Archive for month: July 2017

College isn’t just for trust fund kids: free online courses offered by leading universities

College isn’t just for trust fund kids: free online courses offered by leading universities

I used to think higher education was only for geniuses or people with lots of money. I was working two jobs and barely getting by, and if someone hadn’t helped me figure out how to make use of the educational resources at my disposal, I would still be living paycheck to paycheck rather than building a career.

The truth is, it is easier than ever to get educated, and cheaper too. There are loads of resources at your fingertips if you know how to find them. But for many people, that is the sticking point: you have to know what you have access to in order to get an education, but if you aren’t in the educational system, chances are high that you don’t know what you have access to.

Of course, not all knowledge comes with a degree, and not all degrees come with all that much knowledge. There are plenty of degreed and degree-less options and plenty of jobs that value demonstration of skill above a degree. Depending on your goals and interests, a combination of the two is likely the best bet for most people.

Almost all degree courses cost money, but not all degrees guarantee a well-paying job, or even any job, while there are plenty of self-taught people working for leading companies all over the world.

You can take classes online, now more than ever. Most colleges in the U.S. recognize the value and convenience of the virtual classroom to teachers and students, although few offer full degrees online. Some classes lend themselves to a digital platform (like computer sciences) while others are more difficult, though not impossible. I took Spanish 101 online using video chatting software (like Skype) to communicate with my teacher and classmates, and it was difficult, though not impossible.

YouTube is the only thing that got me through a college algebra class with a bad teacher. Math is not my strongest suite (which is why I am an English major!), but I found a wealth of tutors on YouTube teaching everything I needed to know. I found one who explained things in a way that made sense to me and then watched whichever of his videos corresponded with what I was learning. I also found YouTube tutors for Spanish and learning Adobe Photoshop. The best part is that if they are moving too fast for you to follow along, you can pause or rewind the video.

  • Crash Course is a channel owned and operated by John and Hank Green (the Vlogbrothers) and a team of experts, aimed at providing an easy-to-follow and entertaining overview of topics like world history, biology, physics, literature, and more.
  • Sci Show is another channel by the same people focused on topics in science.

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are courses offered online (mostly for free) through some of the best universities, like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, John Hopkins, and University of Michigan. Some offer a certification at the end of their courses—which, while it isn’t a degree, is at least something tangible to show your hard work. But a few do also offer actual college credit, which can be transferred to the school of your choice.

You can learn about data science, robotics, programming, business, social sciences, take foreign language classes, and more.

  • Coursera also offers four Masters Programs entirely online for a fee and intends to add 15 to 20 new degree programs by 2019.
  • edX is very similar to Coursera, so if you can’t find what you are looking for on one site, check the other.
  • Udacity is partnered with Google, Amazon, IBM and other leading tech companies to offer—surprise—training in the cutting edge technology of tomorrow. If you want to program websites, work on self-driving cars, develop artificial intelligence, or work with virtual reality, this may be the site for you. Some courses are free, some cost money. But all promise to set you up with real-world skills you can use to get into a career.
  • Kadenze is focused on the arts, giving students a footing in the software they need to create music, art, and design projects. It also allows students to access many of their resources for free, but a $10/month membership fee unlocks all the features of an actual online learning experience, as well as all the classes and a certificate of completion. That’s the cost of a Netflix membership!


Best sites and apps to plan your next vacation

Best sites and apps to plan your next vacation

It’s time to go on vacation! Where do you even begin? Vacation planning can be a headache, but it doesn’t have to be if you use some of the site and app recommendations below.

Quick disclaimer: Most of the apps below are designed for urban areas, and work most places in the U.S. But depending upon your vacation destination, they may or may not work extremely well (or at all) in all locations.

Stage 1: Inspiration

Pinterest is built on inspiration. Just go to the Travel boards and explore. Or use Pinterest to pin things you would like to save from other sites. I pin things to my Travel Board just because I like to look at them all at once, side-by-side.

Google Voyager- Travel makes looking around strange cities a breeze. Get a sample of the famous landmarks, look a little closer by using Street View, and save places to My Places so you can find them when you actually get there, using Google Maps.

TripAdvisor is a great all-around resource. You can get destination ideas by entering the kind of vacation you like, find restaurant and attraction suggestions, and see what other people thought of those places. You will come up with a wealth of recommendations just by reading the comments.

tripadvisor lets you choose the type of vacation you want


Stage 2: Planning

Find a vacation package deal:

In the age of the internet, travel agents aren’t doing so hot, so you can find some pretty amazing deals where most of the work has been done for you; you just have to show up.

Groupon always has fabulous vacation packages for not a lot of money. My latest 2-week vacation to 5 capital cities in Europe cost around $4000 for 2 people—and that included airfare, hotels, multiple tours in each city, and flights or trains between cities! A word of warning: before booking, make sure to Google reviews for the agency you are considering. There are plenty with a bad reputation running deals too good to be true.

Hotwire, Expedia, and other discount booking services don’t just do hotels—you can book a package deal including accommodations, car rental, and flights at a package discount. searches a bunch of cruise lines all over the world for the best deals. Maybe you prefer to cruise where it’s sunny and tropical. Maybe you’d rather see the Alaskan coast. Maybe you would like to cruise down a famous river in Europe. Just select your dates, preferred departure port, and destination, and see what kind of deals you can find


Flight deals are mostly the same across the web. The factor that affects flight prices more than the retailer is the travel date, and even the date it is booked. Time is on your side, and you are usually better off if you have more than two months to plan.

Google flights is better than other flight bookers, and here’s why—they will tell you when the price of your desired flight is about to go up, they actively provide tips that will save you money (like tweaking your travel dates a bit), and you can use the “flights” filter in Google maps to see what it costs to fly to several different cities.


One of the biggest expense of travel is the accommodations. This can also determine how much you enjoy yourself: a hotel with free wifi, private bathrooms, and a definition of “clean” that is similar to yours is far preferable to the alternatives.

Hotwire is my personal choice of hotel booker, though I’ve heard that some of the others are becoming more competitive. I like booking the “Hot Rate” hotels—you get some details (general location, comparable chains, amenities, and reviews), but the actual hotel is a mystery, which makes it exciting. This is also how you can stay in a 4-star hotel for a 2-star price.

Airbnb lets you book a single room or an entire house, and if you are traveling with a group, booking a house or condo might a lot more economical than staying in a hotel. Not to mention that staying in a local’s house is more interesting, and you can ask them where to eat or what to see. And safety isn’t an issue.

Stage 3: While you are there


Renting a car can be super convenient if you have a long distance to drive, or you are not in an urban area. Otherwise, it’s a hassle. Who wants to drive in traffic or find parking (that you then might have to pay for)?

Uber makes getting around super fast, easy and cheap. The app is incredibly easy to use, and your payment happens through it. Not to mention that the company tracks your car through Google maps, making sure that the driver is taking the most direct route (unlike some cab drivers who take you all over the city to get an extra $20). And the background checks and strict review system make it hard to be a bad Uber driver.

Lyft is Uber’s direct competitor and may be easier to use in some cities.

Public transport:

While Google Maps works extremely well in some locations, it really doesn’t in others (like Vienna).

Transit authority’s app (if available). Some cities make getting around easy (mostly cities that get a lot of tourists every year) by providing an app. If the app gives you options for multiple modes of travel, great. If it doesn’t (maybe it is owned by one transportation company, and only shows you how to get around using that company), you’re better off finding a third party app that shows everything available.

Google Maps is still my favorite map app, because it is easy and puts navigation, public transport, and saved places in one spot. Very occasionally it isn’t available. Or is extremely inaccurate, depending on the support they have in each city.

Citymapper is a free app which includes options for train, underground, bus, Uber, or bike.

BONUS: Citybike is a bike sharing service in Vienna that I used. The concept is that you rent a bike at a kiosk, ride it to the kiosk closest to your destination, and then turn it in. The whole process is automated, and the first hour was free, with the second hour costing 1 euro, and then rising from there. If you are on a budget and comfortable on a bike in a city (and some cities are better for bikes than others), check out more about bike sharing.

Find food/attractions:

Why do we travel? TO EAT! Or is that just me?

Yelp is my favorite site/app combo to see what customers really think about a restaurant. Reading the comments also can give you ideas about what to order on the menu.

Eat24 is a great app for food delivery. Hey, I didn’t come all the way here just to look at the inside of a hotel room! I know, but also my feet can’t take anymore. If you’re wiped, but also don’t want to eat out of the vending machine (or room service), get something delivered. Different cities support different apps: in Paris, we used Deliveroo to get food delivered to our hotel from a place that didn’t do delivery, for 2 euros extra. Nifty!

Currency exchange:

If you go somewhere they don’t use American dollars, you need to know local exchange rates. Trust me, some vendors will take advantage of your unfamiliarity with their currency.

XE Currency is an excellent app that calculates prices for you using the most current exchange rate.


Sure, a lot of places have a lot of English speakers. But once in a while, you need to know the word for something pronto. And it seems like the best restaurants and stores are always run by little old ladies who don’t know a word of English.

Google Translate is a quick and easy-to-use app, has voice-to-text AND can translate signs using the camera. Watch people smile when the phone asks them where the nearest bathroom is, but beware: Google Translate is improving, but it isn’t perfect. You may experience a misunderstanding or two. Chalk it up to stories to tell when you go home!


Maybe the most important tool to use in a strange city, a digital map has several perks over a paper one, one being that you look less like a tourist if you are looking at your phone rather than a big paper map.

Google Maps lets you can drop pins over places you want to see (along with notes to remind you why you wanted to see it), which lets me save places directly to my Google account and have them available on the app. Directions, public transit, and all of the power of Google is in one place. But beware: not all cities have great support for Google maps (Vienna didn’t).

BONUS: Disney World and Universal Studios have their own convenient apps that track your Fast Pass, dinner reservations, and on-resort hotel details.

Happy vacationing!

New Game of Thrones chat bot on Facebook messenger

New Game of Thrones chat bot on Facebook messenger

BEWARE: Spoilers ahead for season 6.

The GOT bot is a new chatbot on Facebook messenger who can help you catch up on Game of Thrones trivia, timelines, and characters. It will also tell you jokes and show you pictures. Of course, you have to ask the right questions to get the information you want. And the information you want might be beyond the GOT bot’s knowledge or pay grade. (No predictions, no season 7 spoilers, no theories).

HBO/Games of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger

HBO/Games of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger

If you ask about a character who has the same name as another character (I tried “Brandon Stark”) the GOT bot will start with the oldest one (“Bran the Builder”).

HBO/Game of Thrones bot on Facebook Messenger

HBO/Game of Thrones bot on Facebook Messenger

I couldn’t find Brandon Stark, older brother to Eddard. I found Bran Stark only by typing “Bran,” not “Brandon.”

Locations seem to be a problem as well. When asked “Where is Arya?” the GOT bot cracked a joke about Westeros not having Citymapper yet, and then tried to distract me with pictures of baby dire wolves. It worked.

HBO/Game of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger

 I WOULD like to see baby dire wolves! (HBO/Game of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger)


Nor did it have much to say about what is going on with individual characters; if you want to know what someone was up to last season, you have to watch the whole recap. Which isn’t really a big deal.

Typing the name of a major character will return a brief bio, and asking for more shows what info is available: Grey Worm’s available information includes photos, dead or alive, titles, lovers, house, and actor.

HBO/Games of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger

HBO/Games of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger



HBO/Games of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger

Too soon!                                                                             (HBO/Games of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger)



HBO/Games of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger

I SAID TOO SOON!                                                                                           (HBO/Games of Thrones chat bot on Facebook Messenger)


Searches need to be spelled correctly. I spelled Targaryen wrong (on purpose. For science), and the bot did not respond until I corrected the spelling. This could make things difficult if you didn’t read the books and don’t want to Google correct spellings for every name (try spelling Daenerys or Daario Naharis off the top of your head).

Speaking of Daario Naharis (Daenerys’ mercenary boy toy who was played by Ed Skrein in season 3, and Michiel Huisman from Season 4 onward), why are all of the pictures of Huisman? Am I the only one who preferred Skrein, and was confused when season 4 brought some stranger pretending to be Daario?

Ed Skrein as Daario Naharis

The one true Daario
(HBO/Game of Thrones)

I had fun with the GOT bot, and I think it could help for quick searches. However, for more in-depth information, I still recommend going to the extras for free refreshers.

Robot writers are taking my job

Robot writers are taking my job

Robots are in the news a lot these days, and if it seems a little hard to believe, I was right there with you until they started writing for the Associated Press.

That’s right. They are taking over my job.

The Associated Press is using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program to write their more data-heavy articles (such as corporate earnings reports), and have been doing so for a couple of years. The program is called Wordsmith (generated by Automated Insights), and “uses natural language generation to turn data into a written, plain-language narrative,” just like I have been doing for all my college career.

saying generated by InspiroBot: Nobody is ordering you to act mediocre

Well excuse me. I would like to see a degree.
(Inspirational sayings generated by InspiroBot:

At the risk of sounding a little racist (speciesist? Tech-ist?), I say go home, Computron, and quit taking all our jobs!

Apparently, the breakthrough in AI that allows computers to acquire the skill I have spent years developing is called “deep learning.” The computer uses algorithms to learn things that were not specifically programmed into its system. The Google team that developed the technology tested it by feeding the AI YouTube videos. Predictably, the AI learned a lot about cats.

Iggy sleeping on my keyboard

I already know about cats. Wordsmith will never know how soft they are! But I guess it will also never have this problem, as it does not use keys

Facebook has also been using AI (or bots) to sniff out fake news articles, locate terrorist activity on its site, and identify suicidal individuals, all tasks that humans have had a lot of trouble managing on such a large-scale platform.

So far AI is being used for big chunks of data-saturated grunt work. But they can’t really replicate human emotion. Right? I still have that going for me. Right?

Affectiva is helping AI learn to recognize feelings 

Maybe robots can’t love (that’s right, Wordsmith, I said it. How does that feel? You don’t know, do you?), but they are developing the ability to empathize. Affectiva is a program from MIT that can recognize human emotion from reading your face. While this sounds a little creepy, the idea is that it could improve recommendation software for sites like Netflix and Google, and even predict content that will go viral. The digital world is a cold and impersonal one, and emotional recognition software aims to bridge the gap between information and feeling.

Personally, I already get creeped out when Google uses my first name or asks me about something I don’t remember telling it. I can’t imagine if it started asking me why I am sad/angry/excited.

In conclusion, I am preferable to a robot because:


Robots Me
Turns data into sentences Turns data into sentences
Knows about cats Knows about cats
Can’t even love Loves cats and my husband
Doesn’t even know how soft cats feel Pets kitties every day
Can empathize Is sort of empathetic
Will spy on you Won’t spy on you


Self-driving cars: coming to an area near you sooner than you think

Self-driving cars: coming to an area near you sooner than you think

In early June, House Energy and Commerce Republicans began work on legislation to introduce to Congress June 20th that will clarify the role of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration in the regulation of Autonomous Vehicles.

That’s right. Robot cars. And before you roll your eyes, let me remind you that they are already among us. Google-owned company Waymo has been testing AVs for years. Apple, Tesla, BMW, Volkswagen, GM, Ford, and Nissan are all racing to get self-driving cars into the public market. Volvo is partnered with Uber to make driverless ride-sharing a thing—though if you ask me, you need at least 2 people to share a ride.

But you may not be able to go straight to hands-free: the term “autonomous” has levels. The NHTSA’s Certification of Automated Driving Systems (ADS) goes from 1-5, with cars at level 1 requiring an alert human operator, and a level 5 vehicle requiring nothing other than navigation input from a passenger.

For AVs to hit the road, they must demonstrate safety at the same level, or greater than, traditional vehicles. NHTSA has issued an exemption from FMVSS (which requires brake pedals and steering wheels, among other things) for 2,500 test vehicles. This sounds like a lot, but if you consider the billions of hours required to be driven to demonstrate safety, 2,500 vehicles aren’t enough. One of the proposals on the table raises the exemption to 100,000 cars.

Some companies, like Tesla and Google, already have self-driving cars in some cities, and the benefits of widely available, fully autonomous cars could be huge for the elderly, the disabled, and the public transportation sector, not to mention reducing intoxicated driving deaths. However, you can’t regulate AVs like regular cars. So far, states have had to figure it out on their own. Maybe that won’t be the case much longer.

What is being proposed?

Many of the AV  proposals currently being discussed are geared toward allowing exemptions of current safety features requirements (like brake pedals and steering wheels) to allow testing, develop a framework for cross-industry information sharing (to avoid making the same mistake twice), and begin development of technology geared toward helping underserved populations (such as the elderly and the disabled).

One thing is clear: legislators from both sides of the House want to get self-driving cars on the road. However, how to regulate them may not be unanimously agreed upon.

Having a federal standard for AV manufacture and operation is going to be the major determining factor in how soon car manufacturers can move forward with tests and, possibly, production. If every state is allowed to impose regulations, driving an AV across state lines could pose a problem.

However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been reluctant to impose many standards that might slow development of budding technology, leaving AV largely unregulated for the moment. NHTSA mainly oversees licensing, registration, and road maintenance currently, not vehicle safety.

There is a lot of excitement surrounding this issue right now, and I can see why. Driverless cars may be coming to an area near you sooner than you think—for that matter, public transportation may be coming to an area near you (I live in a place where you can drive, or you can walk. End of list).

Can you see yourself in a car without a steering wheel? Or does the idea make you nervous? Tweet at me! @easyinternetnow, or @willreadforfood.

Internet 101: Overview of security basics

Internet 101: Overview of security basics

Recently, Wombat Security Technologies surveyed 2,000 adults in the U.S. and U.K. to see how secure their online habits were, and measure the average level of knowledge about online risks. The results were disappointing (though perhaps not to companies who specialize in online security training, like Wombat Security). Wombat vice president of marketing Amy Baker states, “We often find that those of us who work in cyber security overestimate the knowledge the general public has on cyber security risks and basic secure behaviors.”

Two-thirds of those surveyed didn’t know what ransomware is, and nearly one-third didn’t know what phishing is. Half of the U.S. group had been victims of identity theft. Considering the abundance of online threats that have sprung up seemingly overnight, including the unprecedented WannaCry attacks and the Petya virus in May, maybe a refresher of online security terms and best practices is in order.

First things first. There is no need to panic. Most of the attacks are targeted at large corporations. Most, but not all. There are still plenty of scams and threats for those who are vulnerable. Online criminals are just like real-world criminals: opportunists. If you leave your valuables in plain sight in an unlocked car, they probably won’t be there when you come back. If you hide them and lock the doors, chances are good that thieves won’t bother you.

Keeping your online accounts and files secure is never a sure thing, but there is plenty you can do to lower your risks. If you at least make yourself a difficult target, thieves will most likely move on to easier pickings.

Basic security terms


Malware is an umbrella term to describe any software or program designed to damage computers or files. Viruses, trojans, spyware, and ransomware are all malware.

Ransomware refers to software attacks that take your files ransom: your files are encrypted, and you get a message with instructions to send payment to an untraceable account to regain access. Most attacks have been to companies and government servers, and individuals are at a low risk of attack. Unencrypting the files rather than paying the ransom hasn’t been successful and even paying does not guarantee you will get access to your files back. The best protection is prevention. Backing up your important files in a separate location (an external hard drive or a password protected cloud account) is already something everyone should be doing, but that many do not. Windows has issued a patch to secure the breach that was being exploited, so if you have a computer running Windows and have installed all available updates, you are not vulnerable to WannaCry.

Viruses are malware that spread rapidly by attaching themselves to other files.

Trojans are malware that looks like normal software. A Trojan lets other malware in.

Spyware doesn’t interfere—it records what you do, including passwords, account numbers, and other sensitive information.

Adware isn’t inherently malicious, though targeted ads, spam, and popups can make you feel attacked. And adware has to get through your security, leaving holes for other malware.


Phishing refers to any scam where the scammer contacts you to try to get information or money. It could be on the phone, through email, through social media, or a website. It may be obvious (asking for information or to wire transfer money), or more subtle (clicking a link or installing/downloading a file, which then collects the information or transfers the funds).

To see examples of phishing, visit Microsoft support.

Facebook hackers

Sometimes your friends are not your friends: Facebook accounts regularly get hacked, and then the hacker can trade on the trust between friends to spread scams. Often the owner of the compromised account doesn’t even know what is happening. If a friend is posting links that seem out of the ordinary or making offers that promise free money or goods, it may be worthwhile to contact your friend offline to see if they are really behind the posts.

Mobile devices

The term “mobile device” doesn’t just refer to your smartphone. The growing “Internet of Things” includes smart watches and Fitbits, tablets, home networks and security, smart TVs, cameras—even refrigerators; anything that is connected to the internet or a network and isn’t an actual laptop or desktop computer is a mobile device. The problem with mobile devices (especially older ones) is that security updates are often neglected, or non-existent. Software companies are stepping up their security game with these smaller devices as attacks increase, but as with any new technology, it takes time to work out the kinks. Meanwhile, it is better to save your information sensitive transactions for your more secure devices.


According to Microsoft, “a firewall is a software program or piece of hardware that helps screen out hackers, viruses, and worms that try to reach your computer over the Internet.”

What can you do?

Use passwords. This should go without saying, but I’m going to say it: use passwords.

Choose a secure password—use numbers, symbols, and capital letters, and for the love of Pete, don’t use your name, birthday, or “password.”

Use different passwords—if a hacker does get into one of your accounts, that’s bad. If they have all of your accounts, that’s worse. Don’t make it easy for them.

Don’t share your password. Just because you trust someone doesn’t mean they are trustworthy. But it also doesn’t mean that they will be as careful with your accounts as you would be.

Only conduct business on secure Wi-Fi connections.

Public connections (hotels, coffee shops, airports) aren’t secure just because the business is one you trust. Places with a password that you need to get from the clerk (or that is printed on a receipt) are a little better than those with an open network (no password needed), but it’s better to wait till you are in a secure connection to send sensitive emails or do your online shopping.

Regularly update your software.

I’m as guilty as the next person of putting off that “update required” notification, but procrastination can get you in trouble: security teams who are keeping up with weaknesses in their software need you to install their patches, or you don’t benefit from their services., and it is usually something the software developer has developed and update to fix, meaning that those not updating regularly are at risk. The patches to stop the WannaCry attacks were available in March. “This isn’t rocket science; it’s an oil change,” comments David Venable, a former intelligence officer with the US National Security Agency.

If something seems too good to be true, be suspicious and do your homework

Don’t call me, I’ll call you: Don’t share personal info with anyone who contacts you; tell them you will contact them with the deets. This includes spam emails: if you didn’t solicit an email, or don’t know the person who sent it, don’t open attachments. This is how many viruses spread. Even if you do know the person who sent it, exercise caution. Email accounts can get hacked.

Never, ever wire transfer money to someone you don’t know in person, and can’t talk to on the phone. The same goes for giving out your credit card number. When shopping online, companies like eBay and Amazon offer protections and refunds if your goods never show up, and PayPal does too—not to mention that the payment can be can be tracked if something fishy happens, and individuals don’t have access to your account information.

Only download files from trusted sites. Your anti-virus software can only do so much.

Make sure you have firewalls and antivirus software installed and updated

AVG currently has some of the best free antivirus software. Or you can pay a little for more advanced security. You can even get security for your smartphone.

Cat has picture taken by phone security

I can haz credit card number?

Cat tries to unlock phone: you have a computer that runs Windows Vista or newer OS, you have a firewall installed and running by default. For other operating systems, you should check with the provider to see if you are protected.


An external hard drive or secure, password-protected cloud storage should be a regular part of your internet security plan. If your computer files do get corrupted, either maliciously or not, having separate copy means you won’t lose everything. But the key word is “separate”: leaving your external hard-drive connected to your computer network defeats the purpose.

Instagram better than Snapchat? Yes, according to one old fogey

Instagram better than Snapchat? Yes, according to one old fogey

Kids these days and their InstaSnaps and their ChatGrams. Get off my lawn!

I’m just kidding. You can stay on my lawn.

But technology moves fast, and keeping up can eventually get overwhelming. Every person comes to a point in their life (some sooner than others) when they no longer get on board with every new app. Maybe you feel like apps come along every day, and you can afford to miss a few. Maybe you want to wait and see which ones are still around in a year, and then you’ll get on board. And then BAM! Overnight, you become the “old man yells at cloud” headline from the Simpsons. “The Old Man and the Key,”[1] Episode 13, Season 13 of the American animated sitcom The Simpsons originally aired on March 10th, 2002
“The Old Man and the Key,”[1] Episode 13, Season 13 of the American animated sitcom The Simpsons originally aired on March 10th, 2002

For me, that app was Snapchat. I had too many social media accounts and was not about to sign up for another. Getting left behind by Snapchat made me feel out of the loop though, so Instagram Stories introduced a nice compromise: a new use for a familiar platform.

I’m not the only one who feels that way: Instagram seems to have taken a sizable chunk of Snapchat’s demographic: According to Business Insider, Instagram Stories reported 250 million daily uses in June, versus 166 million daily uses for Snapchat last quarter.

Some features I enjoy:

Boomerang lets you make a gif (short video on a continuous loop).

Rewind plays your gif in reverse.

Selfie Stickers lets you make stickers with your own face. Meaning you aren’t limited to a preset selection of stickers or emojis. The sky (or your face) is the limit!

My friends are all on Instagram. Only a few are on SnapChat. Social media is only as good as your network.

Story settings allow you to choose who gets to see your stories, even among your friends.

Visit this how-to from the Verge to get the most out of Instagram Stories.

Wait a minute: why would I want to post something that disappears?

Snaps and Instagram Stories disappear within 24 hours (although you can pin them to your profile if you want to keep them up). This might seem shady, like it’s only meant for illicit material—but a pic doesn’t have to be dirty need an expiration date.

Oversharing on the internet is a major issue, and setting some of your content to eventually expire could be safer than having everything you ever posted up forever. Of course, someone could still screenshot whatever you post, but the window for that is much shorter.

So if you’ve become an old person overnight, don’t fret. Instagram has become a two-for-one social media platform with the kind of easy-to-use interface and fun features that make it perfect for everyone.

Do you like Instagram stories, or do you prefer Snapchat? What are your favorite features of each, and why? Tweet at me!




Is Amazon Prime really worth it? How about now?

Is Amazon Prime really worth it? How about now?

Prime seems expensive: the upfront annual cost went up to $99 since I signed up years ago. But if it was worth it to me then, it is a steal of a deal now, if you consider all the newly added benefits you get access to.

Get Prime by the month: Don’t have $99 lying around, or don’t think you need an entire year of Prime? Sign up by the month and pay $10.99. And you get a deal if you qualify for low-income benefits: it’s only $5.99 per month for customers with an EBT card. Sign up for Prime around Thanksgiving and cash in on all the online Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals, with free shipping to boot, and then drop it when you’re done.

Prime Student: Use your school email (ending in .edu) to score four $49-years of Prime. Act soon and you can get 6 months free.

Amazon Household: A Prime account is for your whole household, not just one person. Two adults living in the same house, and with separate Amazon accounts, can link their accounts to share the benefits of a single Prime account. You can share payment methods, and even add profiles for up to four children so your kids can take advantage of all the free reading and streaming of videos and music without being able to order anything. (You cannot use Amazon Household if you have a Prime Student discount).

Prime Wardrobe: Try before you buy. Choose 3 or more items of clothing, and have them shipped to you to try on. Send back what you don’t want in a prepaid box, and only pay for what you keep. Keeping more items earns you discounts, too: up to 20%. Currently, Prime Wardrobe is in beta, but you can ask to be notified when it launches.

Prime Video: Originals like Transparent and Catastrophe are available. They also have Downton Abbey, The Wire, and you can pay a little extra for channels like Showtime and HBO.

Unlimited cloud storage for pictures: Store as many precious memories in the secure Cloud Drive as you want, and stop worrying about losing them.

Prime Music: Choose songs, albums, or a station. More than 2 million available songs and you can also upload your current collection and listen on any device with the app. There is also a paid subscription that gives you access to tens of millions of songs for $7.99 a month; however, the family plan is $14.99 per month and allows up to six family members to use it. That’s $2.50 per person! Quick, I need five people! Anybody?mp3 player

Food: Have some grocery staples shipped to your door: Prime Pantry boxes ship for $5.99, and you can save 15% with Subscribe and Save. Weekly deals and coupons also make grocery shopping online attractive.

Prime Rewards Visa: For serious Amazon shoppers, the 5% back (in credit, not cash) may be a draw. Add a $70 gift card for signing up.

Free two-day shipping: Of course, this perk is awesome, but it can only be used for certain items. If you shop Amazon for everything, this perk may be worth the fee on its own: leading up to Christmas, the free shipping alone more than pays for my account. However, sometimes you can opt in for slower shipping and get credits for books, music, and more.

Prime Reading: There is a large rotating collection of books, magazines, comics and more available free with your Prime account, and some even have Audible narration, if you would rather listen.

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle

Video games for Prime: Twitch Prime includes a Twitch subscription and free content. Prime discounts on video games could save you some real money, and some pre-orders are delivered ON THE RELEASE DATE. That means you can skip the line and still get that new game the second it is released.

It’s hard to resist all those perks for about $8.25 per month if you pay by the year. Amazon Prime members are much more likely to only shop at Amazon (I can see why), but beware: sometimes they have the best deal, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they really don’t, and getting free shipping may not make up the price difference, especially considering that other online retailers like Walmart and Jet are making a major effort to compete by offering their own free shipping. So remember to shop around.


Stranger Things season 2 is coming out October 27 on Netflix

Stranger Things season 2 is coming out October 27 on Netflix

Stranger Things season 2 is coming out October 27, and it looks every bit as creepy and amazing as season 1.

Netflix has announced the official release date for the second season of Stranger Things, and it’s set to coincide with Halloween, which is the time frame the episodes also span. “The world is turning upside down,” says the trailer, and the silhouette in the roiling red clouds looks a lot more serious (not to mention bigger) than the Demogorgon from the first season.

According to the synopsis, “it’s 1984 and the citizens of Hawkins, Indiana are still reeling from the horrors of the Demogorgon and the secrets of Hawkins Lab. Will Byers has been rescued from the Upside Down but a bigger, sinister entity still threatens those who survived.”

The second season features 9 episodes, as well as performances by Paul Riser and Sean Astin in addition to the regular cast of Winona Ryder, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Millie Bobby Brown, Noah Schnapp, and Caleb McLaughlin.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the show creators revealed a few details about where the show’s characters are now, approximately one year after the events of last season. Will is having flashbacks and visions but is unable to tell if they are real, or an effect of the PTSD from being taken to the Upside Down. Sean Astin plays Joyce’s new boyfriend, and Paul Riser plays the new director of the Hawkins Institute, where the portal to the Upside Down is still open. But what comes out of it won’t all be monsters, though creator Matt Duffer wouldn’t elaborate on what “different kinds of horror” are in store for the town of Hawkins. But he did make clear that there are still enough unexplored facets of the story for several more seasons.

Main characters in Ghostbusters costumes


One thing is certain: the characters from season 1 are still reeling from dealing with the Demogorgon last season, and certainly not prepared for the doom that is about to descend upon them. Will was absent for much of the first season, but he will be the center of the second, and apparently, Noah Schnapp is every bit as talented as his co-stars. But this Will is a different person after what happened to him, as is everyone, and much of the conflict comes from the emotional trauma, coping, and loss. A few newcomers (with the worst timing ever) will be moving to town as well.

Working with such a young cast on an ongoing project has challenges, as anyone who has watched Harry Potter or Game of Thrones knows. “As much as I would love to have it be Christmas right after that, it’s just not feasible, so we’re going to skip a year. They’ll be a year older, and all their changes they’re going through, we’ll take that into account and kind of work that into the show,” says Duffer.

Reports that this season will be darker and creepier than the already-pretty-dark-and-creepy season 1 mean that I already know what I am watching during Halloween.

Have you watched Stranger Things season 1? What did you think? Any theories about what’s going on, or where Eleven is right now? Tweet at me!




Castlevania is on Netflix, and it is awsome

Castlevania is on Netflix, and it is awsome

Everyone is talking about Castlevania, and after watching the series on Netflix last weekend, I can see why. Sometimes my job is hard: lots of research and lots of brainstorming unique ideas to write about. Sometimes I just want to watch Netflix instead. Sometimes I do watch Netflix instead. Sometimes I find an excuse to call watching Netflix “working.” This is one of those times.

Is this just another show about vampires?

According to the IMDB series synopsis, “a vampire hunter fights to save a besieged city from an army of otherworldly creatures controlled by Dracula.” By that description, it could be any vampire movie. But fans of the Castlevania series of video games (which is the number one source material for the show) have certain expectations for this series, not the least of which is wall chicken.

screen cap from the game showing chicken in the wall

Producer Adi Shankar doesn’t know about the wall chicken quite yet, but he’s not about to let gamers’ expectations go unmet. Expect Easter eggs from the games, and a soundtrack with “the heavy metal electro guitar vibe found in the early games.”

Shankar said in an interview for “The goal is to bring hard hitting anime to the America and be America’s first animated series for adults.”

To an outsider, it may appear that the series is trying to get onboard with the huge audience for dark fantasy (Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings), vampire shows (Angel, Buffy, Underworld), or Japanese anime (Akira, Ghost in the Shell). And maybe that is what made 2017 the time to release this show. But the show was being conceptualized in 2005. That’s right: this has been in the works for 12 years; before the wave of dark, medieval magical beasts took over our entertainment.

It’s an animated series, but it isn’t for children

It may go without saying, but I’m going to say it: this cartoon is not for kids. The creators have called it “R-rated as ****,” and it totally is. Profanity and entrails abound, as one may have come to expect from a show about hunting vampires. The Castlevania target demographic is made up mainly of those who played the original game (Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, 1990), which puts the average age around late-20s at a minimum.

The cast of the show is excellent. Adi Shankar is an executive producer (The Grey, Dredd, Judge Dredd: Superfiend, The Punisher: Dirty Laundry). Richard Armitage (Thorin from The Hobbit) voices Trevor Belmont. James Callis (Dr. Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica) voices Alucard. Graham McTavish (Dwalin from The Hobbit) voices Dracula. The series is written by Warren Ellis, a seasoned comic book creator who has written for animated series (X-Men, Justice League, Wolverine) as well as major motion pictures (Iron Man 3, Red). Emmy-award winning Trevor Morris is in charge of the soundtrack (Dragon Age: Inquisition, Immortals, The Tudors).

promotional poster. Castlevania is on Netflix July 7th

The first season only has four 30-minute episodes, but a second, 8-episode season has been confirmed.

How well does it reflect the games?

Season 1 is dedicated to fleshing out the main players in a way that wasn’t really possible in the video game, and I am a fan of the slow revelation of backstory over the course of several episodes.

As far as the soundtrack is concerned, I am reminded more of the Japanese anime series’ the show animation takes inspiration from, rather than the Castlevania games. This may come as a disappointment to fans of the games, as the original music was iconic, and has been reprised many, many times in different styles. A big part of the nostalgia for gamer fans is wrapped up in the original soundtrack, though it is possible the show creators were unable to license the original music from Konami. This may be the reason that the show, despite maintaining the integrity of the original game canon, has garnered some fan comments that it doesn’t really feel like Castlevania.


Even so, it is great for many other reasons: the animation is great, and even haunting at times. Fans of Japanese anime will enjoy the style. The storytelling is deft and rich, and the voice acting is top notch. This is, without a doubt, one of the best video game adaptations to date. A+, highly recommend, would watch again.