Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Steps How To Write a "How To" Article

How to write article

How-to posts are always going to be popular. They’re great for readers – who are often Googling “how to X” – and they’re great for you, the writer, because they’re easy to put together.
So, open up a blank document and let’s get your how-to post underway…

Step #1: Pick a Good Topic and Goal

Any great blog post starts with a great idea. Your how-to post is no different.
Think about what people in your niche want to learn (and what you can easily explain in step-by-step format). That could be:

How to tune a guitar (music or guitar blog)
How to edit your writing (student or writing blog)
How to spend less and save more (personal finance or self-development blog)
How to make money from home (entrepreneurship or stay-at-home-parent blog)
How to create a plugin for WordPress (blogging or web development blog)

Your how-to post comes with an implicit goal: if the reader follows your instructions, they should be able to accomplish something. Think about your audience – will they want a simple, straightforward goal, or something more complex?

Do it: Come up with a “how to” idea for your own niche and write it down. Don’t worry about perfecting the title just yet.

Step #2: Work Out the Steps from Start to End

Before you leap into the writing, you need to work out all the steps of your how-to post. If you don’t do this in advance, it’s easy to miss something out – or to realize half-way through that you should’ve tackled a different topic entirely.

Sometimes, you might have several options – or it might be possible to put the steps in a different order. If so, you can:

Choose the simplest order
Start with the easier steps and work up to harder ones
Flag up particular steps as “optional”

Think of your “how to” post as a recipe with clear instructions at each stage. If you’re struggling to figure out the steps, try working backwards: begin at the end and ask yourself what comes before that? And before that?

Do it: Write down the steps for your how-to. You’ll probably need around 4 – 10 steps. If you have more than that, either join some steps together or consider breaking your post into two parts.

Step #3: Write the Introduction

Now that you have a plan for your post, you can write the introduction. Some people prefer to do this after writing the main body of the post, so if you struggle with introductions, you might want to come back to this step.

Your introduction should:

Explain what the post is about and what the reader will be able to accomplish at the end
Give a sense of why the reader might want to do this – mention the benefits
Tell the reader about any prerequisites, if appropriate (such as equipment that they’ll need or knowledge that they should already have)

Don’t get too hung up on writing the introduction – you can always come back and edit.

Do it: Write an introduction to your how-to post. This might be anything from a couple of sentences to a few paragraphs long.

Step #4: Write Instructions for Each Step

You’ve already got the steps worked out, so writing the body of the post should be straightforward. Explain each step to the reader – you might want to give a screenshot or photo to show them how things should look as they’re progressing.

There are lots of ways to write the steps. You might like to use one or more of these ideas:

Include personal experience – explain how you did it
Offer an example at each stage
Come up with alternatives and suggestions that the reader can use
Give direct instructions (like the “Do it” sections in this post)

Do it: Work through your post, writing the text for each step. If you get stuck, ask yourself “how would I explain this to a friend?”

Step #5: Add a Conclusion and Call to Action

Once you get to the final step, your post isn’t quite finished. You still need to add a conclusion – without this, you’ll be ending too abruptly and you’ll be missing out on the chance to include a call to action.

In the conclusion, you may want to:

Sum up – explain what the reader should now have accomplished
Offer suggestions for what to do next, or alternatives to try out
Encourage readers to actually follow the steps, not just read them!

A “call to action” is a copywriting term. It means that you should ask the reader to take some action – ideally, something that ties in with your own goals. For instance:

If you want more comments, ask readers to “leave a comment below” or “share your experience in the comments”
If you want more tweets, ask readers to “click here to tweet this post”
If you want more sales, tell readers “you can learn more about X in my ebook, available here”

… and so on.

Do it: Write a conclusion to your post. Include a call to action (you may need to stop and think about your own blogging goals at this point).

Step #6: Tweak the Title

Currently, your how-to post probably has a descriptive title like “How to train for a marathon”. That’s not a bad title – but it could definitely be more compelling.

Here are some easy ways to improve your title:

Add a number: How to Train for a Marathon: 5 Steps
Add an adjective: How to Train for a Marathon: 5 Straightforward Steps
Add a “who” to the title: How to Train for a Marathon: Experts Speak Out
Make it personal: How I Went from Couch Potato to Marathon-Runner … And How You Could Too

Do it: Tweak the title of your post. You might want to come up with several possible versions and ask friends to choose which they think is best.

Step #7: Edit Your Post

Finally, it’s time to get your red pen out and edit your post. No-one’s first draft is ever perfect, and a bit of editing can make a huge difference. If you can, let a day go by before you edit your draft – or print your post out so you can edit on paper. This helps you see it with fresh eyes.

When you edit, you’re not just looking for typos. You also want to:

Check that your post isn’t missing any steps (perhaps get a fellow blogger to try out the instructions)
Make sure you’ve expressed things clearly: check for any ambiguous or confused sentences
Watch out for grammatical and spelling mistakes that your spell-checker might not pick up

Do it: Edit your post, starting with the big picture (checking that you’re not missing any steps) and working down to the details (spelling, punctuation and grammar).

If you’ve been following all the steps, you’ve now got a finished “how to” post that can become a great piece of pillar content for your blog. (And if you’ve just been reading through, now’s your chance to go back and do all the bits in bold!)

Have you got any how-to tips to share – or any pitfalls to avoid? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, 23 July 2012

How To Make Phone Calls Through Google+ Hangouts

How To Make Phone Calls Through Google+ Hangouts

Google+ Hangouts let you set up group video chats in seconds, but what happens if you want to invite a friend who isn't near a computer or a webcam? Until recently, that buddy would've been left out — but now you can simply add him or her as a voice-only participant by making a phone call through the Hangout.

Google employee — and inventor of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) — Jarkko Oikarinen announced the new feature in a Google+ post on Thursday. He explains that the addition of phone calls to Hangouts is supposed to make arranging party lines and conference calls even simpler.

All you have to do to add a telephone participant to a Google+ Hangout is tap the "Invite" button at the top of the Hangout's interface, click the "Phone" tab on the left, enter a phone number, and click "Call Now." That's it!

It's worth noting that this new feature is initially available only inside Hangouts With Extra — which is simply a version of Hangouts with a handful of additional tools. It currently only supports calls in the U.S. and Canada.

How To Choose The Perfect Mouse

Are you still using the mouse that came with your computer? Or maybe you've tried something new, but you've got some nagging RSI strain, cords tangled everywhere, or a lagging mouse that's left you unjustly fragged into oblivion? If your mouse aren't working for you, it's time to buy new ones. Here are the things you'll want to keep in mind as you shop.


There are some great cheap, simple, 2-button mice out there, but you'd be surprised how much easier a nicer mouse can make your day. Sure, a nice mouse can be a bit pricier than the $10 two-buttoner you bought at Staples, but whether it's getting rid of wrist pain or just saving you endless clicks on the scroll wheel, they're well worth the money. In fact, the $75 I spent on my mouse is some of the best money I've spent on my entire rig—and since you use these items every time you sit down at your machine, you should make sure they're of good quality. If you're ready to trade in the old beater for a new model, here are some things you'll want to consider.

Size and Ergonomics

Undoubtedly the most important factor in choosing a mouse is how it feels. While you can prevent a lot of strain by merely rearranging your workspace, having a good mouse that works with you can still make a huge difference. For the most part, this involves two things: size and grip. Size is mostly personal preference (plus how portable you want your mouse to be), but certain mice are better for certain types of grips. The three main grips are:

How to Choose the Perfect Mouse and Keyboard

Palm Grip: With this style of a grip, you lay your entire hand on the mouse, using your palm to move the mouse around. You'll feel this most in your wrist and forearm. It's faster than the other grips, albeit less precise, so not always the best for gamers that require very precise movements. It's also the more comfortable of the two, so if you have RSI problems, you're probably better off with a mouse that encourages this type of grip. Usually these mice have a bigger bump on the back end for your palm to rest. Examples include the Razer Lachesis and the Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer.

How to Choose the Perfect Mouse and Keyboard

Claw Grip: The claw grip gets its name from the way your hand looks when you hold the mouse—your palm may still rest on the back, but your top fingers are arched in a claw-like fashion, and you may use your thumb, ring finger, and pinky to give you a bit more control over the mouse. It's more precise than the palm grip, but can be a bit more straining too. These mice are usually longer and have lipped edges, so you can pick the mouse up and move it. This is kind of in between the palm and fingertip grip, though, so you can use a ton of different mice with it, depending on where you fall in the spectrum. The Razer DeathAdder and Logitech G9x are popular gaming mice for this grip, while the Logitech Performance Mouse MX (my personal mouse of choice) is great for regular PC users.

How to Choose the Perfect Mouse and Keyboard

Fingertip Grip: This is the complete opposite end of the spectrum of the palm grip. With this, your palm doesn't rest on the end at all, you control the mouse entirely with your fingertips. This is the most precise of all the grips, but can also be the most taxing. Many people find it also has the steepest learning curve (since the palm grip is what most people use naturally), so if you have issues with RSI, you might want to avoid this grip. These mice tend to be smaller and flatter, like the Razer Abyssus or the Logitech Marathon Mouse M705.

The above images are from Razer's mouse ergonomics guide, which I recommend checking out. It's mainly written for gamers, but can apply to anyone. I also recommend checking out NCIX Tech Tips' guide to mouse ergonomics if you want more information on figuring out your grip and what mice are good for it. Note also that the mice listed above are just guidelines. Everyone's hands are different, and you probably use a combination of the above grips, or lie somewhere in between. The size of your hands can also influence which types of mice work with which types of grips. If you have smaller than average hands, for example, don't be afraid to venture outside the above recommendations to see if your claw grip works with a mouse designed for a palm grip. The best advice I can give is go to the store and try them out—these aren't the kinds of things you can tell when ordering a mouse online.

Wired vs. Wireless

How to Choose the Perfect Mouse and Keyboard

One of the other big deciding factors in your mouse decision is going to be whether you want a wireless mouse or one with a cable attached. In general, wireless mice tend to be more convenient, since the cable can't catch on your desk or get in the way. However, wireless mice can also carry some lag (usually about 8ms), which can feel like an hour if you're in the middle of an intense gaming session. Furthermore, they can sometimes interfere with other wireless devices in your home, like a wireless G router, or 2.4 GHz cordless phones. Wireless mice also require batteries, which can be a pain if you forget to charge them or pick up some AAs at the store.

Also keep in mind that if you're going to go wireless, you have a few different choices—namely Bluetooth and RF. RF mice are usually a bit more responsive and have a longer range, but they require a USB receiver, so they'll still take up a USB port on your machine. They're also more likely to interfere with other wireless devices, as I mentioned before. Bluetooth mice are a bit rarer, but will pair with many computers on their own (if your computer has Bluetooth built-in). Finding a good Bluetooth mouse can be hard, since RF is much more common—so unless you're really short on USB ports, I wouldn't recommend being too picky about Bluetooth versus RF.

Extra Buttons

How to Choose the Perfect Mouse and Keyboard

Extra buttons aren't just for gamers anymore, folks. You can map your spare buttons to any function, like back and forward in your browse, or to a function like Mac OS X's Exposé. Some Logitech mice even have an awesome "fast scroll" button that'll make your scroll wheel move fast, smoothly, and with momentum, which is great for scrolling through long pages quickly. I wouldn't base my entire decision on how many buttons a mouse has, but getting something with a few extra buttons on the side can be really nice for those features you use extra often. Have to copy and paste a lot of text in your day? Map those to some of your extra buttons. Switch between a ton of virtual desktops to manage your windows? The arrow buttons on the side of many Logitech mice are perfect for that. You're only limited by your imagination with this, so think of the more painstaking keyboard shortcuts you use and map them right to your mouse buttons. You'd be surprised how much of a difference it can make.


How to Choose the Perfect Mouse and Keyboard

I briefly mentioned this above, but if you're doing something that requires precise movements—like gaming or image editing—make sure you get a mouse that has relatively high sensitivity. Your mouse's sensitivity determines how small of a movement you need to make for your cursor to move. Perhaps you've noticed that with some mice, your cursor will get "stuck" if you move your mouse to slightly, and you have to jerk it out of place. High sensitivity mice don't have this problem, since slighter movements yield small movements in your cursor.

Sensitivity is calculated in dots per inch (DPI). Most medium- to high-end mice come with high sensitivities, usually 1200 DPI or higher, which should be more than enough. Just make sure that you aren't getting a cheap 400 DPI mouse if you're doing precision-oriented tasks. Some mice even have buttons on them that let you switch between different sensitivities without opening up their control panel, which is great if you want to quickly switch to a high sensitivity for image editing or gaming, then switch back when you go to do normal work.

What We Use

While we encourage you to do your own research and shopping, here are a few of the Lifehacker staff's favorite mice to get you started:

How to Choose the Perfect Mouse and Keyboard

  • At least four of us use the Logitech Performance Mouse MX (formerly known as the MX Revolution), and we're all in love with it. It perfectly contours to your hand, has a few extra buttons that you can remap to whatever you want, and has the amazing momentum scrolling feature I mentioned earlier. While it's designed for more of a palm or claw grip, it'll really work with any grip you want, in my experience. This is a great place to start if you're looking for a good wireless mouse (though it isn't exactly portable, as it's huge).
  • On the other end of the spectrum is the Microsoft Wireless Mouse 5000, which is Dachis' favorite external mouse (he's usually a trackpad kind of guy). It's simple, inexpensive, wireless, and portable enough to carry around with you.
  • For gaming, Jason is currently digging the Razer Naga, who's main draw is a big panel of twelve—count them—thumb buttons. It's designed for massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, but you can map them to functions in any game you want (or even on the desktop, if you're the adventurous type).

Remember, comfort and health comes first. You probably spend lots of time sitting at your desk with these peripherals, and the less likely you are to develop strain injury, the better—the rest is just a matter of convenience. Got any of your own favorite mouse and keyboard features (or just favorite models you want to share)? Sound off in the comments.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

How To Handle Rejection

English: Logo of the band Rejected Español: Lo...
Image via Wikipedia

Passed over for a job. Disqualified for a bank loan. Turned down for a date. Rejection happens to the best of us on occasion. Yes, even those of us who are pitching pros sometimes get red-carded, as evidenced by the two “thanks, but no thanks” responses I got to queries I sent out last week.

But rejection isn’t the end of the world. In fact, there are ways to evaluate the experience of being frozen out for a few key lessons that will put the ego undermining in perspective and help you cope with the next time someone opts not to buy what you’re selling:

Decide if it’s you or them

Most people fall into the two camps – they internalize rejection as a function of their personal shortcomings or inadequacies or they assume that they’re doing everything right and it’s the rest of the world that has a problem. The reality is never so binary. Sometimes, it’s you. Sometimes, it’s them. Sometimes, it’s Mercury in retrograde. The trick is to figure out whether your natural tendency is to internalize or project and to keep this knowledge in the forefront of your mind when coping with a rejection. Acknowledge your instinct, but then take a step back to interrogate the situation as objectively as possible.

Realize that what you want to sell might not be what someone else wants to buy

I like to write what I want to write and how I want to write it. I am not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. People do not pay me for what I decide to give them. They pay me for what they want me to produce. If I want to be paid for my prose, it’s my job to understand what that is and to give it to them or to find other clients who will pay for exactly what I want to produce and never hold me to any standards (Ha!). We all have to figure out where our individual boundaries are in this regard and negotiate the trade-off between personal integrity and public acceptance. Tailoring your resume for a job outside your field is one thing, pretending to like country music or cats to impress a date is another. Rejection allows us to revisit this issue to decide whether we need to increase our flexibility and get better at reading our desired audience or whether we’ve reached the limits of how and what we’re willing to compromise and repackage and maybe it’s time to cut our losses and move on. Speaking of which.

Know when to cut your losses

Just how much effort are you willing to expend on a given endeavor? Deciding that in advance helps you to put rejection in perspective and prevents you from continuing to bet on a losing horse. Maybe it’s 25 casting calls before you re-evaluate moving back to Omaha, or five interviews that don’t net job offers before you hire a career coach, or 10 rejection letters from agents before you take a long hard look at the merits of your Great American Novel. If you’re currently at three rejections, you know that you still have some leeway left, but there’s also a relief in being at #9 and knowing that it will soon be time to switch focus and try a different tactic.

Mine the experience

As a writer, it makes perfect sense that after being rejected, I’d write a piece about how to deal with rejection. That’s my process. Not everyone is a wordsmith (Thank God, I don’t need any more competition), but everyone can find a nugget of useful intel in each rejection if they’re willing to stop licking their wounds long enough to seek it out. Maybe a string of dates that go nowhere forces you to reconsider your readiness for a relationship. Maybe your lack of enthusiasm in job interviews is a red flag that you’re pursuing ill-suited opportunities. Dig deep and apply the insight you glean to making your next kick at the can a more accurate one.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

How To Submit a Good Database Bug Report

When an open source project becomes popular, bug reports start flocking in. This is both good and bad news for the project developers. The good news is that someone is using the product, and they are finding ways of breaking it that we didn't think of. The bad news is that most of the times the reporters assume that the developers have super human powers, and that they will find what's wrong by the simple mentioning that a given feature is not working as expected. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. An effective bug report should have enough information that the ones in charge will be able to reproduce it and examine in lab conditions to find the problem. When dealing with databases and database tools, there are several cases, from simple to complex. Let's cover them in order.

Installation issues
This is often a straightforward case of lack of functionality. When a tool does not install what it is supposed to, it is a show stopper, and a solution must be found. In this case, it's often enough to state the environment where the installation is happening (operating system, version of the tool, version of core components such as the MySQL database used) and the command used to start the installation. The error message could be an expected failure, when the installation procedure checks for requirements and fails if they are not met. For example: "Missing Ruby interpreter". The message tells (or suggests) you what to do. Filing a bug report on an expected failure is a waste of time. You should install the missing part and try again. Even if the message is about an unexpected failure (e.g. you get a stack trace from Ruby or Java), usually the first message tells you enough to be able to find a workaround. For example, if you get an exception from Ruby complaining about a missing 'curl' command, you can file a bug report to ask for the installer to check for 'curl' in the requirements, but if you install 'curl' yourself, the installation should continue.

Simple database issues
Reporting a database bug means complaining that the DBMS is not behaving as advertising by the documentation, or as common usage dictates. If it is a missing or misbehaving functionality, the best way of showing the problem is by starting with an empty DBMS, followed by the creation of the objects needed to reproduce the issue (CREATE SCHEMA, TABLE, INDEX) and by a minimal amount of data that triggers the problem. Some information about what operating system and database version was used is probably necessary to reproduce the problem consistently.

Simple database replication issues
By simple replication we mean a vanilla master/slave topology. In this scheme, data inserted in the master will eventually end up in the slave. Bugs in this category may fail to replicate the data totally or partially, or they may cause a break in the replication flow. Reproducing them is almost as easy as with simple database bugs. If you start with an empty system and manage to reproduce the error with a short sequence of commands, it should probably reproducible by a third party. Sometimes, settings in the master and the slave are essential to reproduce the problem. In MySQL, the format of binary logs, the default database engine and SQL modes can affect replication and produce different results with the same stream of SQL commands.

Complex database replication issues
The most difficult bugs to report are the ones where the error shows up only in a given topology. While MySQL native replication offers only few options to pipe data around (single, circular, hierarchical), Tungsten replicator allows a rich set of combined pipelines that can change the outcome of a data change event, depending on the originating node and the direction it took. In these case, information o how the cluster was installed becomes essential.

Concurrency issues
This is one of the most difficult bugs to report. When an error happens only because of the contemporary action of two or more threads, there is no easy way of reporting it in a way that it can be easily reproduced. Three methods are possible:
  • Describe the action of the first thread, then mark the change of thread and describe the actions of the second thread, continuing in this way until you reach the error point.
  • If you are a developer and feel comfortable with multi thread applications, write a script that reproduces the error by running several threads (Perl, Python, and Ruby offer the best environment for this kind of tests).
  • If the database offers a tool to write such multi-threading tests, consider using it.
Heavy load issues
This is a more complex case of the above one. Not only you need concurrency, but a lot of it happening at the same time. Reproducing this kind or error is challenging. If you have a support agreement with the provider of the database or the tool, you may let the support engineer have a look at your running environment, to find some clues. But even in this case, the support engineers or yourself need to ultimately reproduce the case in such a way that a developer can fix the problem and test the fix. There are two methods to report this problem:
  • Simplification: if you can reduce the concurrency to the elements that are misbehaving, the methods for concurrency issues will apply also in this case.
  • Enabling a query log could lead to identifying the sequence of events that have generated the error. The log should be integrated by the DDL of the objects involved in the action (schemas, tables, triggers, views, etc).
Large data issues
If your error only shows itself with large data, there is often a logistical problem, as you can't easily provide gigabytes of data, even if there privacy and security issues weren't in the way (which usually are). There are three strategies that you can use to report such bugs:
  • If only the size matters, then describing the kind of data used could be enough. E.g. When a table with such fields and such indexes grows beyond X GB, then the optimizer warp drive explodes. (Don't try this at home)
  • Create a script to generate the data that will ultimately trigger the error. This method requires both skills and an understanding of what the error is.
  • You may use a publicly available database to reproduce the error (for example, the Sample database with test suite.) Just mention in the bug report where to find the database, eventually how to load it if it is not simple, and then describe the steps needed to reproduce the bug after loading it.

DOs and DONTs

  • Search the bug repository and the mailing lists (or forums) before submitting yours. Someone may have had the same problem before you did. (Thanks, Robert Hodges, for this important reminder.)
  • Put yourself in the receiver's position, and try to reproduce the problem from a clean initial state.
  • If there is a workaround, mention it: it might give a good clue to the developers.
  • More information is better. Anything that can improve the identification of the bug root cause will be welcome. (But don't overdo: see below)
  • If you feel that a missing feature should be useful, report it as a feature request. (Even better: suggest a patch)

  • Don't report a missing feature as a bug, unless the docs say that the feature should be there.
  • Don't just send the error message without the events that generated it.
  • Don't include SQL commands embedded in code.
  • Don't say "my application doesn't work anymore," assuming it's the database's fault. Remember The First Rule of Programming: It's Always Your Fault
  • Less is better. If there is a long way and a short way of reproducing the bug, the shorter one is better. Don't send more info just for the sake of it.
  • Don't tell the developers that they are retarded. This will not increase the priority given to your bug, or your credibility.

How To Find a Best Museum Career

Are you passionate about history, art or science? Have you assembled an interesting personal collection over the years? A museum may be the perfect place to share your zeal and build a legacy.

The United States has more than 17,000 museums, according to the American Association of Museums (AAM). Whether you live in a metropolis or in the country, chances are you can find a nearby museum for a second career or volunteer position. Check your state's museum association for a list of museums and job opportunities in your region.

Education and Skill Requirements
Museum studies and professions are called museology. Like most 21st-century industries, technology is quickly transforming the field. Today's museum professionals have high levels of knowledge and expertise, according to Zinnia Willits, director of collections administration at Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C.

"The museum profession is constantly changing," Willits writes on the museum's blog. "New standards for collection care, exhibition design, curatorial research, digitization of information, use of social media, educational programming, membership tracking and every other aspect of museum work are being discussed daily on listservs, blogs and at various gatherings of museum professionals."

Curator and archivist are the elite positions within the museum system. Curators collect, study and interpret three-dimensional objects. Archivists are responsible in areas involving paper, film and electronic records. These positions typically require advanced degrees in the museum's subject area. Those with undergraduate degrees may find entry-level work as technicians or in other specialized job roles.

Finding Work
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the number of jobs for curators, archivists and archival techs is expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate, but notes that graduates face keen competition for positions. If you need to bolster your resume to qualify for a job, check out the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies directory of universities offering museum-related training programs.

The beauty of museum employment is that these American institutions require workers with a vast array of skills. You may already have the qualifications to launch a museum career. Museums need publicists, fundraisers, event planners, information technology experts, plumbers, electricians, drivers and retail specialists. Taxidermists, book conservators, photographers, landscape professionals and other workers may also find opportunities. Each plays an important role in helping a museum meet its mission.

"Curatorial scholars, conservation scientists and technical art historians melded into a tasty soup of cosmic union," says Allysa Browne Peyton about her experience at the 2011 Association of Art Museum Curators annual conference.

Browne Peyton, the curator associate for Asian Art at the University of Florida's Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, also notes the importance of multidisciplinary approaches in museum staffing: "Each ingredient will complement the other and amount to something greater than its parts," she says.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

How To Cut Your Tax Bill

As many seniors learn, retirement can be as stressful and as frustrating a time as any when it comes to paying taxes.

With 401(k)s, traditional and Roth IRAs, as well as Social Security benefits and working wages, there's plenty to calculate on a tax return.

So, how can the retirement crowd cut down on their tax bills? Analysts say it starts with managing your money.

"Retirees usually have a bit more control over their tax situation than other taxpayers," says Steven Gershon, a director at the Kansas City, Kansas, office of the accounting and financial service firm, CBIZ MHM. "That's because they can decide how much they might need to withdraw from their retirement plans to keep their taxes low."

Delay, delay, delay

Most experts agree that delaying withdrawals from a 401(k) or traditional IRA until the age of 70½ years is best for taxpayers — letting these plans grow tax deferred.

Taxes on withdrawals from these plans are eventually taxed at ordinary income rates — but that can increase by more than 10 percent if withdrawals occur before age 59½.

This is where a Roth IRA can help, says Mike Scholz, tax director at Wegner CPA. Funds there can be withdrawn by age 59 when needed, tax free, if they've been open for at least five years.

"If a retiree doesn't have a current Roth IRA, it's worth it to see if a rollover from an existing IRA or employer plan to one makes sense," Scholz explains. "They have tax-free growth and tax-free distributions."

And having more than one type of IRA can help taxpayers when the required minimum distributions withdrawal, RMD, for these funds hits at age 70.

"RMD management is essential," says Lee Martinson, owner of PGA Financial. "Seniors have to know to take advantage of the aggregate rule, which says that withdrawals from one can satisfy withdrawals from all your vehicles. That will lower tax bills."

One other tactic to lower taxes is to shift taxable income around to different types of lesser- taxed investment vehicles.

"Some methods are very popular, like family limited partnerships, and things like trust life insurance annuities," says Alexey Bulankov, a financial planner at McCarthy Asset Management. "There are what's called Stretch IRA's to deal with estate taxes. Seniors should weigh the benefits of all."

Besides moving money, some retirees consider moving themselves to states like Nevada and Florida, that traditionally have low or no income taxes. But times have changed, says Gary Duboff, managing director of CBIZ MHM's New York City office.

"With the economic downturn, many states are enacting or thinking about new and higher taxes on residents," Duboff explains. "It's a common approach for many retirees to move, but unexpected changes in tax law could have an impact on planning."

Another problem for retirees on the move are gift and estate taxes. Many states — 21 to be exact — do not adopt the federal rules excluding up to $5 million of estate tax assets. That could cost retirees and their heirs additional taxes if they re-locate.

It's obvious, say experts, that retirees need to check out the tax laws of any new state they might want to move to.

A dollar earned . . .

Social Security checks are welcome income for many retirees, but benefits are often taxed if a person has substantial additional income — such as wages, dividends, or interest.

No one pays federal income tax on more than 85 percent of benefits, but the combined income threshold — benefits and other income like wages — for when the tax kicks in is low: $44,000 for couples and as little as $25,000 for some individuals.

That means retirees ought to think about pushing back any extra income.

"Seniors should postpone taking discretionary income, like capital gains, to early January of a following year, instead of December, if they can," says Larry Karmel, a partner at the tax specialty firm, Metis Group.

"With the income threshold at 85 percent, delaying the income for a time makes the benefit dollar worth more than a dollar of other income," argues Karmel.

For married couples, itemized deductions also can help off set potential taxes on benefits, says Bulankov.

"Filing jointly may enable couples to deduct all or part of the long term care insurance premiums they pay for themselves if they meet certain IRS criteria—and help minimize benefit taxation," Bulankov explains.

Looking ahead

If retirees find the tax burden heavy now, it could get heavier with tax reform. Some proposals include flat taxes with the elimination of taxation on dividends and interest, but that could mean higher rates on wages.

Expiration of the Bush tax cuts — set for the end of 2012 — could raise rates on dividends from 15 to 39.6 percent — regular income that many seniors depend on.

Meanwhile, taxes are going up in 2013. The health care bill passed in 2010 adds a 3.8% tax on wages above $200,000 for individuals on unearned income, including interest, dividends, capital gains and other investment income. And there will be a 0.9 percent increase in Medicare taxes on all wages for the same income levels.

With all that in mind, some tax analysts worry that retirees aren't prepared for their senior years.

"The cost of retirement has grown and many people have not saved enough," says Lee Isaccson, a CPA with the accounting firm, Reznick Group. "They need to budget their costs and understand that taxes are now part of their responsibility and start making estimated payments, where as an employee, they didn't have to."

In the end, experts say, cutting down a tax bill takes work.

"Plan ahead for taxes as much as planning for a vacation," says Mike Scholz. "A little tax planning now can produce enough tax savings to actually pay for a trip."

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

How To Design the Best Navigation Bar for Your Website or Blog

The navigation bar is the most important design element on a website. Not only does it guide your users to pages beyond the homepage, but it’s also the singular tool to give users a sense of orientation. With this in mind, it’s important to adhere to time-tested design and usability conventions. Doing so will give your users a comfortable and easy reference point to fully engage with your content.

Despite the necessity of an accessible navigation bar, usability studies on navigation across the web aren’t positive. One study by User Interface Engineering shows that people cannot find the information they seek on a website about 60% of the time. While this failure rate might be acceptable for your average blog, a business website simply cannot afford these stats. Even worse, many users often find navigation usability extremely frustrating, citing annoying hover errors and inconsistencies. Another study by Forrester found that 40% of users do not return to a site when their first visit is negative.

So how do you ensure that your users are able to quickly and easily find the information they need?

The Basics

Employ these basic concepts to help users move more efficiently through your website.

Start with content. Believe it or not, most websites start backward, meaning a designer will suggest navigation items before determining all the content possibilities. This isn’t entirely unusual — often the content isn’t ready before the design process begins. Jeffrey Zeldman, a usability guru, suggests, “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

It’s important to properly analyze and organize all your content into a logical and highly usable structure before even considering design choices. Once you accomplish this, only add complexity if absolutely necessary for your users.

Don’t overwhelm. The main role of a navigation bar is to provide your user with a choice. Overwhelming a site visitor with too many options impedes his ability to quickly make a choice. A navigation bar with five to seven channel items is sufficient organization for most websites. Plus, it fits nicely in the width of most website designs. Once you reach eight navigation options, you severely limit readability and usability due to width constraints.

Keep it simple. Use precise and recognizable words in the navigation bar. Refrain from long phrases that consume screen real estate by limiting each navigation item to 12 characters or less. Also, don’t use words that an average user wouldn’t completely understand. People are used to conventions; therefore, err on the side of familiarity. For example, use “Contact Us,” not “Get in Touch” or “Let’s Talk.” Finally, leave out unnecessary words that don’t add anything to the navigation item. Instead of “In the News,” consider simply “News.”

Actions on the right. Because people read from left to right, they naturally expect action links on the right-hand side of the navigation bar because moving right suggests moving forward. Use the left side for more informational links. The exception is the “Home” link, which as a backward action, should be furthest left.

Avoid Flash, for the most part. While Flash is generally frowned upon by usability experts, it presents aesthetic possibility. Flash’s biggest problem is that it typically is not implemented in a way accessible to screen readers and mobile devices. And while you don’t want to implement the actual navigation with Flash, you can get away with embellishing an HTML/CSS Navigation Bar with Flash to add visual interest and retain usability. One great example of this is the

One-Level Navigation Bars

Now that you know a few basic principles about creating a highly effective navigation, let’s learn from already existing navigation bars, including one-level bars, drop-down multi-level bars and mega drop-down bars. While you’ll ultimately decide which type of navigation works best for your website, we can show you what to do and what not to do depending on the type of navigation bar you eventually choose.

Apple vs. CNN

Experts have often heralded as the gold standard in web design. The company has managed to distill everything it does into seven links, not including the logo and a search bar. It’s the epitome of simplicity and straightforwardness — from one of the largest companies in the world.

To its credit, has to cover an entire planet of news, which makes it somewhat understandable that its site features a whopping 16 navigation bar links. While this navigation structure might work for CNN, it’s highly unreasonable for your average personal or business website. Cramming this many links in the full width of the website hinders readability by forcing a small font size and very little negative space on either side of a link. On a practical level, it’s a huge chore to read through every single link to decide where you need to go.

Drop-Down Multi-Level Navigation Bars

Drop-down menus became very popular at the end of the ‘90s during the dot-com boom because they allowed a user to get to any page on a website with one click. While that may seem like a huge advantage at first, the option presents several usability problems if done incorrectly. Many users find these types of navigation bars frustrating because they require precise cursor movements in order to successfully move through deeper levels. With this in mind, it’s best to reserve ample vertical and horizontal space for each link so that users can navigate without clicking on the wrong page.

Denny’s vs. Sony

Earlier this year, Denny’ new website design that was met with mixed reviews. On one hand, the website featured an innovative and technically complex browsing experience, but for many critics, it was overdone. The navigation bar features gimmicky JavaScript “enhancements” that actually slow the user down. For example, when you hover over a link with the cursor, it takes a fraction of a second for the animation to fully reveal its contents. Even that fraction of a second is slower than our mind’s ability to move forward. , sticking true to its understated style, provides a no-nonsense drop-down menu that gets the job done efficiently. Sony’s helper icons next to links specify parent and action links. Overall, Sony’s navigation bar responds instantly and manages to stay out of the user’s way with its subtle yet effective design.

Mega Drop-Down Navigation Bars

Mega menus are the newest design craze for large sites with a lot of depth and categories, such as and The White House website. These menus are usually only two levels deep, but the second level features a large panel complete with images or multiple columns of links. The benefit to these menus is that a site not only provides more links for the user, but also includes context and hierarchy within those links.

Target vs. Lowe’s

A mega menu’s blessing can also be its curse. Sure, these navigation bars give you more room to include links, but without proper hierarchy and context, mega menus can quickly turn into a sea of unnavigable options. Perhaps the best example of this is It doesn’t take long to see that the company has crammed way too many links in its mega menu, without the proper hierarchy or context.

While it might seem convenient that a user can get to Target’s “Spice Storage” department directly from the second level of its menu, is that really necessary? Including links like this creates too much noise and doesn’t let the user focus on the important higher-level category items. Another big no-no is the sheer size of Target’s menu. Some of the mega menu panels exceed the height of a standard 13-inch laptop screen size. The last thing you want is to force someone to scroll down to use your navigation menu.

Target could learn a few things from website. Lowe’s has managed to provide a wealth of links with plenty of hierarchy and context. For every panel of links, the company has made the most popular and timely links stand out by elevating them to large blocks of thumbnail images.

By distinguishing the most popular items, Lowe’s makes it easy for users to access the links they’re most likely to click anyway. The thumbnail images also contribute greatly to context. By providing recognizable images for their most popular categories, the user doesn’t even have to read to understand which part of the menu he’s in. It’s akin to walking by Lowe’s brick and mortar store, and scanning the contents of each aisle to zero-in on your desired product.


When choosing a navigation bar type, start simple. Evaluate your content thoroughly and ask yourself what your users need to access quickly. More often than not, a complex navigation system is an indicator you need better content planning and organization. If you absolutely need to give your users so many options directly inside the navigation bar menu, follow the principles mentioned above to create an efficient and enjoyable experience for your users.

Monday, 14 May 2012

How To Reach Media Voters

Few political teams question local television’s ability to send their message to reach the right audience. TV is viewed as the most persuasive and effective ad medium — and viewers are spending more time watching TV than ever before. But, with the shifting media landscape, some now downplay the reach and influence of TV advertising.

For example, a recent survey by SAY: Media, a digital media content services provider, seems aimed to make political media buyers believe digital is the new TV.

Voters watch much less live TV, according to the survey, than they once did. When they view recorded TV, it says they skip the commercials. The study found this is particularly true of younger viewers — with 30 percent of those surveyed saying they plan on viewing less live TV.

It suggests that, to compete in today’s media marketplace and reach these disappearing viewers, political campaigns need to allocate more ad money to online efforts created by digital providers — like SAY: Media.

OK, I get it. Create or define a marketing communications problem and then create or define the solution. But in this case, the survey’s results are startling. And the “problem” facts get in the way.

Let’s step back.

The A.C. Nielsen Company spends millions of dollars every year to measure people’s actual television, DVR, online and mobile viewing behaviors. Here’s what Nielsen says is happening now:

Of the total 35 hours a week that 25-to-34 year olds spend watching video, 87.7 percent is TV; time-shifted viewing (programs recorded on DVR) is 9.1 percent; the Web is 2.7 percent, and mobile video viewing is 0.5 percent.

In the 35-to-49 demographic, live TV garners 90.3 percent of video viewing time. Time shifted viewing is 7.9 percent, online video is 1.6 percent and mobile video is 0.2 percent — 40 hours total.

The 50-to-64-year-old demographic watches more TV — 48 hours per week. Time spent with live TV is 93.3 percent, and DVRs is 5.8 percent, online video is 0.9percent and mobile video, 0.1 percent. Those older than 65 do virtually all viewing on live TV.

Is there a tilt toward DVR, online and mobile by younger viewers versus older? Yes. Is it at a tipping point? No — not when 87.7 percent of younger viewing time is spent watching live TV.

There are a lot of exciting tools and opportunities to communicate with voters in the online space. But the digital plays do not solve a current problem — because there is no current problem. Television viewing is increasing both in number of viewers and time spent with live TV. Usage has never been higher.

Digital platforms provide new ways of reaching voters and complementing TV’s reach. Sure, they are now expected components of a politician’s media plan. But, their seat at the campaign’s media table will not be replacing TV.

Local broadcast TV will remain, in David Axelrod’s words, the “nuclear weapon” of political persuasion.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

How To Convert Text To an E-Book

Question: My father has written several books about his time as a game warden. How can I convert these to e-books?

Answer: Start with a converter program like Calibre. It can turn TXT, ODT and PDF files into common e-book formats. You could also use an e-book-creation programs like Sigil. To create an e-book for the Kindle, use Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing service. Visit to find links to all these programs and services.

Q: I'm trying to print some photos from a friend's Facebook account. They keep turning out blurry. What can I do to make them clearer?

A: The photos you're printing are probably low resolution. In other words, they have a low number of pixels or color units. Trying to blow them up to a normal photo size makes the pixels larger and causes blurring. You'll want to contact your friend and see if he or she has high-resolution originals you can download. That should give you better prints.

Q: I accidentally set my OS X user account image to a goofy photo I took. How can I change it to something else?

A: To exile the goofy self-portrait, go to System Preferences, then to Accounts. Click on the photo, and you'll be able to replace it with the generic art there or a better self-portrait. Your iPhone and other Apple gadget will grab the Account Picture from your home computer and put it in your Contacts file whenever you sync the device (to get new music or an operating system update). Deleting or replacing the Contacts picture is as simple as tapping on it.

Q: I was trying to tell someone to type a "/" over the phone. Then I realized I didn't know what the symbol is called. Can you shed some light on it?

A: Certainly. That is called a forward slash. Other keyboard symbols you might need to know are # (number sign, pound or hash mark), > (less than and greater than), (caret), ~ (tilde) and \ (back slash). You'll see the - (hyphen or minus), _ (underscore), | (pipe), [ ] (square brackets) and { } (curly brackets). You probably already know * (star or asterisk), % (percent), and ! (exclamation point).

Q: I'm trying to remove the background from a photo. I know you can do it in Photoshop, but I can't spend the money. Is there another program you can recommend?

A: Photoshop is a very powerful program, but it's very expensive. For a similar programs that's truly free, I recommend GIMP. You can use GIMP's select tools to separate your subject from the background. In many cases, it won't be simple, but I have the steps for you at

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

How to Keep Parenthood From Making Your Marriage Miserable

Contemporary depictions of marriage would have you believe that a baby will push your spouse away, but that isn't necessarily the case

Must parenthood make your marriage miserable? Contemporary depictions in the press and popular culture might make you think so. Jennifer Senior's much discussed New York magazine piece, "Why Parents Hate Parenting," last year documented the apparent legions of affluent urban parents who find themselves with everything they dreamed of -- an educated, attractive spouse; fulfilling careers for wife and husband; and one or two healthy children -- who nevertheless experience parenting as a burdensome chore and a profound obstacle to a happy marriage. "Why Parents Hate Parenting" was replete with art photos of a beautiful young wife and handsome, shirtless husband in a retro-chic home with their healthy infant twin boys ... and everyone looking miserable in every shot. Similar depictions can be found of the challenges of combining marriage and parenthood can be found on television shows like Up All Night and movies like Flirting With Disaster.

Some women apparently decide that parenthood and a happy marriage are so incompatible they would rather strike out on their own as a single mother rather than settle for a hum-drum marriage and family life. Lori Gottleib's opening salvo several years ago on the pages of this magazine declaring that having a baby with no man underfoot solves the dilemma of late-thirty-something professional womanhood was one contribution to the evolving narrative that a baby is a woman's reward after decades of dedicating herself to a career, that adult relationships are often unstable or unappealing, and that marriage need not precede motherhood. In a recent Slate piece, single mother of two Katie Roiphe writes of sensing jealousy among her academic colleagues because she has managed to achieve the blessing of two children without having to "pay ... the usual price [of] ... Thai food and a video with your husband on a Saturday night." Recent movies like The Back-Up Plan starring Jennifer Lopez and The Switch starring Jennifer Aniston lend plausibility to the idea that it is easier to go it alone as a parent.

A substantial minority -- about 35 percent -- of husbands and wives do not experience parenthood as an obstacle to marital happiness.

These modern day portraits of parenthood raise vital questions: Do women and men today experience parenthood differently depending on whether they are married or unmarried? And, if they are married, is parenthood itself an obstacle to a good marriage?

In a new report "When Baby Makes Three: How Parenthood Makes Life Meaningful and How Marriage Makes Parenthood Bearable" (PDF), just published in the latest issue of the State of Our Unions, we examined nationally-representative survey data, including a new, nationally-representative study of more than 1,400 married couples (18-46), to respond to these questions.

Contrary to the celebratory pieces on voluntary single motherhood by journalists like Roiphe, we found that married parents generally do experience more happiness and less depression than parents who are unmarried. For instance, among women, 50 percent of married mothers report that they are "very happy" with life, compared to 39 percent of cohabiting mothers and 25 percent of single mothers, even after controlling for differences in education, income, and race/ethnicity. The transition to parenthood is hard, but being married helps soften the blow.

We also found that the impact of parenthood is not negative on outcomes such as marital stability or whether one perceives one's life to have meaning. In fact, married parents -- especially women -- are significantly more likely to report that their "life has an important purpose," compared to their childless peers. For instance, 57 percent of married mothers reported high levels of a sense of purpose, compared to 40 percent of childless wives.

Yet the picture is somewhat more complex than that. Readers may be familiar with recent debates among scholars and in the media about whether having children negatively impacts the quality of marriage. Much was made of Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness, published in 2006, which concluded, based on a review of recent studies, that "marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child -- and increases only when the last child has left home." In 2009, at the New York Times' Motherlode blog reporter Lisa Belkin shared a British researcher's summary of existing studies in the U.S. and Europe which found, on average, that parents have lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and mental well-being, compared to non-parents. Likewise, we also found that parenthood is typically associated with lower levels of marital happiness among contemporary couples.

But we also found something that surprised us. A substantial minority -- about 35 percent -- of husbands and wives do not experience parenthood as an obstacle to marital happiness. These couples seem to navigate the shoals of parenthood without succumbing to comparatively low levels of marital happiness. What is their secret? We identified ten aspects of contemporary social life and relationships -- such as marital generosity, good sex, religious faith, thrift, shared housework, and more -- that seem to boost women's and men's odds of successfully combining marriage and parenthood.

Our findings go beyond the tired, old debates about gender roles and marriage. In the 1960s and '70s, in part as a consequence of the feminist movement and the therapeutic revolution, many wives understandably rejected what was then a heavily-gendered ethic of marital sacrifice and instead took a more individualistic approach to marriage, focused on meeting their own needs. But if the 1970s divorce revolution taught us anything, it was that heavy doses of individualism and a good marriage aren't very compatible.

Our report suggests, in contrast, that in today's marriages both wives and husbands benefit when they embrace an ethic of marital generosity that puts the welfare of their spouse first. That is, both are happier in their marriages when they make a regular effort to serve their spouse in small ways -- from making them a cup of coffee, to giving them a back rub after a long day, to going out of their way to be affectionate or forgiving. So the lesson here is not for wives now to throw off an other-centered ethic as a relic of an ancient era, but rather for contemporary husbands to embrace this ethic for themselves and their families.

Today, a growing proportion of young adults in the United States worry that having both a good marriage and a happy family life with children is unattainable. And their worries are mirrored in much of the commentary, television shows, and movies that dwell on relationships and family life in America.

But we have good news for these young people. By embracing some new values -- like date nights, shared housework, and an ethic of marital generosity -- and some old values -- like commitment, thrift, and a shared faith -- it appears that today's parents can dramatically increase their odds of forging a stable and happy marriage. This means that couples need not despair after the arrival of a baby. If one-third of today's married parents can successfully combine marriage and parenthood, surely many more can flourish when baby makes three.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

How To Get Holiday Glow

Somewhere between making your list and checking it twice, hair and makeup get lost in the shuffle. Who has time to worry about either when there are cookies to bake, trees to trim and gifts to wrap? Take another sip of eggnog, and try these beauty shortcuts on for size. They'll keep you looking chic well into the new year.

1. Glow with the flow: When strategically placed, shimmer creates a flawless, can't-put-their-finger-on-it radiance. Swipe a liquid highlighter (MAC Strobe Cream, $15) on your brow bones or cheekbones for a light-reflecting lift. Treat imperfections and pastiness on exposed limbs to tinted moisturizer like Miracle Skin Transformer Body ($34), or mix a bit of bronzer with your favorite lotion.

2. Ride the crimson tide: The poster child for party makeup, red lipstick can take you from office drab to soiree fab in seconds. But it's so high-maintenance. To keep your scarlet pucker in place, not on your champagne flute, Julie Swenson of St. Paul Beauty Lounge (612-741-0288) recommends applying foundation to your lips first, then lining with a nude pencil.

3. Bun your braids: Try this five-minute (yes, five) twist on the braid from Charlie Brackney, founder and creative director at HAUS Salon in Minneapolis. Step one: Braid dry hair into four large braids, two in the front and two in the back. Step two: Gently pull the braids apart with your fingers. "Don't be afraid if they get a little fuzzy, say Brackney. "That's texture, and texture is modern!" Step three: Gather the braids into a loose formation at the nape of your neck - either centered or off to the side - and start pinning. Voila! Effortless glamour for any occasion.

4. Blot, spray and go: Instead of adding another layer of makeup, bring what's left back to life by blotting away shine with Tatcha blotting papers ($12), then misting skin with a hydrating toner like Mario Badescu Facial Spray with Aloe, Herbs and Rosewater ($7). Give locks a lift with a spritz of dry shampoo at the roots to sop up scalp oil and add volume. Try Batiste Dry Shampoo ($8).

5. Get cheeky: There's nothing like flushed cheeks to brighten up your entire face. "If you only have time for one change, choose your cheeks," says Emily Koski of Emily J Hair & Makeup (612-590-8174). "Use a cream blush for a more dramatic look, and blend well into the apples of your cheeks." Koski likes Nars the Multiple in Orgasm ($39), which can also be used on eyes and lips.

6. Take a smoky eye shortcut: They're glamorous to be sure, but smoky eyes present a major time and technique barrier. Swenson prefers a modified smoky eye: Simply smudge a dark charcoal shadow into top and bottom lash lines using your finger or a brush. That's it! Try Laura Mercier Sequin Eye Color in Black Ice, $22.

7. Get balmed: Moisturizing, smoothing and portable, balms are the ultimate multi-tasker. Tame frizzy, flyaway hair; groom unruly brows; add gleam to eyelids, shins and cheekbones, and soften lips and cuticles. The possibilities are endless, and can be executed while slipping on your party shoes. For best results, choose a balm containing natural waxes and plant oils, such as Josie Maran Argan Oil Moisturizing Stick ($22).

8. Don't do your hair: For festive tresses without the intricate updo or complicated curls, just add one of the season's vintage-inspired hair accessories. "A slim jeweled headband will instantly dress up your look," says Koski. "If you don't own one, rifle through your grandmother's jewelry box for costume jewelry that could be pinned or tucked into a hair band."

9. Nail it in one step: Manicure? In your dreams! Local manicurist Rhonda Hansford's one-trick pony: Apply Smith's Rosebud Salve ($6) to your lips, then massage any remaining product into clean nails and cuticles for a just-buffed shine. If you still want polish, paint on one coat of the season's blingy gold or silver shades - the only accessory you'll need for that LBD.

10. Hire a pro: If you have a little more time to spare, have the pros come to you. Jon Charles Salon (612-724-2444 or 952-767-9977) will pull up in an Airstream and give you and your besties blow-outs ($75 hourly/five-person minimum). Koski's team will do your hair and makeup while you lounge in a robe (from $60; group discounts available). When a cocktail dress calls for a bit of color, Glow (952-500-0458) mobile airbrush tanning can customize a sunless tan or help you host a "Tantini" party ($45 and up).

(Minneapolis-based lifestyle writer Elizabeth Dehn is the founder of

Saturday, 7 January 2012

How To Quit Job The Right Way

Nobody wants to be called a quitter—especially not in the workplace. But what happens when you want to leave your current job, whether it’s for another position or personal reasons? None of us wants to end up on bad terms with our boss. After all, who knows when you might want to return to the position or use her as a reference? While it isn’t easy to quit, there are some ways to exit politely that will put you in good standing for the future.

1. Give your notice early
The most polite way to leave a job is to hand in your resignation with two weeks notice so that your boss has time to fill your spot. This will show your boss that you have his or her best interests (and the best interests of the company) at heart.

Providing appropriate notice to an employer you are leaving helps you maintain a positive professional reputation,” says Gary Alan Miller, the assistant director for social media and innovation at career services, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “By showing respect to the needs of that employer you leave on a more positive note, which benefits everyone involved.”

If, in extenuating circumstances, you can’t give two weeks notice, be prepared to fully explain the situation to your boss so she knows you’re not just bailing on her, and to offer your boss the names of friends you know who might be willing to take your spot. It’s even a good idea to have their resumes on hand.

letter of resignation

This was the case when Michelle, a junior at Emerson College, left her job at Forever 21 to start immediately at a smaller boutique. “Luckily, my boss liked me a lot, so, while she was frustrated that I was quitting, she was mostly just upset to see an employee that she liked and trusted go. However, I think it was really helpful for her to have me recommend people to replace me. All the people I recommended were girls I had worked with before and genuinely believed would be good at Forever 21.”

This way, you can help out a friend while also leaving your boss with a good lasting impression. Chances are, your boss will understand.

“Your boss is never going to be happy that you quit—unless, of course, you're an awful employee—but it's likely that they've been in your position before where they found a job that suited them better,” says Michelle. “A professional boss isn't going to take it personally and you'll still be able to have a professional relationship with them.”

2. Talk to your boss in person
It can be tempting to e-mail your notice and avoid talking face to face with your superior. Yet if you want all of your hard work at the job to pay off in the future, be sure to sit down and talk with your boss in person.

When Lauren Conrad, an HC campus correspondent and senior at the University of Kentucky, left a full-time marketing position to return to college for a second degree, she sat down the vice president of her company. While her boss wasn’t happy to hear that she was going, she was grateful that Lauren was truthful about her reasons for leaving.

“Since I was open and transparent with the company, they offered to let me work from home in Lexington to help transition my clients until school started, which gave me four months to continue working,” says Lauren. In her case, transparency also left her in her boss’s mind for another position. “They also told me that they thought the degree I was pursuing could be useful in another sector of the company and that if I was interested in a job with them where I could possibly work remotely or from a city other than Cincinnati after graduation to let them know.”

Adds Miller, “I think technology has allowed people to feel comfortable doing things digitally that good etiquette should really demand be done in person. When leaving a position, whether it’s a good situation or a bad situation, it is simply protocol to work through that process in person.”

Because of her professionalism before she left, Lauren has still stayed in touch with her bosses and other friends who work at the marketing company.

3. Don’t slack off in the time you have left
The best way to leave the door open at a company is to leave with a good final impression. Even if you know that you’ll be leaving your job in two weeks, that doesn’t mean that you can treat work like a vacation. Miller says, “Do you want to be known as someone who is responsible, who gets things done, who can be trusted and respected? If so, carry out your responsibilities to the best of your ability, no matter the circumstance.”

If anything, you should try to work harder than you have in the past. It might just pay off in the long run.

“I actually went back to work at the job I had quit. I worked at another place in between, and it wasn't working out, so I called my old manager and she said she didn't have the hours, but she wanted to hire me back so she worked me in! I'm positive she wanted me to come back because of the attitude I had while working there, especially during my last few weeks,” says HC campus correspondent and University of North Alabama student Sydney Threet.

4. Help out the new girl (or guy)
Remember when you were starting work and had no idea where anything was or how to do the day-to-day duties? One of the most helpful things you can do is to train your incoming replacement. Whether this means writing up a report about your basic activities on a daily basis or showing the new employee around the office, it’s good to show your boss that you have the future of the company in mind.

5. It doesn’t hurt to stay in touch
Even if you don’t think you’ll return to the job you’re leaving, it’s still important to maintain ties. You never know when you might want to use a former boss as a reference, in which case you’d like her to know what you’ve been up to. Miller says, “Colleagues, peers, supervisors and others within the organization become part of your network, and you know how important your network is to your future. So, invest in those people and they will invest in you. Connect with them on LinkedIn. Stay in touch with them. Go out to lunch with them occasionally. Keep your reputation strong and your network growing, and you’ll benefit in the long run.”

Also, if you’re ever hunting for a job again, your boss might be a good source of knowledge or open the door to a new position.

“I have several friends who still work there and I have also stayed in touch with my bosses—one now works at another company,” says Lauren. “I am going to search for other jobs that are local or farther south first, but if I can't find anything I will definitely consider a position with the company.”

Quitting a job isn’t the end of the world, but there are ways to do it that will leave you in positive standing. Just be sure to follow these quick tips and chances are you can stay in your boss’s good graces!

Friday, 6 January 2012

How To Break Up With Someone

When you first started dating, you were so into your boyfriend/girlfriend. Now you're just not feeling it anymore. You want out.

How do you break up without making someone miserable - or making them hate you forever?

Don't stress - that's not good for you. But first, here's what NOT to do:

  • Don't tell your friends before you break up.
  • Don't post it on Facebook.
  • Don't text or email it.

Here's why.

Don't Text the Bad News

You may be tempted to text a breakup to avoid arguments and tears. But don't go there.

When it comes to breaking up, "text messages suck," says Annie Fox, MEd, author of The Teen Survival Guide to Dating and Relating. "It's cold and it's unnecessarily disrespectful."

But many teens do it. In a survey, 30% of 13-to-17-year-olds said they'd either broken up with, or been dumped by, someone via text message.

Changing your Facebook status from "In a relationship" to "Single" is also not the way to tell your boyfriend or girlfriend you're through.

If you post it, "everybody gets to comment, and you're bringing everybody into your world," says teen psychologist Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD.

Instead, think about how you'd want someone to break up with you, and try to do the same thing.

The Best Way to Break Up

Ask yourself why you want to end the relationship. "You really need to know why you're doing this," Fox says. "Because if someone is breaking up with you, the first question you always ask is, 'Why? Did I do something wrong?'"

If you've started to like someone else, that's OK. Or if you just don't feel the same way you used to, that's fine, too.

You can't blame yourself for falling out of love. But still, don't be mean. Make sure you treat the other person with respect.

If the person you're dating hasn't respected your feelings - or worse, has been aggressive or violent -- you have more than enough reason for wanting out.

Do It in Person

Once you know why you want to end the relationship, "Be honest with yourself. And then be honest when you talk with them - privately, face-to-face," Fox says.

Know that no matter how gently you handle the breakup, you're going to hurt the other person's feelings, Hartstein says. That's something you need to accept.

"When you say, 'I don't want to be with you anymore,' you know before you say it - if you have a heart - that you're going to be hurting someone. You also know that you'd never want to be on the receiving end of what you're about to dish out," Fox says.

Make It Stick

Even if you can't stand the sight of your ex crying, don't back down.

"You've got to stick to your guns," Fox says. "It's not a negotiation. You're going into this conversation to let your boyfriend or girlfriend know that you are leaving the relationship." Listen respectfully to what they have to say. Then, move on.

If you're getting out of an abusive relationship, take extra care of your safety. Make sure you have a friend with you whenever you might run into your ex. Block the person from calling, emailing, and posting on your Facebook page. Ask your parents, teachers, and guidance counselor for help so you don't get into a dangerous situation. They can also help support you as you recover and look toward a healthier, happier relationship with someone else or just be by yourself.

Remember, it's fine to be single! It's much better be on your own, happy, and safe than with someone who's bad for you.

How to Handle Getting Dumped

When someone breaks up with you, it can be tough to handle. "It's like someone has just busted a huge hole in your heart," Fox says. "It's OK to feel sad. It's OK to cry."

Just about everyone gets their heart broken sooner or later. Most people get over it in time and go on to have other healthy relationships.

And remember all the healthy relationships you already have -- with your friends and family! Hang out with them and do some things that you enjoy. Friends can go a long way to help you feel like yourself again.

If you're really devastated and just can't get over it, you definitely need to ask for help.

"If you're feeling really depressed -- you cannot sleep, you're not eating -- talk to somebody you trust," Fox says. That person can be a parent, your school guidance counselor, or a therapist.

What's Good About It?

It can be hard to see the bright side when you're in the middle of a breakup. But chances are, some good things came from your relationship.

"I think it's important to look at what you gained from the time you were together with this person," Fox says. "There's a lot of potential for learning."

Did you learn more about yourself from the relationship? Or about what you want in a boyfriend or girlfriend? Then next time, you'll choose someone who suits you better.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

How to Buy Cheap Stocks Even Cheaper

With all the choppiness in the markets lately, it's hard to know whether stocks are really bargains. Even a beaten-down stock can fall further -- and no one wants to try to catch a falling knife only to see the share price continue to drop after buying in. Meanwhile, some stocks have held up very well despite market volatility.

But even if you're disciplined enough to stay patient and wait for the right price to invest in stocks, you can still find yourself waiting for a very long time. But if you can pick a price that you're 100% sure you'd want to pay for shares, then there's a method you can use involving options that can help you earn some extra cash while you wait for the stock to hit your target.

Easy money
Yesterday, I looked at the covered call strategy and how it can boost your income on stocks you already own. But if you don't already own shares, then covered calls won't work for you.

That doesn't mean you're out of luck, though. By selling put options, you can pick a price you want to pay for shares. If the stock drops enough before the option expires, then you'll end up with the shares you want at the price you asked for. And regardless of whether the options get exercised, the money you received for selling the put option is yours to keep.

The basics are simple: Selling a put option contract commits you to buy 100 shares of stock at the specified price if the put buyer exercises the option. The buyer pays you an upfront premium for the option. Most of the time, if shares stay above the exercise price of the option, then the put buyer will let the option expire unused, and you just pocket the premium. But if shares fall below that exercise price, then the owner of the option will exercise it, selling shares to you for more than the future-prevailing market price.

What's the right stock?
In thinking about put options, it's helpful to switch positions and consider them from the buyer's perspective. Put buyers typically want to protect themselves from big drops in the stocks they own. But if you want to buy shares at bargain prices, you may actually want those big drops to happen.

So the right stocks to sell put options on are those that you'd like to buy but at a somewhat lower price. Once you pick those stocks, figure out what price you'd be willing to pay, and then write put options with an exercise price that matches up with your desired purchase price.

One way to find promising stocks is through our Motley Fool CAPS service. For example, using the CAPS screener, I found top-rated five-star stocks that trade at reasonably cheap valuations but are still within 10% of their 52-week highs. Here are some of the largest stocks that pass that simple test, along with how much you'd receive for selling a put option at a price around 20% lower than where the stock currently trades:


Current Price

Put Option

Option Price

Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) $54.54 May 2012 $45 0.85
Exelon (NYSE: EXC) $43.72 April 2012 $37 0.47
Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) $63.49 April 2012 $50 0.51
McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) $96.01 June 2012 $75 1.16
Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) $74.86 June 2012 $60 2.45
Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM) $75.58 June 2012 $60 1.43
Seadrill (NYSE: SDRL) $35.85 April 2012 $29 1.30

(Source: Yahoo! Finance. Prices as of Dec. 6 close.)

If you're willing to lock yourself into buying these stocks at a 20% discount anytime between now and next spring, you can earn between 1% and 4% of each stock's current price. If stocks stay above the exercise price of the put option, then you just keep that 1% to 4% for yourself. If the stock drops, you'll get the shares you want, along with the premium as extra income.

What you give up
The downside of writing put options is that you have to commit to buy the shares no matter what happens. Whether it's an unexpected collapse in the overall market or a company-specific item, you'll be stuck with the shares even if you'd prefer to change your mind. As long as you only use the put-option strategy on stocks you definitely want to own, though, then everything should turn out fine.

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