Periodically, we get requests from Coastal Point readers to expand our technology columns to offer tips to those who are just learning to use computers and other gadgets, or those who know the basics but want to expand their horizons, with some Tech 101-type pieces. For all of you who made that request, this is for you.
So, you got the computer. You learned how to do e-mail. You’ve even got a high-speed Internet connection to send and receive photos. You may even have Googled yourself. What else can you do with your computer and that Internet connection? Well, here are some ideas:
(1) Find a great new recipe or a favorite old one.
This was one of the marvels of the Internet for me in recent years. As the world of the “foodie” has expanded onto the Internet, more and more, people are sharing their favorite recipes, inventing new ones and creating variations on some classics — available for anyone to take on in their own kitchen.
If you lost grandma’s recipe for Broccoli-Cheese Casserole that even the vegetable haters loved, it — or a close cousin — may just be available on the Internet.
In my case, this lost recipe is a classic Campbell’s Soup-can recipe that called for Cream of Mushroom condensed soup, broccoli, cheese and not much else. But after years of trying to figure out how to make it by trial and error, I finally found it online at AllRecipes.com. (Grandma substituted Cream of Potato for the mushroom soup.)
Of course, there are a million variations on this recipe — many of which don’t require canned anything. And you can find most of them online, too.
Kick off specific searches, such as that one for my grandmother’s casserole, in your trusty online search engine, such as Google.
To explore recipes by name, ingredient, cuisine and more, head to sites like AllRecipes.com, Epicurious.com, Cooks.com, RecipeZaar.com, RecipeSource.com and the new CookThink.com, which aims to satisfy your food cravings. These sites are great for finding a way to use that unique vegetable you found at the farmers’ market but don’t have a clue how to cook.
The Food Network Web site at foodtv.com and FoodNetwork.com is also a great source, since it lets you look up recipes shown on your favorite shows on the network, and then some. (A personal favorite is Paula Deen’s Shrimp and Wild Rice Casserole.) Talk and variety shows that have cooking segments generally post the recipes they demonstrate online, too.
Get hints for re-creating name-brand specialties at TopSecretRecipes.com (a premium membership is required for access to some, but not all of these trial-and-error re-creations). Or, try out the recipes recommended by the companies behind the brands, by heading over to their own Web sites. Most food companies offer tips for using their products, as well as some recipes that include them. Campbell’s is just one such company.
One of my favorite ways to find a new recipe is to head to — pardon the language, if you’re sensitive to such things — so-called “food porn” sites. These are Web sites, or “blogs,” that specialize in offering eye-popping photography of mouth-watering dishes, many of which include the recipe used to create the tantalizing image.
Until recently, the go-to site for food porn was Tastespotting.com, where foodies from around the world posted images of their cooking experiments in full, glorious color. Nine times out of 10, there was a recipe to go along with the image. Tastespotting is on hold at the moment, due to some legal and ownership challenges, but they’re expected to return in the near future.
In the meantime, food bloggers at Sunday Nite Dinner took up the mantle and launched FoodGawker.com, which has basically the same function: present beautiful food photography and a link to blog entries about the food. Many of these sites’ fans have declared them their main inspiration for cooking, challenging them with new recipes, new ideas and just simply to cook.
Along with those sites go many thousands of great food blogs, ranging from family-friendly to haute-cuisine, meat-loving to vegetarian, farm-fresh to once-a-month cooking. If you check in on the food porn sites regularly, you’ll quickly find out which blogs suit your tastes. From there, it’s easy to check back in with them regularly to catch every new recipe.
(2) Save a stamp. Pay your bills online.
Oh, I know. This one is scary, because it means your bank records are online and vulnerable to hackers, right?
If you’re running a current version of one of the mainstream Web browsers and you make sure you’re really on your bank own’s Web site, as well as take some basic safety precautions, this is not only safe, it’s very convenient.
Check your bank balance any time of day or night to ensure everything is as it should be. Transfer funds between accounts. Pay not only your monthly utility bills but basically anyone, since most banks allow you to send out a check to any name and address, just by filling out a payment form.
Your electronically-paid payments will go through quicker than the mail would get there. And payments made by an actual physical check can be tracked through the bank from their issue, with an electronic trail that beats “lost in the mail” any day.
Most utilities, credit card companies and mortgage companies offer the ability to pay online, too, which means you’re able to check your balance, verify recent payments, review a statement and quickly pay them directly, using a credit or debit card, or your bank account.
Remember to check that the Web site you’re using is genuine and not a clever copy designed to steal your real password or payment information, and make sure you get the closed-padlock symbol or other browser icon that signifies you have a secure connection, and this becomes virtually as safe as paying in person.
And, if you’re sending money over a distance and need it to get there in a hurry, look at the Web sites for Western Union or PayPal. Western Union online works virtually the same as its in-person service to wire funds. PayPal lets you set up an account for yourself to send or receive money, and that long-distance pal or college-bound grandchild can have it available nearly instantly online or in their bank account with a few days’ wait, all for a small fee.
(3) Research a favorite topic, or the topic of the moment.
The Internet has been a boon to genealogists on a scale par none.
Membership services like Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and FamilySearch.org offer access to public records and existing genealogical records that would take many times the money, time and energy to uncover on your own.
Government record databases offer the ability to search records from a distance or to request copies of official records without even a phone call, stamp or visit to town hall.
Family genealogy groups even offer shortcuts to research on long-ago family history, when the Smith family was new to the shores of North America and the ancestors who would become the Smiths of Delaware were part of the Smiths who had just arrived from England. Who better to know that your many-times-great-grandfather wasn’t really from Ireland but from Scotland instead?
Are you a big fan of Irish wolfhounds and want to know if there’s a rescue group that might have a dog up for adoption? Hit up Google again, and you’ll find the answer, or a breadcrumb trail to it, quicker than two shakes of a pup’s tail. Or, try PetFinder.com and see if there’s a homeless cat who’s waiting to cuddle up in your lap.
Feeling unwell of late and want to know if it’s West Nile virus? It’s the work of a moment to research the symptoms. Heard a new term or an interesting story on the news? Check it out online and learn more about it than you ever dreamed.
Nearly anything you might be curious about has some amount of information available online. Even if you think you’ve got a truly unique hobby or area of interest, it’s still a good bet that there’s someone else in the world who shares your fascination and has posted about it online. Often, industry insiders will take advantage of the anonymity of the Internet to drop hints from behind the scenes or give up secrets you’d never learn otherwise.
These connections over a common passion often become the modern-day version of the pen-pal, too, offering the chance to make friends and learn things you never would have otherwise.
(4) Become a better consumer.
Did you lose the manual to your microwave? Did you forget how to program your VCR? Did you lose the TV remote?
Head over to the manufacturer’s Web site and see if they offer an online or downloadable version of your manual. If they don’t, give Google a try using your specific model number. You may find a copy of your manual, or you may find someone else who has had the same problem and figured out how to fix it.
In the last week, I had two chances to make use of this incredibly valuable way to use the Internet. We had disassembled part of my months-old Dyson vacuum cleaner and thought we knew how to put it back together. We were wrong. Or, at least we didn’t want to do it wrong and break something. But could I find the manual? No.
A few minutes online, and I had a digital copy of the manual, which confirmed that we were on the right track in our re-assembling technique and let us get back to work.
And, after months of putting up with a digital video recorder that restarted itself several times a day and ruined half of my shows with pixilation and lost audio, I discovered that my idea about a failing hard drive was wrong.
Several other owners of the same unit had experienced the same problem. They traced it to having hooked up a digital output cable to the DVR. Unplug the cable and use a different output, they promised, and the problem would go away. It did! That’s several hundred dollars of repair or replacement costs that I saved with a little research online.
There’s a similar chance to save money — and headaches — by doing your consumer research ahead of a purchase. Not every review of a particular product will reflect your own experience with it, but if more than few people are having the same problem with it, it’s likely you’ll want to avoid it yourself.
Likewise, products that get rave reviews about construction quality, customer service and features are nearly guaranteed to give you a better experience and better value.
And, speaking of value, if you’re planning a purchase, trying typing “coupon” or “code” into a search engine, along with the product’s name or the name of the manufacturer or a reseller. You can often find coupon codes for free shipping, a percentage or dollar amount off the purchase, or manufacturers’ rebate offers. Some people specialize in finding and reposting these codes, so they’re frequently available online.
While you’re at it, hit up sites such as FatWallet.com and SlickDeals.net to get the latest in sale offers and coupon codes for all kinds of items at all kinds of stores. And subscribe to the clearance, “what’s new” and sales specials e-mail lists or RSS feeds of your favorite shops. They’ll not only let you know when things are on sale, they’ll often come with special offers for subscribers.
(5) Find a long-lost pal.
If you ever worry about what the Internet says about you, turn that thought on its head and wonder what it says about the people you lost track of years ago. Find out what your college roommate has been up to. See what happened to your best friend from high school. Learn whether that long-lost love got married or moved back home and started their own business, or even got a prestigious appointment.
Not every person leaves an Internet trail, but you might be surprised how easy it is to find out something about people you used to know.
If they’ve been mentioned in a local newspaper — even if they just wrote a letter to the editor — it’s likely you’ll find their name with an Internet search. That can tell you where they are now, or at least where they’ve been recently, if not what they’ve been up to.
For the truly curious, or those genuinely seeking to restore contact, try the online white pages at WhitePages.com. If their phone number is listed in their local phone book, you’ll be able to find them, their number, and probably their current address.
If you’re really determined to find that long-lost love or friendship that tragically lost contact, but you don’t find them mentioned online or listed in the phone book, you can also consider taking that search a bit further by paying a search service to do some searching for you.
Depending on your determination and your budget, this kind of thing can range from searches of public records, such as marriages, to hiring a real-life private detective to scour last-known locations for traces of that lost loved-one. (Just remember that sometimes they’re lost because they want to be!)
Take this idea a step further (no, not stalking) and catch up with the news in your home town — or the places you’ve lived in along the way. Find out if the local newspaper has a Web site, and get caught up on all the local news.
Many newspapers (including the Coastal Point) offer comment sections or message boards where readers can comment on the news and interact with each other. This can be a great way to find out what’s happening at the old homestead and even find some old pals.
(6) Catch up with the media.
Did you miss the first season of that show everyone’s been talking about? Were you out of the house when that radio talk-show host made that outrageous comment? Did you catch the end of a song on the radio and you won’t be able to get it out of your head until you know who recorded it?
These are dilemmas made for the Internet.
Most television networks these days offer full episodes of their top shows online for download or streaming to your computer. You can catch the 6:30 p.m. network news at midnight or the prime-time line-up at 10 a.m. You’ll likely have to watch a few commercials, but you’d have to do that watching it live anyway.
If you have iTunes installed on your computer, you can also look for full seasons of many shows that can be downloaded to your computer by the episode or by the season, running around $2 per episode. That saves the wait on many offerings of TV shows on DVD and generally saves on the price as well. Plus, no commercials!
Similarly, radio stations and production networks often preserve their high-profile shows for later listening online. Even those that don’t frequently offer live streaming to computers via the Web sites these days, meaning you can listen even without a radio.
And if it’s controversial, it was probably recorded and instantly uploaded to the Internet. The legality of this is murky at best, of course, but if you want to hear what he really said or see what she really did, there’s no longer the barrier of time and place between you and what everyone’s talking about.
That’s true of print-media coverage as well, since most magazines and newspapers offer online archives, either for free or with paid subscriptions. You can easily research the history of a local issue or catch a story you might have missed a few years ago.
And if you caught a few of the lyrics from that song, try typing them into a search engine. In many cases, it will turn up the song’s name and the artist, which then offers you the chance to listen to a clip or purchase and download the song, or listen to other tracks by the same artist and decide if they’re going to be a new favorite.
Alternatively, look up an old favorite and see if they’ve put out a new album recently, been featured on a compilation album or even have headed out on tour.
The Internet offers nearly everything you could need and most everything you could possibly want, all for the searching. Just remember to come up for air every once in a while. The beach is beckoning!