Tag Archives: everyday things

Make it Personal – Creating Custom Gifts Online

Last week, we took a side trip into supporting small, independent artisans and business folk online. This week, we’ll continue to gift-giving theme and look at ways to create personalized objects of all sorts.

What Is It?

It used to be that if you wanted to personalize a t-shirt or mug, you had to use expensive silk-screening to do it. Custom-printed holiday cards were only for the well-off, and publishing your own photobook wasn’t even an option. Now, electronic text, digital images and online business transactions have made highly-customizable cards and gifts easy and relatively inexpensive. We are all creators of content, and now we can share it more broadly than ever.

Remember SmugMug from our online photo post? Use their printing service to showcase your favorite photos through prints, puzzles, photomugs and other personalizable gifts. You can even print professional-looking photo books through SmugMug using Blurb, a photo-publishing platform. CafePress and Zazzle also offer custom-printing using your own designs and images.

Lulu (mentioned last week and in one of our ebook posts) will also let you print photo books, as well as calendars and text-based books. Rather than a simple “family letter” in the holiday card, send a photobook of the year in review. Share memories from a child’s year as a calendar for the next, or print your own poetry or family stories and send them to everyone.

Moo initially made their name by offering minicards – trendy mini-sized calling cards with individualized designs or photos – but now stand out by letting you create sets of cards or stickers with a different image on every one. Think of the possibilities!

If custom printing is more your speed, you’ve got a wide array of sources to choose from. VistaPrint or Next Day Flyers will take any text you input (or upload) and print it on business cards, stationery, greeting cards, sticky note pads and more. MakeStickers.com works on a similar platform to make custom stickers just for you.

There are many, many more options out there for creating unique, personalized gifts and cards out there. Just use your favorite browser to search for “custom [whatever you want to make]” and see what’s there.

Next week, we’ll have a short post on good ideas for safely purchasing items online, and then in December we’ll get back to our regular pattern of a new kind of tool each week. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

Supporting Small Businesses, Online

This fall, we’ve seen a lot in the news about the need to support smaller local businesses and stop buying from large, impersonal corporations. Not everyone can occupy a downtown area, but there are things anyone can do, even online.

What Is It?

It’s easy for small, independent businesses to create a website and sell their productions online (like bunny slippers), but there are services that bring together hundreds of sellers and makes it simple for us to buy from them. Rather with struggling with their own sites or giant multipurpose clearinghouses, sellers can just set up an online shop and go. The service handles the website maintenance, the purchase transaction and possibly even the printing, and the sellers can focus on creating neat stuff.

Etsy is a “marketplace for buying & selling all things handmade,” and it gives artisans a place of their own on the internet. Creators put up their wares for sale, Etsy handles the money transactions, and then the crafters ship the products. Check out a few examples to see what’s available: Fancy Tiger craft supply, Grandma Flies a Broom vintage & antiques, Tiny Warbler children’s toys, Rocky Top Studio photography prints & cards, Have It Sweet confections, and many more.

Lulu.com is a self-publishing business and marketplace for creatives of all sorts. They use Lulu’s tools to format their content and turn it from electronic files into print, CD, DVD, calendars and reports, then sell their items directly through Lulu. The old “vanity press” is a thing of the past, and self-publishing is a way of the future.

CafePress and Zazzle offer a similar service for folks who want to sell merchandise to promote a band, company, event, online comic strip or anything they can think of. T-shirts, mugs, calendars, CD covers and gifts of all sorts are available.

Threadless takes a slightly different twist. Artists and designers upload their submissions and Threadless members take a week to vote on the designs. When an idea wins, it’s printed onto a T-shirt, bag, iPhone case, and more. Often edgy, Threadless t-shirts are perfect for the eclectic freethinker in your life. A related site is Society 6, showcasing artists from around the world and offering their art as prints, device cases and shirts.

New to the scene, Spoonflower makes quilters and fabric crafters around the country swoon. You can upload an image or design to their site and they will custom-print fabric for you. They also sell fabric designed by others, for whatever project suits your fancy.

Try It Out

Take a look at a few of the sites above and find a few things that interest you. You can use your favorite search engine to go looking for things you might want to buy. When you find a site, read the “About Us” section to learn more about the business you’re buying from. You’ll be surprised how many small, mom & pop type stores are now online and doing well.

Next week, we’ll look at some personalizable gift resources, and share some tips and tricks for safely purchasing items online. Stay tuned…

Food…Glorious Food!

Last week’s post on copyright & Creative Commons was a little heavy, so let’s lighten it up this week on Learning for Life Online! It’s fall in New England, the time of year when the scent of wood smoke, crisp leaves…and soups, stews, pies and casseroles is in the air. Are you looking for Thanksgiving recipes, tips or tricks, or even looking to get ahead on the winter holidays? Harvest a few ideas from the online bounty of food-related tools!

Web Sites & Resources

Epicurious, Food Network, Rodale’s Healthy Recipe Finder, Allrecipes.com and Recipe Source all feature searchable databases of recipes. Type in something you have in your fridge and see what you can do with it! Recipes can receive ratings, garner user comments, and be shared and printed with ease. Recipe Source is currently featuring its collection of Halloween recipes if you still need a spooky salad or two. From any recipe on the Rodale site, click on “Add to Shopping List” and you can easily figure out what you need to get before you can cook.

The Joy Kitchen is the online home of the Joy of Cooking. They don’t have the complete contents of the books online, but the site is full of tips & techniques and featured foods. America’s Test Kitchen / Cook’s Illustrated has multiple sites, depending on what you’re looking for. You can start by reading updates to the America’s Test Kitchen feed (there’s a great post about making salted caramels) or watch episodes of the show online, then register for free to read the recipes. If you like what you see and read, you can try a free 14-day trial to the Cook’s Illustrated site, with all the product reviews and advanced recipes.

Cookstr.com is a “collection of cookbook recipes online.” You can browse and search their collection of recipes, or sign up with an email address and have a recipe mailed to you each week. It’s an interesting combination of blog and recipe database, and worth checking out.

Blogs

There are thousands and thousands of cooking blogs out there, but let’s feature just a few:

A Year of Slow Cooking chronicles daily experiments with crockpotting. From crockpot hot chocolate to turkey cutlets in mango salsa, there’s something for every palate and taste. For an added bonus, many of them are gluten-free!

Simply Recipes has a worldwide directory of food blogs, including Habeus Brulee, written by a New York cook and “occasional restauranteur.” Not only does she cook and post mouth-watering recipes, Habeus Brulee also also has an oustanding blog roll of food blogs; skim down the right-hand column to your stomach’s content.

Cooking for someone with an allergy or special dietary need? Here’s just a few to get you started.

Mobile Apps

The most useful place to have a food app is on your mobile device, for checking recipes in the store and on the go. Most of them will both search recipes and help create a shopping list; choose your favorite and give it a whirl!

Online audio – Music & audio libraries

Now that we’ve talked about freely available internet radio and podcasts, let’s start looking at your music and audio – the stuff you’ve downloaded or copied from your CDs.

What Is It?

Not too long ago, your personal audio library – the recordings you owned – might have included vinyl records, magnetic 8-track or cassette tapes, or laser-decoded compact discs (CDs). You usually kept these storage devices on a shelf, organized by title, by artist or by genre. You might even have had the same album in three different formats at one time or another.

Since the invention of the mp3 file format in the 1990s, music listeners have been moving away from physical recordings to all-digital music libraries. Music is stored on a computer or a device just like any other computer file, usually in MP3, AAC or WMA format.

Digital music libraries began as folders on the computer, organized like other files of documents or images. In 2001, Apple released iTunes for Mac computers and the iPod, a portable audio player (and in 2003, the iTunes Store and the music industry has never been the same. Now, music lovers are able to easily buy albums or individual songs, quickly share music over the internet, and take their entire music collections with them wherever they go.

The latest change in personal music libraries is streaming (remember streaming?). Music files are stored on your own computer, but you can also securely access that music over the internet or from a mobile device. Now, no matter how big or small your collection is, you can have it all with you all the time. We’ll discuss this feature in our next Learning for Life Online post on music “in the cloud.”

How Is It Useful?

Why digital? The obvious answer is that owning digital audio takes up no space in your home – no more shelves of records, tapes or CDs. Also, by syncing your personal media player to your library, you can bring most of your collection with you on a single device – no more lugging around a bag of cassettes or CDs! However, it’s the flexibility of having your music in digital format that’s really exciting.

Music library software is designed to make it easy to get, store and organize your music, not just by the album but by each individual song. You can put all of your music into a single collection and then sort by artist, album title, song title, genre, time, date added or dozens of other details. You can easily add and remove songs from playlists you create, use the search bar to find specific songs or artists, or randomly play anything in your library. In the newer programs, you can see album cover art and (in iTunes) have the computer Genius create playlists that show off your music in interesting ways.

iTunes is the most well-known music library software out there, but there are others: MediaMonkey, Helium Music Manager, JetAudio and MusicBee (for Windows only) are just a few. Most of these programs work on either Windows or Mac computers, and will cooperate with many of the mp3 players on the market.

Try It Out

If you already have a music library program like iTunes on your computer, poke around in it and try something beyond clicking Play. Create a playlist and add items to it, change the details you can use to sort your music, or add star ratings or descriptive comments to a song. This is your music library – customize it to work the way you want it to.

In our next, last post in the online audio series, we’ll look at purchasing music and moving it “to the cloud” – what that is and what it means. Stay tuned….

Help & Resources

Music Library Programs

General Audio File Information

Apps – The Basics

“Is there an app for that?”

What Is It?

Apps is short for applications, a fancier name for software programs. On your computer, applications include things like your web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome), your office programs (Word, Powerpoint, Excel), your media software (iTunes, iPhoto, Windows Media Player), your email and calendar clients (iCal, Mail, Thunderbird, Outlook) and any other program you’ve got running.

Apps are much smaller versions of applications for smartphones like Android phones, iPhones and BlackBerrys; the iPad and iPod Touch; Android tablets; Palm devices and even e-readers like the Nook.

You search for and download apps from markets like Apple’s iPhone App Store, the Android Market and the BlackBerry App World. Some apps are free and some cost a few dollars. More and more often, companies and organizations are directly offering apps for their products and services on their sites (check out the MBTA’s App Center!), but the easiest way to find apps is to use the app resource on the device you own.

How Is It Useful?

Apps are available to help you do anything you might want to do with your smartphone. Use an app to find a good restaurant for dinner, know when and where a movie is playing, figure out who sang that song playing on the speakers, find a recipe, or even use your Starbucks card to pay for coffee right from your phone.

You can download audiobooks and videos that you check out electronically from your library directly to your device. The Boston Public Library uses Overdrive, which has apps for iPhone and Android.

Try It Out

All smartphones and tablets come with a few apps to get you going. Click on these, open them up, and see what they’re like. There’s no need to sign up for every service with an app on your phone, but most of them provide some kind of use even without an account.

For more apps to play with, visit the app market on your phone: the App Store iPhones/iPads/MacBooks and the Android Market for Android devices. Either use the search bar to find a particular app you’ve heard about, or click on “Top Free” to find popular free apps to try. Don’t limit yourself to games – give a few others a whirl.

Help & Resources

LifeHacker’s App of the Day suggests quality useful apps every day.
Android Market
Apple iPhone App Store
Amazon Apps for Android
Google Chrome Web Apps