Alexa as a part of the family: We got Skills

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Since we added the Amazon Echo to the household last year, it’s been fascinating to see how my children (now 7 and 10) have adapted to “her” presence. The youngest delighted in asking Alexa to tell him corny jokes and, more practically, used the device to time himself when doing his homework. The oldest learned quickly how one needed to ask her questions to yield useful answers. Digital natives, to be sure.

Since then, Alexa has become an integral part of our lives. I use her to entertain me and answer questions while my hands are occupied with cooking or washing dishes. She’s set to remind us of when we should be headed out the door every school day, and we’ve set up a Friday playlist on Spotify — which, of course, include two versions of Rebecca Black’s classic — to cheer us and get us moving on the last day of the work/school-week. I even replaced my bedside alarm clock with a Dot.

So when I started to investigate the idea of Alexa Skills, it was natural that I involved my kids — well, one kid in particular who happens to love trains.

Even though I’m not a coder (though I am trying to learn, step by step), Amazon has made every effort to make Skills as accessible as possible. Skills, for the uninitiated, are little “add-on” capabilities that developers can create for Alexa, extending her abilities enormously. Each Skill must be enabled individually on the Alexa app via a terrible user experience (organized solely alphabetically though you can search and filter).

It’s in Amazon’s interest, of course, to encourage developers to go crazy with Skills, including its Smart Home Skills to control IoT devices, so that the device is as useful as possible to as many people as possible.


To do this, it’s done everything I could have imagined and more:

With these resources, even I, a non-coder, could build an Alexa skill, with the help of my son, who provided the content. So, we made it a weekend project. He came up with questions and multiple choice answers related to one of his favorite subjects — Thomas the Tank Engine — and I figured out how to plug those questions into a Trivia Skill. We were able to test the Skill both on a web interface, where we typed the voice input, and on our own Echo, which we designated as a “test” device.

At this point, he’s not learning the coding himself, but he’s learning empowerment — one can interact with and create content for devices, rather than solely use them or be entertained by them. He’s also discovering that computers have certain limitations and require certain ways of thinking.

After we submitted our first effort for review, there was quite a lot of back and forth, mostly involving intellectual property issues but also others related to functionality and voice interface requirements. The review team was super helpful when it came to pinpointing the things we needed to fix. And finally, it was revealed!

Please check it out with your own Thomas fan and let us know what you think. We started with just a few questions, but we’ll probably update to add more eventually. I’ve got an idea for another Skill, too, that I think will be more interesting to a larger audience. And now we just wait for our developer t-shirt.


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How I made my drip irrigation system “smart” and automatic

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X-Post from my other personal site,

Though this site mostly chronicles my adventures in the natural domain, astute readers may have guessed what a tech dork I actually am. If you haven’t, you’ll be certain after this post.

In my work life, I’m online all the time and I’ve seen software developers make great strides recently toward automating formerly mundane tasks. For example, when someone fills out a form online, I used to be emailed the output and that’s all. Now I can have it auto-imported into a contact management database and sent to a spreadsheet at the same time, so I can sort it, update it and refer to it super easily. Previously, this would have required me to do data entry in a variety of different places — and each time there was the potential for me to make an error.

Of course, I’m eager to apply these time-saving shortcuts in my non-work life, as well. Hence, the project I’ll outline here.

The central piece of equipment I’m using here is called a Spruce Controller — it’s one of many new-to-the-market smart sprinkler-system controllers like Rachio, RainMachine, Blossom, Parrot Flower Power and others. The basic idea behind them is that traditional sprinkler controllers are dumb — they keep watering on the set schedule even if there’s been a huge downpour. The “smart” controllers, on the other hand, take data from a variety of sources — they check the internet for recent weather events and for forecasts and they incorporate data from soil moisture sensors. Mine coordinates with (and requires) my Samsung SmartThings hub, which controls all my “smart” home automation gadgets.

Additionally, they can be programmed to adjust to the particular area they’re watering. Is it a vegetable garden? A lawn? A xeriscape? And what about the terrain? Is it a slope? Is the soil sandy or loamy? Each answer has implications for how watering should take place. For example, on a slope, the system does its watering in three “rounds,” giving each round a chance to soak in before it starts the next. That way all your precious water doesn’t just drip down the hill.

Many of these automatic sprinkler controllers are made to replace the old-skool controllers that many already have installed in their houses. In that case, it’s just a matter of switching out some wires and you’re in business. My house, however, didn’t come with a sprinkler system installed. And I probably wouldn’t want one, anyway, given that they’re usually set up around lawns, and I’m not crazy about lawns. So, I had to start from scratch, which means I got to design it just the way I want. That situation also brought some challenges, because most of such systems aren’t set up around hose-end watering — meaning that you don’t have a dedicated water line, but instead are depending on an existing spigot.

The first thing to know is that I needed to buy some valves — this is what the controller controls, opening and closing valves to turn the water on and off as needed. Most valves are designed to be put underground along with that dedicated water line. And, in most cases, you have to buy them one by one. However, I found an item designed for drip irrigation that included 4 valves in one and could also handle a hose-end source. It’s called the eZvalve4 by Antelco, an Australian company, and I was only able to find it online at Sprinkler Warehouse. (One person I consulted with raised questions about backflow prevention with this particular item — so don’t take anything I say here as gospel. I can only tell you what I have done and experienced.)

So, from the spigot, here’s what I have in place, in order:

  1. Spigot – turned on. I have multiple outlets here so that I can water manually if needed.
  2. Backflow preventer and filter – keeps the lines clear of debris and prevents the water from flowing back into our water system
  3. Short-length hose – must be able to handle the pressure of being filled all the time
  4. eZvalve box, outlet 1
    1. PSI regulator (25 psi)
    2. Hose to 1/2 inch distribution line adapter
  5. eZvalve box, outlet 2
    1. PSI regulator (25 psi)
    2. Hose to 1/2 inch distribution line adapter
  6. eZvalve box, outlet 2
    1. PSI regulator (25 psi)
    2. Hose to 1/2 inch distribution line adapter
  7. eZvalve box, outlet 4
    1. PSI regulator (25 psi)
    2. Hose to 1/2 inch distribution line adapter

Then, from the 1/2 inch distribution line, I have connected 1/4 inch distribution line by each plant I want to water. At the end of that, or somewhere in-line, I put an emitter. It’s low-flow and theoretically is pressure-adjusting, which means that the plants at the end of the distribution line will receive the same amount of water as the ones at the beginning. This is not true with soaker hose, which is something that I’ve tried to use before, relatively unsuccessfully.

To control for plants that need differing amounts of water, I chose emitters of three speeds: 1/2 gallon-per-hour, 1 gallon-per-hour, and 2 gallons-per-hour. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing there and I’m just going on instinct, so I won’t go into additional detail.

What about those fancy rain barrels, you might ask? Well, I do have hopes of eventually hooking a pump to the rain barrels, so that the water flow will be pressured enough to go through the valves and water the plants. But I’m not there yet, so I’m relying on regular hose water for now.

click to open the image file and look more closely

Meanwhile, I also needed to do electric work — to connect the irrigation controller to the valve box. I went a little wrong here, but I’ll tell you what I wish I had done. I wish I had located a sprinkler wire that had 5 wires bound together by a larger casing. Like this:

It’s typically sold by the foot or yard in hardware stores. Each valve needs two wires — one connects to one of the colored wires, and the other connects to the ground (white). So there are 4 lines in total connecting to this white strand, and each of the other colors goes to a single valve. Then connect the other end to the sprinkler controller. There should be a spot for the white wire, and each color should go to a different zone — for example, yellow goes to #1, green goes to #2, blue to #3 and red to #4. Make sure the power is off when you do this, and make sure everything is connected securely. I’m not an electrician, so you might want to consult with one before doing this!

In my case, the sprinkler controller isn’t waterproof, so I have it on the porch in a plastic box, with the wires coming out of it. It is plugged into a normal outlet.

Once it’s all connected, and the spigot is on… the controller can open and close the valves and water (or not water) the plants. I have an interface on my cell phone that allows me to control the valves manually, too, and that’s how I set up all of the different options by zone — like telling it it’s a vegetable garden, with plants that still need to be established. I have the controller checking the output of a personal weather station, too, so that it can tell what the weather is like right here at my house, and adjust accordingly. Additionally, I can set it up so it only waters when I’m allowed to in my area (due to watering restrictions).

I think this pretty much sums it up but feel free to ask questions if you have any and I’ll follow up if there’s anything else that comes to mind as I get further into the project. I’ve only had it in place for a few weeks, and the main “glitch” has been human error — that I’ve closed the spigot rather than leaving it on. Oops. I’m sure there’s much more to learn, as there always is in the world of gardening.

(Disclosure: I will earn a fee if you click-through and purchase some of the products I link to here, but I only mention products in an editorial fashion — not for compensation.)

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On Apple: “Branding” Is More Than Just Marketing

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Apple iPhone 6

The Apple phone unlocking issue hit the Republican debate last night, with candidate Marco Rubio accusing the technology company of putting branding before patriotism.

“They think it hurts their brand,” Rubio said. “Well, let me tell you, their brand is not superior to the United States of America.”

It seems the presidential candidates have a mistaken idea of what a brand really is. Branding isn’t just marketing — advertising, email marketing, etc. Branding is about everything that your company and product are about.

You express your brand through all of your formal communications, yes. But the design of your store, the demeanor of the person at the call center, the expertise of the kid behind the counter — not to mention what your top executives say in unguarded moments — all combine to make up your brand. If there is dissonance between elements, people notice, and it affects your business.

So Apple standing up to the U.S. government isn’t about a trifling attempt to protect its “image.” It’s really about Apple doing what it, as a company, believes to be the right thing. The right thing for its business, yes. But also the right thing for the country and its people.

Others may disagree, but I hate the idea of people diminishing the importance of Apple’s stance by dismissing it as mere branding. If you want to put it in those terms, one might say that the U.S. is hurting its own brand by chipping away at the personal freedoms that it purports to be protecting.

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Teaching Kids STEM With Cooking

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There’s no better way to really learn than to use your newly-gained knowledge in a practical way. Growing up, math was never very interesting to me, in part because I had zero idea of how this information would be at all useful. Now, as an adult, I find that in everyday life, I use my math skills and science knowledge most often in a seemingly mundane task — cooking.

A couple of years ago, I was spending a weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, and I volunteered to make pancakes from scratch for breakfast — something I do at home all the time. We were a big crew, so, though I had the written recipe, I needed to double it to make a sufficient quantity.

My niece was helping me out, so we spent time figuring things out in our heads. So, when the recipe called for 1 1/2 cups of flour, we doubled it to 3 cups. But, let’s say we didn’t have a cup measure or even a half-cup measure. Then we had to figure out how to get 3 cups of flour using, say, a 1/3 cup measure. How many scoops would you need to use? Before you know it, you’re doing math.

Here are a few of the questions you can tackle:

  1. Look at all of the quantities for dry ingredients and determine the fewest number of measuring cups you could use to do all of the measuring. (Washing them out between items as needed.) (Math)
  2. Why do you use different measuring cups for dry ingredients and liquid ingredients? (Physical Science)
  3. When putting together an elaborate spread like for Thanksgiving, figure out how best to utilize oven and stove space. (Math)
  4. Determine a way to ensure everything finishes cooking at the same time (making some things ahead and warming them at the last minute, as needed).
  5. Why must your mixer be completely clean before attempting to beat egg whites into soft or stiff peaks? (Chemistry)
  6. Why is it best to do your mixing in a copper bowl, if you have one? (Chemistry)
  7. How does the age of an egg affect its suitability for hard boiling? (Biology)

A great resource for the scientific underpinnings of cooking is Harold McGee’s On Food And Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.


It’s not quite Lego Robotics or Python programming on a Raspberry Pi, but it’s something that’s done every day and it’s a great opportunity to put some fairly abstract concepts into a concrete form.

And who says you can’t combine these more techie activities with cooking? I’ve seen projects that use a Raspberry Pi to create a sous vide cooker. And the science of how sous vide works is pretty fascinating, too. And, hey, it doesn’t hurt that you can end up with some pretty delicious results of your experiments.

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Dispatches From A Standing Desk, Week 1

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It was somewhat shocking to learn how long it would take to fully recover from a dislocated toe — 6 to 8 weeks and, in my case, even a bit more. But, finally, I felt comfortable enough on my feet again to give the standing desk another shot. Last weekend, I set everything up again and was determined to start afresh on Monday morning.

I have to say that my first instinct when I walked into my office was to sigh. The last thing I wanted to do was to stand up all day. But I got over it soon enough, and reluctantly assumed the position.

My Setup

As a reminder, I’ve got the Ready Desk holding my external monitor, wireless keyboard and wireless mouse, while alongside it, I’ve got my laptop arranged as a second, sitting, workstation.

Photo via

The idea is that I can switch between the positions as needed, because, even though there’s plenty of evidence that sitting all day is killing us, it turns out that standing all day isn’t so great either. Ask waiters and nurses.

So, before I started this whole initiative, I conducted lots of research about the proper gear and approach, determined to make standing as comfortable as humanly possible. My thought was that if I approached it incorrectly, I’d be less likely to be successful and I’d risk becoming another of those standing desk casualties. To that end, I invested in an anti-fatigue mat to stand on; I set up my desktop so I could stand comfortably and see my monitor and type easily. (I’m doing it RIGHT NOW.)

Life Lessons

But some things are only learned through experience. The second morning, after standing a good portion of the prior day, I got out of bed only to experience a deep painful cramp in my right leg. I also often experience knee soreness when standing up for long periods of time — and doing so at the desk was no exception.

I could be an anomaly and have more of a comfort challenge than your typical desk jockey, since I’m quite overweight which, needless to say, means I’m demanding more from my feet and joints. But that observation makes me all that more determined, as I know standing burns a heck of a lot more calories than sitting — I figured this out when I loaned my husband my Fitbit for a day, and he racked up an amazing number of steps at work, just because he’s moving from place to place more regularly than I do.

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that my shoe choice, or lack of choice, really, could have been the culprit, so it seemed a good thing to tweak. I started the week all nonchalant, wearing the flip flops or other sandals I’m accustomed to wearing every day. Sure, I’d seen people recommend comfortable, supportive shoes, but I thought maybe I could get away with it. Nope. That didn’t last for more than a day or two.

Then, I tried wearing socks and New Balance walking shoes, which were marginally better. But then the soles of my feet started hurting, even though I was wearing fairly decent sports socks. I also tried going entirely barefoot, and doubling up on the anti-fatigue mats — I’d originally purchased one for the office and another for the kitchen, so I hauled the kitchen one into the office and put it atop the other. It helped somewhat.

By late Wednesday, however, I was on Google and Amazon searching for “comfortable shoes” and “shoes for standing desk” and such things. I settled on a pair of Dansko clogs that got very positive reviews, purchasing them used (an Amazon return, most likely) at a good discount.


With all of these tweaks and attempts to try different things, by the end of the week I was as comfortable standing as sitting, if not more so. It helps that it’s much easier to use the keyboard, mouse and external monitor than the laptop keys — that’s an incentive to stand, for sure. As far as what the secret formula is, floor-equipment-wise, I have to say there is no single secret formula.

The Secret Formula

What’s worked for me is to change things up very regularly. I shift onto the sides of my feet; I go up on my tiptoes; I lean back on my heels; I stand on one foot, then stand on the other (“like a Flamingo” I saw it referred to somewhere). While I’m doing that, I twist my raised foot around to stretch the ankle. And I bend my knees occasionally, just to shake things up. I wear shoes; I go barefoot. Making regular changes is what keeps the fatigue from taking over.

Here I’ll briefly mention one of the really cool and interesting tools I’ve employed to keep things interesting — it’s called the Level by Fluidstance, and it looks kind of like a wooden skateboard that allows you to wiggle sideways, and forwards and backwards, while you work. Here’s someone’s recent tweet about theirs:

The @fluidstance Level that I bought myself as an early b-day gift arrived! Working from home has never been so fun!

— Michelle Tam (@nomnompaleo) September 16, 2015

And this is the part where I tell you that received the Level free of charge so that I could review it, but I didn’t promise to say only positive things — I just agreed to give my honest opinion and disclose the relationship. In my next post, I’ll review it extensively, as I have a lot of observations about it — especially as someone with ADD.

So, those are my week 1 learnings and tweaks — more to come as my standing desk experience grows more extensive. Maybe I’ll even straighten up my office enough to take pictures. Or maybe not.

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Twitter: The Heart Is Smart

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You can say a lot with a heart. Introducing a new way to show how you feel on Twitter:

— Twitter (@twitter) November 3, 2015

Since the announcement yesterday, there’s been a lot of discussion about Twitter’s decision to change its “favorite” icon from a star to a heart. So, I thought I’d join the fray with a brief commentary.

I’ve been on Twitter a long time, but I wasn’t one of those who participated in crafting the way the service was used.

WFH. Enjoying a sunny day at the homestead.

— Pamela Parker (@pamelaparker) March 28, 2007

Early adopters started the now-conventional conventions of the @reply, the @mention, the #hashtag and more, without any particular guidance from Twitter. All of this evolved organically, and, therefore, served the community well. All of these methods and functionality make pretty good sense and their various purposes are self-evident.

The favorite, however, has always been a bit of a mystery. I’ve used it for a whole bunch of different purposes over time: to genuinely mark something as a “favorite” (something that I think should be limited, as you can’t have dozens of favorite tweets in a certain day); to bookmark something I want to read more carefully later (usually, it’s the link or video I want to check out later); and, finally, I’ve begun just using it in the way the heart indicates — to acknowledge someone else’s tweet in a way that’s less of a commitment than a retweet.

And it seems to me that this is how others have used it, too, so it makes perfect sense to me to evolve the symbol and name to reflect the way the user base is actually employing it. It works as an acknowledgment, equivalent to the Facebook Like.

Meanwhile, the company still needs to develop a feature to allow people to easily save those tweets they want to peruse later — something that’s likely to become even more important as the platform incorporates additional content and rich media. “Save” perhaps? I appreciate that Twitter is a timely and fleeting medium, but I don’t always have time to delve as deeply into something as I’d like when I first encounter it. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

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A Week In Amazon’s Internet Of Things (IoT) – Alexa/Echo & Dash Buttons

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Finally, I’ve gotten what I desperately need and truly deserve — a personal assistant at home. Sure, she doesn’t do windows (or dishes, or laundry, etc.) but I see great promise in our family’s relationship with Alexa — the “personality” behind Amazon’s Echo device. It feels a little odd to call a device “her,” but it feels even stranger not to, as she — like Apple’s Siri — is clearly worthy of a personal pronoun.

For my birthday, I bought myself an Amazon Echo, after hearing some of my colleagues wax rhapsodic about their experiences with the device. Another deciding factor: the company recently added an integration with SmartThings, my home automation/IoT hub — which means I could (theoretically) control my “things” via voice control.

There’s nothing like opening up a slow app and waiting and waiting and waiting for it to open to the right page…. all to turn on a light or open a garage door. That’s not what I was hoping for when I started on this whole IoT journey. And my husband has been begging for “a normal garage remote control” because he’s sick of waiting outside the garage hoping the door will open automatically (as it’s supposed to when his phone is in range), but not knowing whether it actually will. Voice control won’t necessarily solve that last problem, but I thought I’d throw it in while I was complaining.

So, What Does Alexa Do?

Well, she’s supposedly learning more every day (she accepts over-the-air software updates without your needing to do anything). But, for now, she’s been useful in a few ways:

  1. Letting me easily listen to music, podcasts or the radio while I’m cooking or washing dishes — when my hands are caked with flour or just soaked with soapy water, making trying to control a phone pretty much a hassle. Now, if only she could answer the phone when my husband calls while I’m embroiled in the messiest possible part of making dinner. A little more on this.

    1. If you’re a Prime member, Alexa has access to your Prime Music, along with anything else you’ve uploaded to your Amazon Music account. I took the plunge and paid $25 for a subscription so we could have all of our favorite music easily accessible. Then I uploaded (using the Amazon Music Importer) everything from my hard drive to the cloud. For the most part, these are things we bought or ripped from CDs long ago, as we’ve mostly switched to Spotify for listening and music discovery. I was surprised to find we had nearly 2,000 tracks. More on Spotify next.
    2. Though Alexa can theoretically control Spotify, it only has powerful integration with Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. You can pair Alexa with your cell phone via Bluetooth as you can with any Bluetooth-connected speaker, but it can’t retrieve certain songs or playlists for playback. It can just play, pause, stop, etc.
    3. However, for those services with which it integrates closely, like TuneIn (which doesn’t require a subscription and is free), it’s pretty amazing. I just say “Alexa, play ‘Fresh Air’” or “Alexa, play KUTX (our local public radio station)” and it flawlessly starts playing the latest podcast episode or the radio station live stream. This works for individual songs and playlists, too.
  2. Entertaining the kids. The most popular feature in my household by far has been her ability to tell jokes. My 7-year-old has nearly gone through her entire repertory and he laughs in a self-congratulatory manner when he gets the puns or other wordplay. I’ve enabled “skills” (third-party-developer-added functions) that let her lead a bingo or trivia game, or act as a crystal ball or spout facts about cats, and I expect those will be equally popular with the younger set.
  3. Opening the garage door. Yes, this actually works. For security reasons, it’s recommended you disable this capability, or call your garage door something only you could think of. Otherwise, any random person or burglar could open your garage door, or any other smart door lock you have connected, simply by asking it be opened or unlocked.
  4. Turning lights on and off. This mostly works. I’m using the fairly inexpensive GE Link Bulb (Z-Wave) — they’re around $15 as compared to, say, $93 for this LIFX Wi-Fi Smart Multicolored Bulb. So, from the “you get what you pay for” perspective, perhaps I shouldn’t expect them to work perfectly all the time. I’m still working on it, though.
  5. Making alarms, timers, to-do lists and shopping lists. This works really well, and I’ve integrated the functions (via IFTTT) with ToDo-ist and Evernote (which I share with my husband), so I’m hoping it’ll be useful for those times when I’m cooking and realize I’ve used the last of a particular ingredient.
  6. Providing information, like the news, the weather, the time and Wikipedia entries. You have to learn how to phrase things to get your request understood — she’s training you, instead of you training her — but it works pretty well.


  1. Like I said, you’ve got to learn the lingo and speak to Alexa kind of like you’d talk to a computer, but not exactly. When it comes to controlling devices, you need to name them carefully to make sure they’re easily understood and that Alexa handles them properly. For example, some SmartThings users reported that Alexa had problems when told to turn “everything” off — like at night, when someone wanted to shut off all the lights in their house. But change “everything” to “home,” and it worked fine.
  2. Along those same lines, I’ve noticed that Alexa’s response to certain language changes over time, even during the same day. When I first hooked her up to SmartThings, I could say “open the garage door” and “close the garage door” and she’d say “ok” and do it. Later, it would only work if I said “turn the garage door opener on” and “turn the garage door opener off.” Not exactly natural language, but it could become somewhat natural. (Take THAT, burglars!)
  3. Supposedly, you can set it up to re-order certain items from Amazon that you use regularly (paper towels, dish soap, or whatever) when you command her to do so, but I’ve disabled that for now so can’t report on its usefulness.
  4. When it comes to connectedness, Alexa can only control, not be controlled. This means you can’t set up IFTTT recipes that say something like, “When my iPhone enters the house, play ‘All Star by Smashmouth.’” Alexa will only respond to your voice, the remote or (to a lesser extent) the Alexa app — not to other devices.
  5. I haven’t yet resolved the issue of where Alexa should be placed. Our house isn’t huge and it’s all on one floor, but when it’s in the kitchen and I’m in the home office, I can’t see myself yelling across the house to get something done. Right now, I’m thinking the kitchen — which lies between the master bedroom and our living room — might be the sweet spot, but I’m experimenting with the remote control so I can issue commands without screaming when I’m not right there. We will see.

What I Wish She Could Do:

  1. Read me a recipe while I’m cooking. Tough one, though, probably, as I go back and forth a lot during a recipe, and it’s always helpful to read the whole thing in advance in case you are in the middle and realize you’re missing an important ingredient or don’t have the right sized pan.
  2. Give me the status of my devices. For example: “Is the garage door open?” or “Is the driveway light on?”
  3. Allow me to compose notes, text messages, emails or the like using solely my voice.
  4. Use something other than the default noise when you set an alarm or timer. It would be great to be able to have it play a song to wake you up, for example, or, taking this further, have an alarm-type sound blast out of it when there’s motion detected at a time when the system is set to “away.”

Right now, my devices are few, so I can imagine Alexa’s usefulness (and my ability to conceive of possibilities) will only grow as my ability to control my environment (bwa ha ha!) grows. And then Alexa will take over and horror movie scenarios will ensue.

But, Seriously, I Dream Of Having Alexa:

  1. Open the chicken coop at sunrise and close it a little after sunset. And alert us somehow when there are eggs to be collected in the nest boxes. Plus, sound a siren to warn away our pesky dogs who think eggs laid by the chickens are their personal source of sustenance.
  2. Water my garden and, more importantly, know when it needs watering and when it doesn’t. I’m getting closer with this one, as start-up Spruce Irrigation should be shipping sometime soon.
  3. Control all our lights and outlets. Oh, yes, the ultimate power will be mine.

Those looking for media control may have moved a step closer as today Amazon announced Alexa will be included in the Fire TV product. Haven’t dived into that yet, but it’s an interesting development.

And, yes, I know I mentioned the Dash Buttons in my headline, but I’ve rambled on long enough so I’ll have to discuss those in another post.

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A Non-Programmer’s Adventures In The Internet Of Things

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Besides re-vamping my office setup to allow standing as well as sitting at my desk, I’ve also been working on outfitting my home with lots of Things — Things as in the Internet of Things (IoT).

It started, I believe, with our need for a new garage door opener. Rather than do the simple thing and just buy a replacement, I decided to complicate matters and determined to automate the door’s opening and closing. The idea: whenever myself or my husband pulled up in one of our vehicles, the garage door would open automatically. When we left, it would close automatically.

Handy, right? Well, it started me down the path of Home Automation, which is working out as either amazing, revolutionary and wonderful or frustrating, broken and time-consuming. How I feel about it depends on the particular day.

After some research, I determined to unify everything around the SmartThings Hub. In Home Automation-speak, the hub is the master controller, connecting to all the devices and telling them what to do — theoretically at your command or based on rules you’ve set up in advance.

This little device can “talk” over the LAN and to wireless devices using ZigBee and Z-Wave — two of the most popular protocols for “smart” devices — so it affords me maximum flexibility in terms of finding compatible devices. (It doesn’t do Bluetooth or Bluetooth Low Energy, though, which could be a drawback.)

There’s also an amazing community of DIY-ers and developers around SmartThings, so people are constantly tinkering to make new things work with the system, then generously sharing them with the rest of us.

Things that work (or sort of work) with the hub include:

  • Light Switches
  • Motion Sensors
  • Moisture Detectors
  • Light Bulbs
  • Garage Door Openers!

What I’ve found is that it isn’t a one-time project, it’s an ongoing “hobby.” I’ll post my adventures in home automation in the coming weeks, months and probably years, as I explore new opportunities for frustration and enlightenment.

The post A Non-Programmer’s Adventures In The Internet Of Things appeared first on The River.


My Standing Desk Initiative

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Photo via

I’m sure I’m not the first person you’ve heard of adopting a standing desk, but there’s likely still more to learn. Everyone’s different, after all. Maybe I’ve experienced something that will help you in your own ergonomic working endeavors.

The Rationale

When I was in journalism graduate school at Columbia — one of the most intense periods of my life, work-wise — I experienced carpal tunnel syndrome for the first time. When I visited a doctor to get treatment, he talked about the perils of being a desk jockey and even said that people who sat all day at a keyboard should do strength-training to enable them to handle the rigors.

Since then, we’ve seen study after study determine that sitting all day is “the new smoking,” leading to early adopters experimenting with treadmill desks, standing desks, sit/stand desks, etc. One thing I’ve learned in reading their accounts is that people’s bodies really aren’t meant to STAND all day, either. Therefore, I determined to try a set-up that allowed me to switch positions — not to mention walk around a bit — throughout the day.

I’m not like many of those early adopters in that I’m on a budget. And I fairly recently bought a new desk set-up so I’m not going to buy an entirely new one. Hence my focus on the standing desk adapters that you put on top of your existing desk to raise your computer to standing level. Additionally, though I’ve read accounts of the $20 Ikea standing desk, I know that there’s no way I would actually get all the parts and do such a thing — at least not in the short to medium term future.

So, to reiterate my requirements:

  • Inexpensive but not completely DIY
  • Enabling me to switch between sitting and standing
  • Adjustable enough so that I can feel sure it will “fit” my stance and height.
  • A separate “shelf” for mouse and keyboard.

The Decision-Making Process

The models that seemed to fit my requirements were made by a few different companies:

All more than I wanted to spend. After much Googling, I finally found something that made sense for me: The Ready Desk . It doesn’t move up and down, but I figured I could set things up in such a way that I could switch between sitting and standing without too much trouble.

It’s a pretty simple concept — actually beautiful in its simplicity — that’s wooden and customizable for different heights. Now that I have it, I find it’s bigger than I expected, but it seems to fit onto my desk okay with a few adjustments.

Photo via

Photo via since my own is too messy right now.

Unfortunately, I suffered a dislocated toe a few days before The Ready Desk arrived, so I haven’t gotten to give it a real serious try. I’m holding off until the swelling goes down considerably. More to come as the adventure continues.

The post My Standing Desk Initiative appeared first on The River.