Back to School for Free
If you’re looking to brush up your academic skills but can’t quite afford the time or money to go back to school, the following two sites offer intellectual stimulation at no cost, and you can access them at a moment’s notice.
Nonprofit site Khan Academy offers short videos-- each about 10 minutes long on average--explaining topics in math, science, history, economics, and some test prep. Although its collection of humanities videos is slim, Khan Academy has an astounding number of math and science videos, explaining everything from basic arithmetic to “partial derivatives of vector valued functions.” All the courses are conducted with a human instructor’s voice over a blackboard-style screen, so you never actually see a person. For some people, this arrangement might work better as a learning strategy because you can just focus on the facts and figures in front of you. Many of the videos have supplemental problem sets that you can use to practice the things you just learned.
Although you can watch the Khan Academy videos without signing up, you can also create a profile to track the time you spend on the site, as well as the problem sets that you complete correctly. For extra motivation, Khan Academy awards badges to people who complete challenges. Some of the badges, which you receive after you complete the work for one or more courses--can take months or even years to attain.
Open Yale Courses, on the other hand, offers videos of lectures originally intended for undergrad Yale students. Every “course” is a collection of a semester’s worth of videos that each run about an hour long. You have access to the course syllabus, so you can supplement the information you watch in the lecture video with problem sets and outside reading. If you’re more of a humanities type, OYC offers courses on Milton, Roman architecture, and much more, but it also offers beginner courses in physics, biology, and astronomy.
The advantage of Open Yale Courses is that you get a much more comprehensive view of a single subject. The video podcasts are available for download from iTunes as well, and every so often (at Yale’s discretion) OYC will offer a batch of new, semester-long courses.
What’s great about both services is that they’re totally free and entirely streamed video, so if you don’t understand something, you can pause and rewind to hear the part of the lecture you find confusing.
Exercise has long-term benefits, sure, but long-term benefits rarely beat short-term gratification. Let’s face it: When it’s cold outside, sleeping in usually wins out over taking a run. But the creators ofEarndit are trying to tackle that gratification problem by awarding points to users depending on the intensity and length of each exercise activity that users perform. Build up enough points, and you can win rewards such as gift cards, energy bars, or even time with a personal trainer.
One thing about Earndit, though, is that it isn't a stand-alone site. To keep participants honest, Earndit requires users to monitor their miles run or iron pumped (or the like) with a GPS-based activity tracker such as Nike+ or EveryTrail, or even with Foursquare (for checking in at the gym). As a result, Earndit isn't a great choice for people who do a lot of indoor exercise at home, such as stationary biking (although the company says that will change in the near future). For an extra edge, you can compete with other users--people you do or don't know--in “challenges” that users and sponsoring companies make up.
The record-keeping website Simplee provides invaluable insight into health insurance costs and benefits. Tracking health expenses and insurance coverage can be hard, not only because most insurers provide byzantine receipts of the services rendered, but also because in a lot of cases health insurance providers are difficult to contact. And for most people, once you're need of health care, you don't want to waste time sifting through medical bills to understand what you're paying for.
Simplee is also a great long-term solution for tracking expenses. Since it keeps a history of all medical bills (protected by SSL 256-bit encryption), you won't lose your medical history when you switch health care providers. The site even helps you find in-network doctors and breaks down the specifics of your particular plan in a visual and simple way, so that you know what's covered at all times. You can see expenses detailed by family member, and view how much you owe on larger bills, too. Among all of its other benefits, Simplee also reviews your bills for any mistakes--and it can help you shop around for better deals available to you and your family.
About.com developed the interactive Calorie Count website to help users track calories and exercise. When you set up an account, you can enter your age, gender, current weight, and weight goals to receive a ballpark range of how many calories you should eat each day. Then, you can record your calorie intake using the crowdsourced list of roughly 220,000 foods, ranging from raw items such as “an apple” to specific brands like “Starbucks Iced Mocha Frappuccino Light Blended Coffee no whipped cream.”
One of the most frustrating things about other online calorie counters is that you make meals for dinner, but you don't always make “5 oz. chicken, grilled” and “1/2 cup of white rice.” Instead, you make sauces, casseroles, and marinades. Calorie Count solves this problem by letting you enter recipes and analyzing how many calories are in that meal, as well as in each of the ingredients. You can also track activity duration (Calorie Count will estimate how much you've burned), and read helpful articles about staying fit and eating healthy.
Similar to Calorie Count, Livestrong.com lets you track calories, activity, weight, and water consumption, but it can tailor the information and motivational articles you receive within the site based on whether you're a man or a woman. In addition, Livestrong can help you achieve many different goals aside from healthy eating.
With the “Loops” tool, for example, you can draw regular courses for running, biking, or hiking in your neighborhood, and share them with other members who might live in your area. The “My Quit Coach” feature sets smokers up with personalized plans and motivational tools to help them kick the habit. Another feature, “Text-2-Eat,” is for the very dedicated: If you're out and about, and trying to decide between a muffin and a croissant, you can text your choices to Livestrong and see a rundown of the health benefits (or detriments) of each food. Finally, Livestrong taps into the game-like aspect of Earndit by letting users set up “dares,” or message boards where people challenge each other to reach healthy goals, such as running so many miles in a week.
As both a website and an app, RunKeeper fills some of the holes inherent in self-reported activity trackers. Turn on the Runkeeper app while you run, bike, or hike, and it will track your distance, speed, and elevation the whole way through. When you return from the workout, Runkeeper syncs the information with the website; you can manually input other types of activity, as well. You can even create interval workouts by prerecording audio cues instructing you to change the pace or style of your workout at a specific time. At any time, you can share your stats on Facebook or Twitter, see your miles per hour, and map your route as well.
If you have a creative project idea, you can solicit funding from strangers for it with this popular site. Kickstarter's clean layout allows people from all over the globe to peruse projects and contribute as little as a dollar or as much as the donor can afford.
Kickstarter requires that you set up a page describing your project (audio and video pitches are encouraged) and set a time period for people to pledge money. For different donation amounts, project creators usually offer gifts, such as a signed album or free downloads of the project when it's finished. If your Kickstarter reaches its funding goal, you keep the money; if not, it goes back to the patrons. The great thing about the site is that 100 percent of the money you raise is yours--and Kickstarter will never keep any intellectual or property rights on your project. A little under half of all Kickstarter projects are fully funded.
Although ChubbyBrain was still in alpha at the time of this writing, you can currently request an invitation code to gain free access to its first publicly released algorithm, the Funding Recommendation Engine. The algorithm statistically breaks down the aspects of your company in order to match you with the appropriate sources of funding--from grant providers to venture-capitalist firms to well-known angel investors--based on the investors' history of funding. This way, you don't waste time pitching people and grant institutions who aren't interested in the kind of work you do. Also, if you don't have time to wait for an invitation to the newest features of ChubbyBrain, you can still use its free database of investors to narrow down which ones might be interested in your idea. Or, just sign up for the site’s newsletter, which will send you funding tips.
A sort of selective Craigslist for funding, RaiseCapital allows people with business ideas to post text, photos, and videos about their projects to attract some money. That kind of funding is helpful at a time when bank loans are hard to get. Entrepreneurs can log in after paying a one-time $99 fee, and they receive a unique URL on the site as well as a visit counter to track how many people have viewed their posts. The network of investors who are interested in a particular category receive a daily update showing all the new businesses registered the day before. RaiseCapitalTV.com features new businesses in a video presentation. Charities and nonprofits are allowed to post for funding, as well.
RaiseCapital also lets investors register with the site so that they can be in on the newest ideas that have the potential to make a lot of money. Investors large and small register for free and anonymously.
OnGreen--which focuses on business ideas and patents that are a part of the green economy--tries to bring inventors, entrepreneurs, and investors together by creating a “social marketplace” to connect startup businesses with the funding they need and the new technology that might help them move forward.
Investors can browse “Deals” in which entrepreneurs--pitching everything from energy-efficient window-pane-installation companies to urban-farming startups--list how much funding they need and describe the business’s model. Entrepreneurs can also browse patents to incorporate into their operations, so inventors have a way to market their products more efficiently. Matching investors and entrepreneurs who are passionate about the environment and great inventions, OnGreen is a great place to mine increasing popular support for green projects.
Run by two former entrepreneurs and investors who put money in Twitter in its early days, Venture Hacks is primarily a how-to site for the serious entrepreneur. The advice that you can subscribe to on the site will help you learn how to pitch your idea, find investors, and turn your small startup into a bigger business. The site sells ebooks that give you the rundown on practical concerns such as how to choose a cofounder, or how to break down who owns what in your company.
You can also join the site's AngelList, a social network of large and small budding projects and businesses. From the AngelList, you can search for investors, as well, narrowing down who you pitch by your company's location and the market that you intend to serve.
Google Flight Search
If you have exact dates planned for a trip, Google’s airfare finder is a great first resource. One feature that sets Google Flight Searchapart from other flight aggregators is that it lets you select multiple airports in an area, which can be particularly helpful if you have a flexible schedule. For example, if you’re flying into San Francisco, most flight aggregators will let you search for “all airports in the San Francisco area.” But this setting would include only SFO, Oakland, and maybe San Jose. With Google Flight Search, you can see whether cheaper flights pass through Monterey or Sacramento, only a 2-hour drive away.
Once you’ve specified the terms of your trip (you can limit search returns by price as well), Google Flight Search instantaneously offers the lowest prices it can find, and it gives you a link to the airline’s website to book tickets. One disadvantage of using this site, however, is that its flight returns are totally automated, so if an airline sends out an email-only deal, you won’t see that superlow fare.
The big advantage that this site has over other airfare-finding sites is that it employs real people to find the lowest prices for airline tickets. This approach really pays off with airlines such as Southwest: Since that airline doesn’t allow its fares to be read by automated flight-price aggregators (such as Google Flight Search), the people employed byAirfarewatchdog manually enter the flight data they find on Southwest’s site and post the cheapest ones for their readers.
Airfarewatchdog doesn’t post the ticket prices for flights that are too expensive, or even regularly priced. Instead, you’ll find ticket prices only for flights that the staff considers good deals. As a result, one day you may not see any flights from SFO to JFK, for instance, and the next day you might see three or four. Finally, Airfarewatchdog is a great resource if you want to travel but you don’t know where. When you select your closest airport, the site will give you a list of the cheapest flights leaving over the next few months--for destinations ranging from Bangkok to Birmingham.
If you’re a picky person when it comes to where you sleep, or if you’re planning a trip that needs to be just right, Room 77 is a great resource. It lets you preview rooms in select hotels in 32 cities. Although you can’t actually see inside the room via the site, you can see the view from the room's window, so you can avoid having to stare at the neighboring coal refinery and make sure you get a nice view of the sunset over the river instead. You can even book rooms from the site based on what floor you’d like to be on, how important the view is, and how distant the room is from the elevator.
This travel blog has been around for a while, but lately the daily posts have been more interesting than ever. You can find links to documentaries and travel essays that will thrill even armchair travelers. Gadling also has sections for budget travel and travel tech that can help out with planning for upcoming vacations. The site frequently posts guides to getting around specific cities, and a quick search on the site can give you ideas on how to spend an extra unplanned day on your itinerary. In addition, Gadling posts updates on travel destinations that might be undergoing some turmoil at the time (nevertheless, you should always check the U.S. Department of State’s travel guide if you think you might end up in a questionable country).
Airbnb attracted a lot of attention in 2011, not least because Ashton Kutcher fronted a chunk of the money to get the startup off the ground. The concept is simple: Travelers can rent spare rooms in the homes of locals, or even empty vacation houses, thereby saving money on hotel fees and getting a little taste of the culture in destinations as diverse as Istanbul, Rio, or New York. After the stay, the host and the guest can review each other, so future hosts and guests know what they’ll find when they meet. Airbnb also offers a separate search engine for monthly stays, so you can really get to know an area. Travelers have the option of paying through PayPal, so they don’t have to worry about giving credit card numbers to a complete stranger. It’s free for both hosts and travelers to sign up with Airbnb.
A quick heads-up, though: Over the summer, allegations of a few Airbnb travelers trashing a woman’s home bubbled up, and the company now includes an insurance policy for $50,000 against problem renters. As always, proceed with caution when hosting or renting from other people.
Run a Web Business
PipelineDeals came strongly recommended to me by startup guru Dan Martell after I conducted an extensive search for a tool to help me manage my business’ capacity. As the manager of a boutique agency, I have to keep projects and workloads running smoothly. I also use PipelineDeals as a lightweight customer relationship management (CRM) system to track how I gain, and keep, business. Although I use Google Docs to organize and host most other content for my business, it wasn't a good choice for evaluating customer relationships and project information because I had too many variables to put in a spreadsheet on one screen. PipelineDeals does a much better job of keeping me up-to-date with daily email reminders and visual representations of business won, lost, and in progress. Pipeline Deals costs $10 a month.
Part of working with new clients involves creating a series of Google news and blog alerts that help me keep tabs on coverage of my clients’ products, as well as conversations happening in the media and within the industry about the products. I also set up a series of alerts on industry terms and my clients’ competitors as part of a media audit. This combination of alerts helps to keep me current on my clients and their market segment.
I use FreshBooks online invoicing and payments to track all my client work. In addition to turning out great-looking invoices in no time, you can make and receive payments via PayPal through FreshBooks, and the site offers better rates for accepting money online than any other I've seen--you pay only $0.50 per transaction if your client is based in North America (it's 3.9 percent for international clients). This site can save you hundreds of dollars a month if you're paying the standard 2.9 percent, or even the merchant rate of 2.5 percent. Using FreshBooks costs $20 per month for up to 25 clients.
Your Trusted Assistant
I employ virtual assistants Jennifer and David Lanham of Your Trusted Assistant for 5 to 10 hours of administrative work a month. They're a tech-savvy couple who moved from Los Angeles--where they were studio executive assistants--to the Midwest to be closer to family and run their own business.
Choosing to work with YTA was one of the best business decisions I've ever made--they help me with nonbillable tasks and let me focus on the work I enjoy doing. YTA helps me with things such as booking travel for conferences, keeping PipelineDeals and general CRM updated, collating hours for contractors, scheduling calendar events, and general research (including some help on organizing my upcoming wedding). The cost varies depending on the number of hours you commit to per month.
Uber has been the biggest timesaver I've come across in the past three to six months. It's a mobile app (though you can manage your account on a desktop) that hails town cars via GPS. Living in San Francisco without a car, I take taxis on a near daily basis. However, taxis in San Francisco seldom show up--and if they do, they might take 20 or 30 minutes to do so. If I have a meeting I need to attend and I'm about to be late, I'm willing to pay just about any price to arrive on time.
Uber's cars usually cost 75 to 200 percent of the cost of a cab for the same distance, but I'm happy to pay the premium knowing that they actually show up, usually within 5 minutes. It's a huge relief to know that I can use a reliable service that means I don't have to stand on a corner for 15 minutes, stressing out and hoping that I can flag someone down before I'm late for my next meeting. Added bonuses: The cars are luxurious, they usually have water and gum, your driver knows where he's going because they all have GPS, and you're guaranteed a smooth, quiet, nonmanic ride across town.
A Photo Editor
A Photo Editor is the most professional and comprehensive site of the bunch. Former editor Rob Haggart has grown the blog, making it arguably the best resource on the Web. It's great for students, professionals, or anyone who loves the art and craft of photography. The site keeps abreast of all photo-related news, and fosters constructive discussion. It also helps aspiring and new professionals by sharing real-life business experiences from seasoned pros. On top of that, A Photo Editor regularly posts interviews with top working photographers such as Dan Winters and Jesse Burke, and covers everything from fashion and art photography to editorial portraiture and documentary.
Tumblr is no secret, but it remains the best way to share photos. It gives you the curated experience of a magazine, without the publishing costs and content restrictions. For photographers who need a place to post their work, Tumblr is great because it lets you assign a theme to your photo blog (unlike, say, Facebook, where you’re limited to one type of layout and feel). The generic layout ends up being better for snapshots of family and friends; if you want something more, you’ll need to present your photos artfully. Tumblr also has built-in social sharing devices that give your blog the potential to go viral--even more so than on Flickr.
If you’d just like to look at photos and get ideas, Tumblr is the best way to lose 5 hours of your life. If you're bored, I suggest those on the humorous side, such as “Chicks With Steve Buscemeyes” or my personal favorite, “Accidental Chinese Hipsters.” On the other end of the spectrum are serious photographers who are using Tumblr as a way to share work that they love; the site can be a great way to discover new work. Photographer Emiliano Granado and the photo collectiveMJR both have eclectic taste in photography as well as in art, fashion, and music.
Ever wanted to make 3D GIFs, or a time-lapse tilt-shift movie? Do you crave analog aesthetics but love digital photography? If so,Photojojo is your DIY nerd paradise. A blog and newsletter, it teaches photo-related crafts and highlights creative work in the photo community. The site also has a great online shop that sells toy cameras, camera bags, coffee mugs made out of old lenses...basically anything you don’t really need but want to buy anyway. Photojojo offers a terrific selection of iPhone accessories, too, such as telephoto lenses and cases that make your iPhone resemble an old film camera. Photojojo is the best place to shop for yourself when you should be buying Christmas gifts for your friends.
If you’re a news junkie like me, you'll think this blog is a wonderland. PhotojournalismLinks is a labor of love from photographer Mikko Takkunen, who has worked for the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. Takkunen scours the Internet and finds every online gallery, every interview, every multimedia piece related to photojournalism on the Web from the past week. The site has so much content, I’ve never looked at more than a fraction of the links. The unpretentiousness of the simple list format lets the work speak for itself.
A recent post has interesting work from Panos photographer Andrew McConnell about surf culture in Gaza, and a beautiful piece about the women of the Egyptian revolution from Rena Effendi on the Newsweek website. The quality of images from contemporary journalism is astounding, and the democratization of photography through digital cameras (and now phones) has only added to the work out there. PhotojournalismLinks gives you all of it.
Find Local Food
Foodbuzz draws on the power of food blogs to generate great eating recommendations. Food bloggers create profiles that include links to their posts at their own sites. Foodbuzz editors then feature daily picks, recipes, and kitchen decor tips. Like LocalEats, Foodbuzz allows visitors to browse active food writers in a given city, easily. Visitors rate food blogs and recipes by clicking the animated “Buzz” button; going through the "Buzz" section, you can easily find the most talked-about recipes, stories, and people. The beauty of Foodbuzz’s Recipes section is that the dishes come from die-hard foodies, so the cuisine is creative and beautifully photographed. Recent examples include Poached Eggs Over Salmon and Spinach, Breakfast Chalupas, and a Spring Green Panzanella.
At LocalEats you can draw on local expertise to aid your quest for good eats around the country. Visitors can look up major metropolitan areas to find restaurant listings, where the profiles use text from the restaurants’ websites and include links and driving directions. The Foodie Blogs section organizes food sites by city; readers can find a listing of registered food blogs from that location, complete with Web addresses and links to the latest posts. The city searches also feature the dining sections of local media and sites such as those from newspapers and magazines, so no matter where you are in the country, you’re always in the know.
Roadfood is established, but not as well known as other food travel websites. Its purpose is to help travelers discover small eateries off the beaten path around the country. Consider it your personal opportunity to tag along on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Restaurants and recipes are submitted by visitors to the site. (How else are they going to find these little roadside diners and food stands?) You can search the Roadfood directory by state, and even narrow down results by type of restaurant or food.
The Eating Tours section suggests self-guided tours of different cities: For instance, you can stroll through the Portland, Oregon, Coffee An’ tour (featuring coffee, donuts, and cupcakes), or make your way through Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes. A paid subscription to Roadfood gives you access to downloadable reviews, mobile content, and even GPS help in searching out restaurants.
Professional Chefs’ Websites
People might know Cleveland-based Michael Ruhlman from his books and his appearances with Anthony Bourdain in No Reservations, but not as many know about his blog. A master at engaging his readers over Twitter and Facebook, Ruhlman shares recipes as diverse as bread, cookies, pork belly, potato chips, succotash, and roasted cauliflower. His site is also a vast resource connecting to other food blogs, recipe sites, and even politically active food groups such as Slow Food USA. Likewise, David Lebovitz’s website shows off his culinary skills and international travels. An award-winning pastry chef and author, Lebovitz writes about his journeys abroad (especially focused in Paris); he also includes cookbook reviews, celebrity-chef interviews, and professional food tours.
Specific Food Searches
With the advent of better and smaller digital cameras and smartphones, it’s easier than ever for foodies to photograph and post reports about their favorite meals. Despite the efforts of sites such as Foodbuzz and LocalEats, local and regional food bloggers don’t always get their due. Try using specific search terms for the meal you’re after: sushi, breakfast, taco trucks, vegetarian, Ethiopian. Scan through a few blog posts and the site's About page to get sense of the writer’s experience. I get a lot of traffic on my site, BreakfastWithNick.com, simply from travelers searching for breakfast in Columbus, Ohio. Likewise, Paul Gerald of BreakfastinBridgetown.com offers the definitive guide to the morning meal in Portland, Oregon.
Most food bloggers will brag about their other writing, too, and that’s a key to gauging their experience. I’m in the final stages of publishing my book Breakfast With Nick: Columbus (due November 5). Gerald, too, penned a guidebook to breakfast in Portland. Likewise, Tom Noe ofExploring Food My Way documents restaurants around Akron, Ohio, and has since started writing for local magazines.
The two sites are similar at first glance. Both allow you to upload bank information, sync bills for utilities and credit cards, add payment-due alerts, and even view travel miles and investment statements. Unlike the very popular Mint.com, they don’t break down your expenses, but both services do organize your bills so that it’s easier to see what you spend over a long period of time.
Although both services have mobile apps and a Web version, the PageOnce mobile companion is available on a wider range of operating systems. And you might appreciate the fact that PageOnce has never had a security breach since launching in 2008. Manilla, which also promises bank-level security, hasn't experienced a breach, either; but since that site is brand-new, it’s too early to compare track records.
Manilla allows customers of companies such as Citibank the option of eliminating some physical junk mail and getting offers through Manilla's online mailbox instead. Also, the site stores copies of all your bills indefinitely (unless you delete them) and allows you to download copies of bills to your hard drive.
Ultimately, you’ll want to choose between the two sites by visiting each and seeing which services and sites can sync with them. Major services and institutions such as AT&T, Chase, and Netflix are available on both platforms, but Manilla offers Groupon and magazine-subscription syncing, whereas PageOnce can sync with the U.S. Department of Education loan office.
If you’re the type of person who always gets lost in bills, Manilla or Pageonce will help you take a critical look at everything you’re spending money on each month, and will remind you of any rewards you may have earned through loyalty programs (such as airline mileage from credit cards). Either site offers a great way to keep on top of your expenses.
Stream and Share Music for Free Online
Forget about buying music; streaming your own playlists for free is now the way to go. Rdio is one of those sites that helps you share tunes. It has an extensive library of music, and it lets you add songs to playlists that you can share with followers who “add” you--much in the same vein as Twitter. Although Rdio emphasizes sharing songs within the site (and on Facebook and Twitter), you can also do your own thing and just use Rdio as an Internet radio station, streaming your hand-picked music all the time.
Rdio also has popular albums available for streaming--with no commercials, unlike Pandora. If you really like a song, or if you’ll be without Internet access for a short period of time, you can also download individual songs for a small fee (similar to iTunes). To get unlimited Web streaming from your PC, Rdio costs $5 a month, and the unlimited mobile streaming plan (which includes syncing your playlists from your phone to your PC) costs $10 a month.
Turntable is based on a similar concept, but it turns sharing into a game. The site offers collaborative music streaming, letting users set up “rooms” with five DJ spots. Turntable cycles through the DJs, allowing each person to play a song from Turntable’s library (which is more limited than Rdio’s), or to upload a song from any offline music library. Listeners can vote any DJ’s pick as “lame” or “awesome,” with the best DJs getting the honor of having the most “awesome” points.
That said, Turntable is still working out some glitches. Uploading music sometimes doesn’t work right away, and DJ playlists will save from session to session, so if you build a massive playlist for one Turntable room, the next time you sign in you’ll have to clear the whole list if you want to play a different genre of music. Still, if you need an impromptu place for friends to share musical stylings, Turntable is a great option.
Both sites let you listen to songs for free, but Rdio is more like a Pandora/Twitter hybrid, while at Turntable sharing is paramount. Your choice will probably depend on how social you want your Internet radio to be.