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Four Most Useful Alexa Skills

I have an Amazon Echo in my bedroom and an Echo Show in my kitchen. I use both daily. They have more than paid for themselves in helping me get hands-free information or assistance quickly.

Echo is far from perfect but she beats Siri to a pulp and Echo will only get better with time. Also, yes – Amazon is spying on us. So are Facebook and Google. You can accept it and reap the benefits of the products while taking privacy precautions, or live in the woods (nothing wrong with the latter). But if you think not owning an Echo will make you safer from tech companies watching you, you’re kidding yourself. So, enjoy!

These are the four skills I use the most. If you’re on the fence about buying an Echo, these are the ones from which you could most easily and quickly benefit. (The Echo Dot is only $29.99 right now, so that’s just a no-brainer. It’s the cost of an alarm clock and does a lot more, while also saving your eyes and brain from that stressful visual of the time around 3:42AM.)
  1. Find your lost phone.

    There are a few skills for this but the cleanest, easiest to set up, and easiest trigger words to remember are from this IFTTT recipe. It’s ideal for when your phone is lost within hearing range (like in your couch).

    You say: “Alexa, trigger find my phone.”

    And your phone will ring. Bluetooth does not need to be on, as it does with the Trackr skill that Amazon advertises for finding your phone. The IFTTT recipe doesn’t require installing any additional apps. Plus, just for fun, you can have that 415 number leave any voice message you want. The default is a machine-read, “Hey, it’s your phone. You found me.”

    IFTTT Alexa trigger informationNote: Available in the U.S. only. I like the simplicity of this skill. However, if your phone is lost outside hearing range, the Trackr skill is more detailed and can tell you where it was last seen (address included). That’s nice for finding a truly lost phone.

  2. Find out what time it is.

    You say: “Alexa, time.”

    Use this anytime, especially while you’re in bed. It prevents you from having to move, which can awaken your body. Most importantly, it removes the need to open your eyes and look at your phone or a clock, which wakes up your brain due to the light. Studies have shown that seeing the time on alarm clock or phone can worsen insomnia and anxiety about getting adequate sleep.

    Your phone’s blue light actually makes your brain think it’s morning. Looking at your phone is awful for your circadian rhythm. This simple skill can help. I don’t recommend a jolting alarm wake-up either, which increases heart rate and stress, but instead use a gentle smart wake over thirty minutes with the Sleep Cycle app. I also keep my phone on Airplane mode all night to prevent EMFs from harming my brain and body during sleep.

  3. Get help falling asleep or relaxing.


    You say: “Alexa, help me fall asleep.”

    You’ll hear ambient nature sounds. It’s relaxing. Good to play when getting ready for bed. Further, if you have Spotify, I recommend this skill for yoga, meditation, stretching before bed, or general soothing sounds:

    You say: “Alexa, play meditation music from Spotify.”

    Echo Show on kitchen counter with tomatoes
    Because I can’t remember anything for myself and neither can you.
  4. Set reminders for anything.

    From leaving the house to calling someone back to packing a lunch to putting clothes in the dryer to soaking black beans – sky’s the limit.

    You say: “Alexa, remind me to ___________ at 2:15PM.”

    The reminder will be audible from your Echo and also can appear on your phone if you’ve turned on notifications. I like this feature in case I’m not home.

I’m a fan of Amazon’s voice assistant, obviously. If you’re going to buy an Echo, please click through one of my links in this post. It chips in a few dimes to pay for my web hosting and my valuable hours spent arguing with Bluehost. Thanks 🙂

MacBook vs. MacBook Air: Which should you buy?

I am so happy with my new 12-inch MacBook. I wanted to share my buying experience comparing it to the 13-inch MacBook Air to help you decide between the two.
Macbook Air next to Macbook
13-inch MacBook Air and 12-inch MacBook
This review focuses on the MacBook.
Friends love their 2011 MacBook Airs, so I initially thought I would go with that. However, a trip to the Apple Store and seeing the Air next to the small, sleek, space gray MacBook changed my mind.

How to pay for your new Mac: earn credit card points

I purchased: Refurbished 12-inch MacBook 1.1GHz Dual-core Intel Core m3- Space Gray MacBook from Apple.com for $1099 before tax (business deductible).
A new 12-inch Macbook costs $1299 for 1.2GHz Processor 256GB Storage or $1599 for 1.3GHz Processor 512GB Storage.
Note: Refurbished means you’ll have to wait 3 to 5 days for free shipping.
Credit card point tip: use your Chase Ink and get 2-5% cash on Apple.com through the Chase Ultimate Rewards – Shop with Chase shopping portal. Seasonal awards vary but check for the current cash back or point amount.
Chase Ink Business Cash credit card
Get 5x points on Apple.com through the Ultimate Rewards portal
Apple is not considered an office supply store (a 5x bonus point category on the Ink). As of today, you can get 2% cash back with Ink Cash through the UR portal, which beats 1.5% cash back on the Chase Freedom Unlimited.

MacBook Size and Butterfly Keyboard

One handing holding Macbook
At 2lbs the MacBook is super light

Size:

The MacBook is only a 12-inch screen, so it’s practically a large tablet. It fits perfectly in my big ‘ol saddlebag, which is ideal for moving between meetings, coffee shops, and airports.
Keyboard:
The butterfly keyboard took some getting used to. (In fact, I had buyer’s remorse for the first few days to the point where I even ordered a refurbished MacBook Air so I could compare both side by side during Apple’s 14 day no questions asked return period.)
zoom on butterfly keyboard
Butterfly keyboard: 40% thinner than scissor keyboard
Compare to the thick, spaced out MacBook Air keys:
MacBook Air keyboard zoom
MacBook Air scissor keyboard (traditional, familiar, preferred by some)
In order to make this laptop as thin as possible, Apple reinvented the keyboard. They created a “butterfly” mechanism, which more evenly distributes the pressure on a key than the traditional “scissor” mechanism. This is supposed to provide a more precise typing experience and fewer errors.  Butterfly is 40% thinner than a scissor keyboard, and four times more stable. It feels like you’re typing on a tablet.
zoom corner keys on Macbook butterfly keyboard
All areas of the butterfly keys are equally sensitive
For larger man hands, this might feel too compact and on a 12-inch. For my hands, I got used to it within a few days and now I can type somewhat physically inaccurately, relying on the butterfly mechanism to “know” which key I meant, much like I fly across my iPhone screen with little accuracy and let autocorrect do the work.

MacBook vs. MacBook Air – Display

After five days on the crisp MacBook Retina Display, switching over to the Air screen felt like going to a clunky, much older and blurry low resolution screen. Retina Displays make text and images extremely crisp, so pixels are not visible to the naked eye. It rivals the sharpness of crisply printed text. I just couldn’t get over the clarity on the MacBook. Retina is absolutely worth the added cost. You spend hours each day looking at a screen, and this screen is fantastically clear and sharp compared to the Air.

Limited Ports – USB-C Only

One MacBook drawback is the lack of ports and jacks. It has just one USB-C port and one audio jack for earbuds. No built-in USB.
USB-C port on Macbook
Single USB-C port – you’ll need an adapter
The easy fix is to buy a connecting port. I recommend this one by Dodocool:
At just $45.99 on Amazon Prime, it’s much cheaper than Apple’s $79 version which is overpriced and has poor reviews. All my USB equipment like my wireless mouse and Sennheiser PC 8 USB Headset can connect simultaneously while the laptop also charges.

Podcasting Equipment

By the way: if you’re podcasting with Skype or Google Hangouts, I highly recommend the Sennheiser PC 8 USB – Stereo USB Headset for PC and MAC with In-line Volume and Mute Control:

Do NOT podcast with Apple’s earbuds/mic or a Bluetooth headset. The quality is just not the same as USB. You can hear how clear I sound on the BeanCast.

Bottom Line

Overall I would recommend a MacBook if you travel and want an ultra clear display with maximum portability. MacBook is small and light, it feels fantastic in your lap, and the screen is gentle on the eyes. It just depends on what you plan to do with it. The MacBook Air has a lower resolution screen but the extra inch adds quite a bit more area, which is nice for watching a movie, however it really just looks blurry once your eyes get spoiled on the Retina display.
Verdict: buy the MacBook unless you really prefer the traditional raised keys and a larger screen is important to you. Buy refurbished because the one year warranty is the same as a new machine and I can’t tell any difference, so why pay more?
Here’s the case I bought. At $13.99 on Prime, it’s a good value for MacBook case. The graphics aren’t super crisp on the stained glass version I bought, but it is protective and the snaps and rubber feet are still intact, unlike the Dowswin case I first bought. If you get a solid color, this would look nice and get the job done.

Review: Ergo Desktop Hybrid Kangaroo Standing Desk

An ideal standing desk supports ergonomic posture and lets you easily change from sitting to standing. The Ergo Desktop Hybrid Kangaroo delivers on these characteristics and more. There is no question that prolonged sitting is bad for your health. But it’s important to choose the right standing desk. This is my second Ergo Desktop desk. Keywords: Quality, stability, and adjustability. It’s made in the USA and customized to your settings. At $599, the Hybrid Kangaroo is not the cheapest nor most expensive on the market, but it’s one of my favorites.
Emily working at her standing desk
Standing at my Hybrid Kangaroo in my old cube (2016): monitor left, laptop right

What is the Hybrid Kangaroo?

This is a freestanding, height adjustable desk add-on made for a monitor and laptop. The unit sits on a broad, sturdy footplate which can be slid around your desktop. A rear mounted vertical riser is fixed to the footplate. A work surface for your keyboard and mouse is attached to the riser. Easily adjust it up or down by turning the knob on the riser.
Kangaroo standing desk in office
My office (2017): badass Ergo Desktop standing desk,  Ergodriven topographic floor mat, incandescent light, two VoIP phones, and a door.

Will it Fit? Cubicle and Desk Size

My first standing desk was a Dual Hybrid Kangaroo, also by Ergo Desktop, and similar to the Hybrid Kangaroo, but it had two shelves instead of one. Then I had a private office with a large desk surface. While at a startup, I had a standard size cube (first photo above). My Hybrid Kangaroo has a shelf plus a VESA mount (where my monitor is mounted). The Hybrid Kangaroo fit fine in my cube. Now I’m back in an office and damn, it looks good (second photo above). The two models have the same footprint:
  • the main work surface is adjustable 16.5″ above your desk and measures 28″ wide x 24″ deep.
Some people complain about reduced workspace with add-on desks, but I have no problem here and frankly don’t often need a physical writing surface (or a printer for that matter) anyway.
Ergo Desktop Hybrid Kangaroo at Emily's office
My Hybrid Kangaroo setup in the old cube – ergonomic AF

Vote with Your Dollar

Ergo Desktop’s customer service is excellent. As a marketer, I’m sensitive to every aspect of the customer experience, from advertising to website to product description to transactional emails. Brad at Ergo Desktop was responsive, professional, and most important, highly knowledgeable about his products. You get the sense that this company cares. Ohio people, right? 🙂 They also have a 100% quality guarantee.

Continue reading Review: Ergo Desktop Hybrid Kangaroo Standing Desk

FluidStance Level Review

Standing beats sitting – this is known. But how can we stand better? I have been testing a standing desk accessory called the Level for three months. As a 3+ year standing desk advocate, this is the first time I’ve used a balance board. Until recently, I had relied on a thick floor mat and other products to help ease foot and leg strain.

Emily Binder using The Level for standing desk
Me standing on the Level

The Level by Fluidstance, office-category winner of Inc.’s 2015 Best in Class Awards, has added health benefits to your standard shock-absorbing floor mat. While it’s simply a piece of wood framed by curved, die-cut aluminum, the product has fantastic design and an undeniable cool factor – it gets noticed. The science behind it centers on this:

The body is meant to move in three dimensions, and our FluidStance product enables that movement at a desk or workstation. Merely standing at a desk doesn’t allow for this movement, whereas using the Level does.

Benefits include:

  • 15% increased heart rate vs. sitting
  • Increased range of motion vs. static standing desk (23.98 degrees ROM)

I’d rather not strain my feet standing in heels or wedges, and I rarely wear flats. I stand barefoot most of the day in my office and slip on shoes for meetings. That said, my feet get sore if I stand still on the Level for more than about ten minutes. It is really made for you to continually rock and sway.

Side view of The Level
The American-Made Level (Bamboo)

The Level is supposed to help reduce the need to shift your weight while standing, which can produce poor posture. Indeed, I have found this constant urge to be a negative symptom of my stand-up desk. With the Level, my feet still get tired and I end up standing on one foot with the other bent at the knee laying horizontally on my desk, which is not optimal.

Takeaway: I enjoy the added motion but I find myself switching to my floor mat for at least half the day. I think my feet would get less tired if I stood in tennis shoes; I’ve simply been too lazy to change shoes throughout the day. The Level is a neat piece of ergonomic furniture if you can afford it and wear comfortable shoes, but a quality floor mat at least 3/4 inch thick is a more affordable, still solid option that works better for women who wear heels.

Price: The American Made and Original models range from $289 to $489 as of this writing. The average American works forty hours a week from ages 20-65. This totals 90,000 hours, or 10.7 years at work (excluding two weeks of vacation per year). Your health, well-being, and productivity at work affect nearly every area of your life. Treat your body to the healthiest options possible. You could drop hundreds or thousands on an ergonomic chair or a standing desk setup. The latter will save you time and money in the long run, and you might even live longer.

Box canvas bag Fluidstance Level green packaging
Unboxing the Level

Materials: The Level is made with eco-conscious materials, some models featuring renewable bamboo. The finish is GREENGUARD certified so it meets rigorous low emission standards. I’m happy to support a company that prides itself on being “responsible borrowers from mother earth.” Plus, 90% of initial products are produced in the U.S. The environmentally friendly packaging is a nice feature.

Disclosure: I was given a Level by Fluidstance and asked to write a review. I have not been compensated in any other way.

Standing Desk Product Reviews: Desks, Mats, Socks (Part 2)

Why you should get a standing desk (Part 1).

Standing Desk Product Recommendations:

1) Desk: I have the adjustable height Dual Kangaroo from Ergo Desktop ($599) – made in USA. There are dozens of brands and types of desks out there. When narrowing down my choices in February 2013, I considered the Ergotron Workfit which is a mount, but in the end I chose the more portable Kangaroo, which sits on top of my regular desk. It required less hardware and work/drilling holes in the wall.

Emily Binder at Dual Kangaroo standing desk
I’ve adopted my own yogilates pose over time with one leg bent at the knee resting on the desk. I switch legs about every five minutes. Just keep your spine straight and the rest will follow.

The Dual Kangaroo is great for a laptop and monitor setup or for two monitors. Be sure to use the included stability leg to reduce wobbling. (The attentive Ergo Desktop customer care team actually tweeted me this tip after noticing this picture I posted of the desk sans leg.) The obvious benefit of an adjustable height desk is that it allows for postural changes throughout the day. There are times you’ll want to sit – that’s okay. I rarely lower my desk but it’s nice to have the option.

Kangaroo and similar brands like VARIDESK, UpLift and Ergo Depot have models for different laptop/computer combinations. thehumansolution.com has a good selection of well-priced desks and free shipping over $85. (The Human Solution also accepts BitCoin because they are awesome.) A coworker recently ordered the Kangaroo Pro (mount style) for a single monitor (the Pro Junior is good for smaller monitors) – well done, RD! Some Kangaroo desks use VESA mounts for your monitor while others use shelves (what I have and prefer for its flexibility).

  • Explanation of the differences
  • Tool to assist with measurements for your standing desk
  • Tammy Coron at creativebloq has more tips about measuring and posture

A few more standing desk recommendations if the Kangaroo line is not for you:

a. Electric adjustable desk: The UpLift 900 ($769) has received excellent reviews (LA Times). Lifehacker named it the #1 standing desk (check out Lifehacker’s February 2014 top five standing desks – if you order one off this list, you’ll be set). “If you want a standard size desk with brilliant height adjustability, the UpLift 900 is perfect for you.” The motor allows easy switching between sitting and standing. See video reviews of the UpLift 900.

b. Walking desk/treadmill desk: Check out the TrekDesk ($549 as of 10/26/16):

You can burn an extra 2.6-3.6 calories per minute depending on incline (156-216 extra per hour). I’ve read that your typed WPM decreases as walking speed increases, and Business Insider‘s Alyson Shontell reports that her treadmill desk experiment decreased productivity due to dividing attention across work and physical movement (but she ultimately had fairly positive takeaways). If you are a klutz and multitasker, walking while working could be problematic. I like the idea of it overall though. Read Danny Sullivan’s treadmill desk review. Sullivan uses the LifeSpan desk, specifically the TR1200-DT7.

c. Light duty electric desk: If you work from a laptop and only need the standing desk for a few hours a day: Ergo Depot AD17 Adjustable Height Desk (normally $749, on sale for $549 at time of this posting)

d. DIY: The famous $22 Ikea standing desk: The Standesk 2200.
Also check out Anjelika Temple’s creative suggestions on Brit + Co: ten DIY standing desk ideas. This includes a nicer but still affordable Ikea solution: The Floating Corner Desk (from $178).

e. (Pretty) affordable height adjustable monitor stand and keyboard tray: VARIDESK Pro ($300)

keyboard and monitor height diagram for standing desk postureTry it first! Note: Please experiment with a DIY standing desk for at least two months before purchasing furniture. Try using cardboard boxes and old yellow page phone books or paper reams to prop up your monitor, keyboard and mouse at proper ergonomic height on top of your existing desk. It will be ugly but it’s for testing. Make sure you can commit to this lifestyle.

2) Anti-Fatigue Floor Mat for standing desk: A good, thick, high-quality shock-absorbent floor mat is crucial. You spend most of your life at work (and soon, on your feet). Invest in your health and comfort. I have been quite pleased with the $75 Rhino Mat Pyra-Mat Anti Fatigue Mat (free shipping at Ergo Depot). Don’t skimp on the floor mat, and don’t venture into standing without one. Read the fine print: you should have a sponge thickness at least 3/4-7/8″ thick (1/2″ won’t cut it). The mat I have comes with optional custom logos. If you’re a manager and have employees who stand all day (e.g., at a service desk or counter) surprise them with these mats and you will be amazed at their gratitude and improved morale.

Update 10/26/16: Read my review of Ergodriven’s Topo mat, inspired by natural terrain and meant to keep you moving as you stand.
Continue reading Standing Desk Product Reviews: Desks, Mats, Socks (Part 2)