  1. [1]If you don’t know the website of your healthcare provider type it into a search engine like Google or DuckDuckGo and it should appear in the results.
  2. [2]Requires you to login to your online account. Come on UHC!
  3. [3]If you don’t have a copy of Excel available, you can use the free online version.

Turmoil in the Medical Transcription World – A Career Path Full of Potholes and Dead Ends

Photo of a Pothole in a Road

In my last post I discussed working from home in general. ¬†In this post I’d like to delve a little more specifically into what it is like to work in the medical transcription field.

Many people are familiar with the term medical transcriptionist.  We are also known as medical language specialists.  I think that is actually a more accurate title, because to do this job well requires so much more than typing.  You have to understand what you are transcribing and have a really good grasp of anatomy and physiology as well as medical terminology, pharmacology and grammar.

The medical transcriptionist listens to and then transcribes recordings of physicians describing their interactions with patients.  These may include clinic visits in cardiology, gastroenterology, neurology, psychology, orthopedics, physical therapy, etc.  You may type emergency room visits or descriptions of surgical procedures.  If you were to work for a local physician, say a neurologist, you would type mainly neurology reports and you would quickly become proficient in neurological terminology.  When working for a transcription service you must be proficient in all the specialties and familiar with all the medical terminology that goes along with them. In addition to that you will have a very large number of physicians you will be typing for, which often presents a challenge as you strive to learn all of their varying accents and idiosyncrasies.

With the advent of new technology the transcription of reports is frequently being replaced with editing of reports.¬†¬† Computer software translates the physician’s spoken words into text which the transcriptionist then must edit while listening carefully to the dictation.

I personally prefer typing over editing, finding editing too monotonous, but I know people who love to edit.¬†¬† You can edit more lines per hour than you can transcribe, but don’t get too excited – the companies also pay less per line for editing! ¬†For transcribing dictation the rate may be 8 cents per line but the editing rate will probably be closer to 4 cents per line.¬† Yes, as a transcriptionist you work for pennies!¬† These pennies really do add up though and it is possible to make a good income as a transcriptionist or editor, but it takes a lot of skill, determination and self discipline…and often a¬†good dose¬†of luck as well, as I’ll explain¬† in just a bit.

There are, however, many drawbacks in the field that make it difficult to earn that good income. “Back in the day” it was a lucrative career, a profession.¬†¬†¬† Today it can be quite difficult to make even a decent wage in this profession.

I am currently sitting here typing this article instead of working at transcribing reports because there is no work available this morning.¬† I was tired, but got up with the 4:30 a.m. alarm to prepare for my day at work.¬† Settled in at 5 and ready to begin my workday when the all-too-familiar message appeared on my screen “While your queue is empty, work arrives continuously.¬† Please contact your QManager.”¬† Well, 1 hour and 20 minutes later and still that continuously arriving work is nowhere to be found!

I didn’t even bother to contact the QManager this morning‚Ķchoosing instead to write this article. The days I do contact the QManager I either get a message back saying “keep waiting, work is slowly coming in”‚Ķin other words, there is no work, sit tight and eventually there will be some.¬† The other option is that the QManager will find another account and have me begin work on that.¬† This can be a frustrating process as new accounts mean reading through pages and pages of instructions about what the client (hospital) expects.

There is so much variation from client to client. For example:

  • Some want their headings in bold, all caps while some want them in bold mixed case while others want all caps, but no bold.
  • Allergies in caps or not, bold or not.
  • Number all lists.¬† Don’t number lists.¬† Only number medications.
  • Patient names allowed in the report.¬† Patient names not allowed in the report.
  • Remember Dr. So and So; he wants to make up his own rules which you need to remember too.

You are expected to study these rules and remember them (or have notes everywhere as reminders!).   This is something that is done for every hospital or clinic you type for.  I currently have 4 hospitals I type for….so 4 sets of rules to keep straight.  You might type 3 reports for 1 hospital, then 2 for a different hospital, back to the first hospital for 1 report, onto a different hospital for 2…so you have to keep all these rules for all these different clients straight. So, sometimes I would rather be out of work and not typing than wading through trying to learn all these new rules for a temporary account.

One of the big downsides of being a transcriptionist is that we are only paid for those lines produced which means the time you spend studying those client expectations, time spent reading emails from your supervisor, time spent researching medication doses or unfamiliar terms or the name of the taco joint in St. Louis, Missouri the doctor mentions that the patient works at‚Ķ.all the time you spend doing any of these things you are not compensated for. The time spent waiting to see if any work comes into your queue isn’t compensated for, either (I know of one company that will pay you for up to 15 minutes of out of work time per day; not very helpful if you are out of work for 2, 3 or 4 hours!).

How many other professions are there where you are expected to report to work on time and not get paid if when you get there they have no work available for you to do?  This policy seems like a real injustice to me, but it is the norm in the medical transcription field.

Some companies require that you stay near your computer and “keep checking back” throughout our shift for work.¬†¬†Some employers offer “flex time.” If you come to work and there is none available¬†you can request flex time.¬†¬† This is helpful in a way as you can then go do something else for a while and work again later in the day when there is work available again.

But what if your schedule isn’t flexible?¬† I’m currently caring for my elderly mother who needs my full attention during the day…I get up early in the morning to work, before she is up.¬† If there is no work I don’t have the ability to come back 3 or 4 hours later to see if there is some available.¬† The result?¬† No pay for the hours lost.¬† This can make budgeting difficult and this lack of having a consistent dependable income¬†is one of the biggest problems that I see for¬†the medical transcriptionist.

There is another practice in the medical transcription field which I really don’t understand or like, because it means two transcriptionists with equal skills can be earning very different income based on the accounts they are doing and the rules of those accounts.

Let me explain.  We are paid by lines…so for example for every 65-character line we might be paid 8 cents for typing or 4 cents for editing.  I recently had been working at one company where my accounts were all straight typing, which I loved!  I had one account which had many macros (pre-typed text you can copy and paste into the report; this only takes seconds, but you get credit for all those lines just as if you had typed them) and it also had text often plugged right into the report, so before you typed anything at all you might already have 30 or 40 lines to your credit.  Other accounts never did this, so my line counts were always much lower when I worked on those accounts.

There are also varying rules for each account regarding how many blanks you can leave.¬†¬† The transcription companies put a lot of weight on how many blanks you leave and it counts against you if you send in too many reports with blanks.¬† The problem comes when one account might allow you to have 3 blanks in a report and not send it in for corrections while another account allows no blanks.¬† So it’s harder for the medical transcriptionist on the account with zero blanks to keep her submission rate low than it is for the transcriptionist on the other account, but there are no allowances for this (at least not at any companies I’ve worked for).¬† Since this is often tied to the amount of money you make it really can be more of a situation where luck of the draw (which account you are on) determines your paycheck more than how good a transcriptionist you are¬†or how hard you are working.

One company I know of will reduce your line rate to a mere 7 cents per line for straight transcription if you send more than 5% of your reports to QC for corrections.¬† Many times these submissions are not the transcriptionist’s fault.¬† I have had to send in reports when there was no dictation, the attending physician’s name was not dictated, or some other similar situation which couldn’t be avoided‚Ķthese reports counted against the QC submission rate and can result in a significant decrease in pay.¬† All rewards for 100% accuracy and high line counts disappear if the QC submission rate is deemed too high.¬†¬† We are always told not to guess, to flag anything we are unsure of – but if we do it just one too many times we can pay for it, literally.

I actually had this happen to me (I went from 11 cents a line to 7 cents a line) because I was 0.1% over the quota for that pay period…and I know that I had 2 reports¬†during that time¬†that were no dictations; it was almost certainly one of those reports that caused me to exceed the limit and lose several hundred dollars in pay that pay period.

I am writing this article not to discourage anyone from becoming a medical transcriptionist, because there are some positives things about this career, but there are also many downsides and I hope this article helps you go into it with your eyes wide open.  The charge for tuition to learn transcription is significant and learning this trade also requires substantial investment of time.

I went into this profession expecting to make very good wages and be appreciated for producing quality work.  Neither has happened, in nearly 12 years as a transcriptionist.  One of these days I will go back to school and finish my degree and get a better job.  But for now, I type on.

If you choose this profession I wish you well.  I hope you are one of the fortunate ones who can find a company that rewards your efforts and skill appropriately.

Earn.com A Little Extra on the Side

A Photo of a Clock with Small Piles of Money Near It

 

A Photo of a Clock with Small Piles of Money Near It
This photo was generously provided by Nattanan Kanchanaprat and Pixabay.

(Post Updated: Feb 13th, 2018)

What is Earn.com?

Earn.com is a nifty site where individuals can receive and respond to messages from various organizations and other individuals in exchange for a few dollars. For example I’m a member[1] of a number of lists including:

  • Facebook Users
  • GitHub Users
  • HTML Programmers
  • Instagram Users
  • Pinterest Users
  • Reddit Users
  • Twitter Users
  • YouTube Users

When someone wants to communicate with a certain population of individuals (e.g. twitter users), they can send a message through earn.com which pays x amount for each response. Or if someone wants to communicate with a specific individual they can reach out to that person with a message and an offer of payment for a response.

Why Would Anyone Send Messages Using Earn.com?

There actual use cases where one would want to send a message a groups of users or a specific individual For example:

  • Send a poll to Facebook users providing images of two different potential ads and asking which one would interest them more.
  • Sending out some content to Pinterest users you believe will go viral in hopes that they will pin it and share it.
  • Sharing a link to an awesome new YouTube video.
  • Contacting a CEO of a company you believe will be interested in your product or service.
  • Communicating with a well-known scientist who might otherwise not see your email among the innumerable she receives each day.

The more general the group the less one is likely to get paid per message…but there are also all sorts of niche groups – for example digital currency investors, hackers news users, and so on. I tend to see offers from these a bit more frequently – the cryptocurrency related messages seem to pay especially well.

Is There Any Money In Using Earn.com?

Sure. You aren’t going to get rich off it, but it is fun and provides some extra pocket change.

I’ve been on the site for a while[2] and accumulated around $120 with relatively little effort.

But there is more to Earn.com than pocket change for the occasional message…

Using Earn.com to Monetize Your Email

Earn.com can integrate with Gmail (your choice, I personally haven’t integrated yet). When you receive an email from an individual or organization that you don’t necessarily want to spend time responding to, you can “bounce” the email to Earn.com to gauge how serious they are in their desire to talk to you.

The individual or organization receives a reply email from Earn.com that indicates how much it will cost them to receive a response from you. They can then choose to go find someone else to bother or, if they are really interested in what you have to say or really think their product is meant for you, they can pay up. You spend a few moments replying to their message, pocket the cash, and if it is something you are actually interested in, the relationship continues from there.

Granted, this isn’t something that is going to work for everyone. But if you own a business and are being constantly propositioned by sales people, one way to weed out those who are running through an address book name by name is to charge them a few dollars for a response. They will probably move on to the next name on the list.

Similarly, if you are a public personality of some sort (e.g. actor, author, blogger) and you receive a lot of communications you could choose to charge a few dollars to get a response.

Obviously, this tool could be used poorly. I wouldn’t recommend charging your own family and friends to contact you.[3] And if you are an internet personality I’d suggest not requiring payment for every correspondence. On the other hand, it might be worthwhile to bounce some of those requests for guest posts (or to review a product) to Earn.com to test their seriousness and to make a few bucks.

Bonus: Your Money is Bitcoin

You’ve probably heard the words Bitcoin, digital currency, or cryptocurrency being thrown around on occasion – whether on/in the news or by a geeky friend. You probably also know that Bitcoin is worth a lot of money – I mean thousands of dollars for a single Bitcoin. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way for folks to get Bitcoin without spending a significant amount of money at this point in time (kind of like buying gold).[4] But Earn.com keeps your earnings as Bitcoin. As such your earnings can increase with Bitcoin price increases[5] and you can cash out in dollars or in Bitcoin.

In general I’m not recommending buying Bitcoin at the moment (I’m not a financial advisor, so go talk to someone who knows what they are talking about to decide whether to buy or not) due to the significant price fluctuations occurring (and the likelihood that another technology will supersede Bitcoin), but I would suggest keeping your Earn.com earnings as Bitcoin.

What About Those Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs)?

There are tons of companies right now trying to get in on the cryptocurrency boom. Some are for real but many of them aren’t. Of those that are real it is almost certain a majority of them will fail. If you get an offer to buy into an ICO I recommend, in general, not investing. If you decide you really think it is worth investing in, be sure to do your own research and DON’T INVEST MORE THAN YOU CAN AFFORD TO LOSE!!!!

Closing Thoughts

Earn.com is a fun, free way to make a few extra bucks. It is also a way you can contact individuals (and actually receive responses) that you might not otherwise be able to converse with (e.g. CEOs or blogging personalities). Because your earnings are kept as Bitcoin you also have the opportunity to get into the Bitcoin market at no monetary cost (just a few minutes of your time).

For those who are confused about what Bitcoin is and how it works – don’t worry, I plan on releasing a few articles in the near future on how cryptocurrencies work.

 

  1. [1]You can see my profile at: earn.com/davemackey/referral/?a=aj1r4df6vzgufrio
  2. [2]I don’t recall how long, long enough that I was on it before it was called earn.com
  3. [3]Doing so may result in the loss of said family and friends.
  4. [4]It used to be one could “mine” Bitcoin using one’s computer. These days there are specialized machines mining Bitcoin which make it almost impossible to earn anything significant using one’s own computer.
  5. [5]That is how I hit $120 so quickly….the value of my earnings increased with the increasing price in Bitcoin!

The Commandant by Rudolph Hoess (Book Review)

Photo of Rudolf Hoess

Photo of Rudolf Hoess
Photo of Rudolf Hoess, the infamous commander of Auschwitz, and the author of this book.

Rudolph Hoess was the SS Commandant over the concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II. Under his direction well over a million would die (Eichmann claimed 2.5 million!). These were not primarily enemy combatants but civilians – men, women, and children (primarily Jews).

Hoess wrote about his time at Auschwitz, not only what he did but how he thought and felt. This particular edition entitled The Commandant has been edited by Jurg Amann for length and clarity. It is a small volume of only 111 pages.

I found it highly disturbing, anxiety inducing, stomach churning – in other words, just what is needed. It is a prophylactic against future genocides, may God save us. It is an inducement to action in the present against ongoing genocides, God help us.

“But I must admit openly that the gassings had a calming effect on me…Up to this point it was not clear to me, nor to Eichmann, how the killing of the expected masses was to be done. Perhaps by gas? But how, and what kind of gas….Now I was at ease.”
– Rudolph Hoess, pg. 70.

Let me digress for a moment and speak as an American Christian. I suspect that someday when God reveals to us the true nature of the good and evil which we have done in our lives we will find that our apathy stands far above and beyond so many of the sins we endeavor so faithfully to avoid today.

Further, I suspect that our myopic dedication to these rote sins is an endeavor to distract our consciences from the true nature of our own selfishness.

Lord, save me from my apathy. From my righteous indignation over the sins of others that I use to assuage my burning conscience.

Diigo – Software I Use Every Day

Screenshot of Diigo Highliths

Diigo (a “personal knowledge management tool”) is a browser extension[1] that allows one to collect all sorts of information from across the web in a central repository where it can be easily accessed, shared, annotated, searched, and remembered.

Screenshot of Diigo Highliths
This is a screenshot of some of my Diigo highlights.

I don’t know that I aspire to be a¬†polymath, it is more like I hunger to be one. I consume information¬†in copious amounts and synthesize it together to help me understand the world (and share what I learn). But this presents a great challenge – how can I consume massive amounts of information while not losing what I have learned previously?

The answer is augmentation (along with an acceptance of my finite nature). In the past this might have included a physical filing cabinet, for me it consists of Diigo and a few other primarily digital means.

When one saves a site or article to Diigo, Diigo creates a record associated with that specific page. I then add one or more tags to categorize (create a taxonomy) this record among all my other records.

In addition, if the page includes content I consider to be of important, I highlight it and Diigo saves my highlights as well. It also allows me to add notes to the page. Recently I was reading an article about Thomas Oden and something he said connected with something William Barclay had said, so I added a note about the association.

Sometimes the pages can be summarized in a paragraph or two – in which case I attach a description to the page. I also use the description as a place to remind myself why I cared about this page.

Right now I have 25,361 items in my Diigo. An item is a record which is associated with a specific piece of content (usually a web page). Under many of these items are highlights and notes which help me remember the importance of the content.

I personally pay for their Professional level. It is around $60/yr. ($5/mo.), but I consider it well worth it.

There are some features/enhancements I’d like to see Diigo add in the near future, I’ve outlined my ideas below:

  • Archive.org Integration – Right now Diigo can¬†save a copy of a page if requested, which is great, but I’m wondering if it would make sense for Diigo to integrate with The Wayback Machine and cache every saved page.
  • Implement Hierarchical Taxonomies – Right now tags are a flat taxonomy, that is, no tag is a parent or child to another tag.
  • Separate DB of Trash Links – Right now I tag worthless pages as f-value, so if I come across them again in the future I don’t waste time rereading the material. It would be nice if Diigo maintain a per-user database of trash links and had a small visual reminder when we visited a useless site (e.g., a small trash can on the Diigo button).
  • Acquire / Integrate Zlink’s Better Search Chrome Extension – This nifty little extension lacks transparency about how it handles data, where it is stored, and hasn’t been updated since late 2015, but it offers a number of highly useful features. My favorites are:
    • The ability to vote up or down search results, also to delete search results (thus when one searches for the same term again, one sees customized search results).
    • Customization of search pages with navigation to other sites – e.g., makes it very easy to repeat the same search using another search engine with one click.
  • Expand API – The API currently supports only two methods – retrieve bookmarks and add bookmarks. It needs (at a minimum) the additional abilities of editing and deleting bookmarks.
    • I’d also like to have a way to exclude certain tags / sites from the retrieved bookmarks.
  • Ability to Save Chrome Extension Pages – For whatever reason, Diigo doesn’t seem capable of saving extension pages from Google Chrome’s store of extensions.

 

  1. [1]They also offer mobile apps, but I rarely use.

Stay Informed: Why College Tuition Has Increased So Much

Frustrated Student

A topic which has garnered significant attention in recent years – and especially during the presidential campaigns – is the significant increases in college tuition and the consequent backbreaking increases in student debt.

Doug Webber (Temple University) has written an interesting analysis of the cause(s) of this situation for FiveThirtyEight (aka, Nate Silvers & co.).

The overarching message is that there is no single cause of the tuition boom. The reason for rising costs differs based on the type of institution and the state it‚Äôs in, and even varies over time. But, at least among public institutions, the dominant factor has been a steady decrease in support for higher education on the part of state legislatures.”

Prior to reading this article my uninformed pseudo-opinion was that the bulk of cost increases came from unnecessary spending. This analysis, however, forces me to rethink that viewpoint.

That said in my (humble? I hope!) opinion, there may still be room for some navel-gazing within higher ed. There are three areas that come to mind:

  1. Reducing expenditures on buildings, especially in instances where existing buildings are sufficient, or where the architecture is unnecessarily elaborate.[1]
  2. Reducing expenditures on unnecessary services, especially in cases where the educational value is questionable and/or the value in recruiting students is minimal.[2]
  3. Utilizing and contributing to open source systems, such as those available from the Kuali Foundation. The prices of higher ed software is often high while the quality of the software is low.

This said, I realize that the potential cost savings I have mentioned above will not make a huge dent in student tuitions…and I would even go so far as to say that I’m not entirely sure the money should go to tuition decreases.

In many cases the faculty and staff of an educational institution are poorly compensated. This can be a social justice issue, which by its very nature should be corrected. It also has indirect negative effects on both the institution and the students. If faculty/staff need to work second jobs to survive, this reduces their availability to the institution and to the students. Tired faculty/staff result in decreased classroom lecture quality, decreased opportunities for personal interactions with students, and increase the more base aspects of our natures (e.g., temper, apathy, etc.).

I’d love to know what you think!

  1. [1]I tend toward pragmatism, as opposed to the aesthetic – so judge the validity of this comment as you may. I’m simply saying that I think most students would prefer lower tuition over highly vaulted ceilings (which result in a significant uptick in heating/cooling costs on an indefinite basis; in addition to the extra cost in construction).
  2. [2]e.g., While I consider it important to maintain functional, clean, and quality gym equipment – the latest and greatest gadgets may not be necessary. Another example might be televisions. I’m not saying not to have them in the residence halls or in the gyms, but I do think that generally they are an unnecessary expense that causes detriment to students. e.g., Many guys I know (including myself) will be drawn to focus on a TV no matter what is on (even if it is extremely uninteresting) and this causes a deterioration in the quality of conversation that can occur and the ability to study/think. As such, I’d suggest they be in recreational areas but avoided in most other areas.

Local Production Environment Choices for WordPress: DesktopServer

Photo of Man at Computer

DesktopServer

This product is essentially a WAMP / MAMP application that has been extended to include some additional WordPress oriented functionality.

In its free version the customizations that stood out to me are

  • its inclusion of Xdebug,
  • support for Domain Name Mapping,
  • auto-creation of Apache Virtual Hosts,
  • and its auto-install of WP.

I was surprised to note that they list PHP 5.5 as being included but no mention of PHP 7.

When one moves up to their premium product ($100) one receives

  • a trace utility for PHP debugging (which one?),
  • LAN sharing for mobile testing,
  • a few plugins (bypass login, airplane mode, enhanced Coda2 preview, Adobe Dreamweaver),
  • “blueprints for automated WordPress configurations”,
  • the ability to direct deploy to a live server,
  • and the ability to import (from BackupBuddy, Duplicator, BackWP Up, BackUp WordPress, InfiniteWP, ManageWP), export, and archive sites.

I didn’t spend a ton of time with it, as at the time I was looking for something that was virtualized – e.g., using Vagrant or Docker.

I’d want the premium version – ¬†but $100 is quite pricey, imho, especially when much of the product consists of open source components.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand this has had some significant time and effort put into it, but I’ll blog about a few other solutions available that are free and open source and you’ll see how they can stand shoulder to shoulder with DesktopServer.

Setting Up A Development Workstation

What Is This?

I wrote this primarily for myself – sometimes I don’t remember everything I do when setting up a workstation for development purposes…it may be of interest to others.

You’ll note that there are several areas missing from this arena – no build automation, task runners, etc. Maybe I’ll get around to adding them once I settle on some…but in the meantime, this still works for me.

[See bottom of this document for a list of revisions to this document]

Everybody Uses…

Version Control

  • Install¬†Git for Windows¬†for version control, ensure that Windows PATH is selected during the install so that you can use git from the command-line without needing to use Git’s special CLI.
  • I’d recommend also getting yourself a GUI to manage Git. Personally, I prefer that the editor I’m working in provide Git integration, but sometimes this isn’t available – in which case Atlassian’s SourceTree seems to do a good job.

Editor / IDE

IDE stands for Integrated Development Environment. This software offers numerous tools to expedite code development.

Editors on the other hand are much simpler, yet some people prefer them. We’ll look at a few of each of these.

Editors

  • NotePad++ – This is my base editor. The User Interface isn’t amazing, but it works beautifully. Especially awesome when it comes to working with large files.
  • Brackets – An open source project by Adobe, has a number of useful extensions. UI is attractive, I use this one over NotePad++ usually, except for note files (NotePad++ remembers the text you enter even if you don’t save the file) and large files.
  • Visual Studio Code – Another open source option by Microsoft.

IDEs

There are a huge number of options, Wikipedia has a fairly extensive list.

  • JetBrain’s phpStorm – JetBrain makes a number of different IDE’s¬†and unfortunately isn’t the clearest on which IDE one should purchase. phpStorm handles most web-based languages, but lacks a clear emphasis on JavaScript that webStorm has (but which lacks some of the php integration).
    • See Gary Hockin’s Debugging VVV Vagrant Setup with PhpStorm for helpful instructions on integrating one’s VVV setup into PhpStorm for interpreter and xdebug purposes.
      • If you are wondering where your xdebug.so file lives: /usr/lib/php/20151012/xdebug.so
      • And Code Sniffer:
        /usr/local/bin/phpcs
      • And PHPUnit:
        /usr/local/src/composer/vendor/phpunit
      • And Composer:
        /usr/local/src/composer/vendor/
      • And www folders:
        /srv/www/
      • And PHP:
        /usr/bin/php/
  • Microsoft’s Visual Studio¬†–¬†An IDE with a long and venerable history, more recently integrating a number of Xamarin cross-development features into the IDE. The Community Edition is free.
    • WARNING: Depending upon options selected, this installs Hyper-V; if you are running another virtualization technology (Virtual Box) expect to experience BSoD errors. Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience and I am not alone.
    • Supports Visual C++, Visual F#, Python, C#/.NET, Android/iOS.
  • Google’s Android Studio – For the creation of Android apps.

Interacting with Databases

  • You’ll want something that provides a handy way for interacting with databases, in which case I recommend HeidiSQL.
  • If you don’t have a database server currently, you’ll need one. A couple options include MySQL, MariaDB, Microsoft SQL Server, and PostgreSQL.

Virtualization

Image Management

  • You’ll need something to create/edit images with, I recommend paint.net. Despite its connection to a very basic predecessor (Windows Paint), this software can work miracles.
  • JPEGmini – Usually I wouldn’t recommend using lossy means of reducing image data footprint, but JPEGmini manages to offer significant lossy compression without any visible deterioration to the image, unfortunately it only works on jpeg files.
  • FileOptimizer – Offers compression for numerous different file formats in a lossless manner.

File Transfer

  • FileZilla is a good FTP client.
  • However, FTP is a plain-text protocol, so I’d look at using something SSH based like SFTP. In this case I’d recommend WinSCP or built-in functionality in your IDE (phpStorm for example).

Other Tools

  • You’ll also want a copy of ConEmu or another command line interface (CLI). This software is so much better than the default Windows console.
  • A good archive/compression application will make life much easier, and 7-Zip is the perfect application.
  • Hosts File Editor – While it hasn’t been updated since 2011, I find this software extremely handy when I want to make edits to the hosts file. It offers a nice GUI front-end for the hosts file and enables a number of different nifty features not built into the file itself.

Revisions To Document

  • 10/18/16
    • Added location of www pages on Vagrant.
  • ¬†10/16/16
    • Moved VVV under Vagrant.
    • Added link to Louie R.’s article on using Vagrant/VVV.
    • Changed Basics for Developers to Version Control.
    • Added link to VVV Wiki Article about Connecting to MySQL.
    • Added section on database servers.
    • Added link to article on integrating with PhpStorm, location of xdebug.so.
    • Added location of Code Sniffer; PHPUnit, Composer.