Charitable Gift Giving

We surf the Web to find good products that help out a great cause.

Charitable Gift Giving header image 1

Complete Miyazaki Film Collection – Studio Ghibli Blu-Ray Box Set: Get it with Amazon Smile

June 17th, 2015 · Amazon

I realize that I should just send Disney my bank information and let them withdraw money from my account at will. They are one of those rare companies which you give money to and beg them to take more of it. Just this past month I’ve given them money to see Inside Out and Avengers: Age of Ultron, purchased a Winnie the Pooh bassinet for the baby we’re expecting, purchased a Winnie the Pooh crib set. This doesn’t include the money I shoveled to them for a week in Disney World last year or the money I’ll be shoveling to them later this year to see Star Wars.

Something else I’ll be happily paying money for is this Amazon exclusive set of Hayao Miyazaki’s work on Blu-Ray, officially titled The Collected Works of Hayao Miyazaki. For those who don’t know Miyazaki’s films, he’s essentially to Japanese traditional animation what Walt Disney was to American traditional animation and what John Lasseter is to American computer animation. And like these two American icons, Miyazaki’s films, all hand-drawn animation, are amazing not just in their artistry but in their storytelling and heart as well.

miyazaki full bluray set

While the films produced at Miyazaki’s studio, Studio Ghibli, have always enjoyed enormous success in Japan, it’s only relatively recently that American audiences have been introduced to them. Disney only relatively recently acquired the rights to distribute the films through video and they’ve done an excellent job with them; the DVD and Blu-Ray transfers are excellent.

The set is being released in honor of Miyazaki’s announced retirement and contains his eleven feature films on Blu-Ray:

  • Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro from 1979, his first theatrical release
  • Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind from 1984
  • Castle in the Sky (Laputa) from 1986
  • My Neighbor Totoro from 1988
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service from 1989
  • Porco Rosso from 1992
  • Princess Mononoke from 1997
  • Spirited Away from 2001, Academy Award winner and the highest grossing film in Japan history
  • Howl’s Moving Castle from 2004
  • Ponyo from 2008
  • The Wind Rises from 2013

I’m someone who pounced on all the DVDs as they came out, and then again on all the Blu-Rays as they began to be released individually. You’d think I’d be upset at hearing that there’s a new box set that has most of the Blu-Rays I bought, but I’m surprisingly not all that upset. Aside from being a bargain at an announced retail price of $249.99 and a discounted pre-sale price of $224.99 (with Price Guarantee, so if the price goes up between now and November you’ll get it first and you’ll get it at the lowest price betwee no), there are a number of extras, including a 1972 television pilot called Yuki’s Sun directed, storyboarded and animated by Miyazaki, three episodes of a 1972 anime series called Little Samurai that he storyboarded, an uncut version of his retirement press conference, and a book called The Great Dichotomy: Looking at the Works of Hayao Miyazaki.

If there’s one pet peeve I have about the American transfers it’s the vocal talent. Specifically, Disney loaded up the voice actors with A-list and B-list celebrities, but too often when I listen to the American vocals it’s like fingerprints on a chalkboard. The child voice actors tend to be straight from the Disney Channel and lack any of the subtlety or grace of their Japanese counterparts. Even the celebrities, most of whom I admire, seem to overpower the elegance of the Japanese animation.

Luckily there’s an easy solution: when you watch these turn OFF the American vocal track and turn on the original Japanese one, with English subtitles. If your child isn’t old enough to read and keep up with the subtitles, he or she probably isn’t old enough for some of the adult themes in these movies anyway.

Be careful when shopping for these. Look on Amazon for a product specifically titled The Collected Works of Hayao Miyazaki (Amazon Exclusive) [Blu-ray] or click through this link. A lot of scammers are going to put up other listings hoping you’ll accidentally buy theirs instead of going through the official Amazon link. Go through this link and don’t forget by doing so you can have some of your purchase go to your favorite charity.

→ No CommentsTags:

Amazon Echo: Get it with Amazon Smile

June 14th, 2015 · Amazon

Within a week of each other I decided to splurge and get me a Roomba and an Amazon Echo. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. Back in the day you needed a team of Gatsby-esque servants to wait on you hand and foot. Now, I have a robot to sweep up after me, and a robot who’ll act as a personal assistant. All for the fraction of the price.

For those who don’t know, the Amazon Echo is a little cylindrical device you place in a convenient place in your home (ours is in our living room near the front door). You can talk to it and it’ll do things like play music for you, tell you the weather, tell you last night’s sports scores, tell you a stock quote, tell you the latest news, and so much more. It’s actually pretty cute and its speaker can pack a whollop of sound if you want it to (you can also tell it to speak louder or softer).

I was skeptical when I first heard of it. As much as Apple tried to make Siri into “my personal assistant”, most of the time she still gets things wrong. It’s the same with Google’s “OK, Google”. It seems that both companies have tried too hard to be all things to all people out of the gate and have fallen laughably short.

Worse, one of the fatal flaws of using your phone as a voice-responsive personal assistant is that in order for your phone to respond to commands like “Hey Siri” or “Okay Google” they need to be plugged in at all times or they’ll drain your battery.

Something I appreciate about Amazon Echo is that they sat back while Apple and Google stumbled over each other, learning from both their mistakes. For one thing, the Echo doesn’t pretend to be able to answer every single question known to man.

Instead, she’s programmed to answer only the most common questions. Here are some questions I recently asked her where she gave me a perfect answer.

  • Alexa, what temperature is it outside?
  • Alexa, what’s the weather tomorrow?
  • Alexa, what was the score of the Yankees game last night?
  • Alexa, what’s the latest news?
  • Alexa, how many ounces in a cup?
  • Alexa, play Pandora
  • Alexa, add milk to my shopping list
  • Alexa, add buy a new air conditioner to my to-do list

In case you’re wondering, “Alexa” is the name of a search engine company that started in 1996, two years before Google. If you’ve ever visited the Internet Wayback Machine Archive, you’ve seen Alexa in action. They never quite caught on as a mainstream search engine, but Amazon still acquired their technology in 1999 for $250 million in stock. If the creators of Alexa held on to their Amazon stock, their cut is worth over two billion dollars today.

While the technology press focuses on silly things like “does Siri, Google Now, or Alexa tell the funnier jokes”, for me it’s all about how well this personal assistant does the things I need. While I played with Siri and Google for a little while because they were interesting diversions, it’s Alexa that I find myself using more and more.

I took Alexa to the next level when I purchase a Belkin WeMo Light Switch and two Belkin WeMo Insight Switch. Specifically, I connected my dining room/foyer light to the light switch, and the living room light to an insight switch. Now, I could say commands like “Alexa, turn off the living room light”, “Alexa, turn on the dining room light”, or “Alexa, turn off all the lights”. It got a little bit of getting used to because the first time I’d do it she’d shut off all the lights and then a creepy “okay” would come out of the darkness. I wish there were a way to get her to stop saying that, but I’m finding out that’s just the way she is.

What’s really cool about pairing Echo and WeMo is that I can not only use Echo to give voice commands, I can also use the WeMo app to turn the lights on and off. Really handy if I’m coming home at night and want to turn the lights on from the car or if I’m in bed and forgot to turn off the living room light. Using IFTTT you can even set rules (turn on the lights if I’m within 5 miles of my house and the time is after sunset).

Once I got comfortable with Echo and WeMo controlling my lights the next thing I decided to do was to connect an air conditioner to WeMo. This gets a little tricky, as you need to find an AC that has manual controls where you can set it to power on when you plug it in (most units that are controlled by remote controls or buttons won’t work). Ironically, this meant shopping for a “retro” air conditioner that didn’t have timers, thermostats, or remotes.

I came across the Frigidaire 6,000 Btu Window Air Conditioner at Best Buy, who graciously price-matched it to $169.00 to match my local Home Depot. Unfortunately it looks like only 5000 and 6000 BTUs still come with manual controls so you’re out of luck controlling rooms larger than about 100-250 square feet with Echo and WeMo; you’ll probably need to splurge and go for something like the Quirky + GE Aros Smart Window Air Conditioner (or, since that’s getting such poor reviews, hold out for the next generation of connected air conditioners).

The one thing that makes me a little nervous about the WeMo are the reports that determined hackers can theoretically hack into your WeMo devices and start switching them on and off, even to the point of starting fires if you have devices like air conditioners attached. Belkin has released patches that ostensibly protect their devices from outside intruders, but they’ve been so tight-lipped that it’s really hard to tell if they’ve really cracked the problem. In fact, the first time I installed my Belkin Insight Switch to my living room light sure enough the light kept switching on and off randomly until I reset my router (it hasn’t happened since). Regardless of whether this was a bug or a hacker, had the same thing happened to an AC unattended, it could have been pretty dangerous. To at least partially protect me I’ve set an alert so that if the unit is shut on without my approval I’ll know about it.

So if you’ve been thinking about jumping into the world of “connected homes”, here’s a way you can do it for cheap–I did it all for under $500 much less, I think, than Jay Gatsby shelled out for his hired help. And of that $500, why not have a few bucks go to help a good cause through Amazon Smile?

→ No CommentsTags:

AmazonSmile: Giving Back to Charity with Amazon Purchases

June 7th, 2015 · Amazon

As we’ve alluded to before, AmazonSmile is a generous charitable program run by Amazon where 0.5% of your Amazon purchases go to a charitable organization that you choose. Here’s how it works.

First, when you start shopping, instead of going to www.amazon.com, go to smile.amazon.com. From that page you can search for the charity you wish to support. Unlike other similar sites that support charities, instead of picking from a list that only includes a subset of them Amazon lets you choose from virtually any organization in the country registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Just go to the corner of the page where you see this.

amazon smile choose charity

I typed in the name of my town and saw 190 charities within a few miles of me. I also entered the name of my church and got a listing of all of the local churches around the United States. Finally, I typed in just about every charity we’ve ever featured on this blog and sure enough, just about all of them were there.

To start shopping, simply click the “Select” button next to the charity you want to support. I chose a community outreach program based in Texas that I know does some great stuff.

amazon smile charity selected

In addition, throughout your shopping experience you’ll see the Amazon top navigation change to this.

amazon smile top nav changes

The way it works is that if the organization already receives donations from Amazon your donation will be added to them. If the organization does not already receive domains, Amazon will reach out to them once donations start coming in to set them up.

There’s absolutely no cost to you, and in fact other than the change to the logo and the additional line at the top of the page there’s no change at all to your shopping experience at Amazon. It’s pretty smart of them as a company as well–they’d probably be making philanthropic donations anyway for corporate responsibility and taxation purposes so this is a great way to put where the donations go into the hands of their customers.

There are a couple Amazon-exclusive products that would be great ways to jump start your Amazon Smile shopping. I’ll talk about a few of them in the next few posts.

 

→ No CommentsTags:

The Humble Bundle for Nintendo

May 30th, 2015 · Education

humble bundle for wii u and 3dsFor those of you unfamiliar with it, the Humble Bundle is a project where independent game developers will agree to sell their products at a ridiculously low price. How low? You literally name your own price. It can be anything from $1 to as much as you want. Traditionally, the Humble Bundle has been limited to PC game producers, but that’s changing.

With the “Humble Nindie Bundle”, for the first time they’ve partnered with Nintendo. Instead of purchasing downloadable software, you purchase game codes that can be redeemed on the eShop.

I love the concept of the Humble Bundle because it helps bring awareness to a lot of fantastic independently-developed games, something of a rarity in the console world. Some of these independent developers make some really great stuff. These developers don’t have the marketing muscle to come up with snazzy packaging, TV commercials, or mass market distribution. But some of their games are really amazing.

The games (which you can get for as little as $1 for all of them) include:

Guacamelee for Wii U: An action, side-scrolling platforming game, inspired by Mexican culture and folklore, where you control “Juan” as he rescules El Presidente’s daughter. Think of it as a Mexican, slightly more adult version of Mario. It was rated 9.1 from IGH.

Woah Dave for 3DS: This is a game that’s fashioned like a classic arcade game. The graphics are in old 8-bit style but as most of us fans of ancient arcade games can attest, that only works to help you focus on the gameplay itself, which is a load of fun.

Mighty Switch Force for 3DS: This is a puzzle, side-scrolling platformer in a style slightly reminiscent of Mario where you control “Patricia Wagon” as she jumps and shoots her way to capturing a group of escaped convicts. IGN gave this an 8.0.

If you pay more than $10, you’ll unlock two more games

Stealth Inc 2 for Wii U: Another side-scrolling platformer where you control a goggle-wearing clone and use different types of equipment to solve puzzles and unlock new areas. This was native for the Wii U and uses the GamePad in new and innovative way, something I can’t say for too many other publisher, indie or not.


SteamWorld Dig for BOTH Wii U and 3DS: This is an action-adventure platforming game where you control “Rusty” the miner to investigate mines under an old Western town. It got a 9.5 out of 10 from IGN.

And if you pay more than the average price people are paying (currently $9.20), you’ll unlock:

The Fall for Wii U: Another side scrolling game which got its start on Kickstarter. It contains both puzzle and action elements.

OlliOlli for BOTH Wii U and 3DS: A 2-D side-scrolling skateboarding game that mimics real physics as you attempt to perform and land tricks.

Moon Chronicles for 3DS: A first-person shooter game for the 3DS spread out over four episodes. You get episode 1 here.

More “mystery” games to be announced this coming week.

While most of these games are also able to be purchase on other platforms and mobile devices, I prefer to play games like these on my Wii U and 3DS consoles,  where you enjoy bigger screen action and more familar control with the Wii U than you get on a PC and 3D action and better controls with the 3DS than you get on a telephone screen.

Bought individually, these games would go for over $80. But with this deal, you can get most of the game for under $10 and ALL of the games at $10.

And the best thing about it? Your purchase not only helps bring awareness to these great indie games, you can also choose whether your money goes to the developers or Code.org, a non-profit that helps expand the knowledge of computer science and coding to schools and especially to underrepresented populations.

Convinced or want to learn more? Check out the Nintendo Humble Bundle here.

→ No CommentsTags:

Solar-Powered Flashlight from THRIVE Solar Lanterns

May 23rd, 2015 · Amazon

Late breaking news: THRIVE Solar Lanterns is raising funds through IndieGoGo to help victims of the recent earthquake in Nepal. You can help by going here.

https://life.indiegogo.com/fundraisers/thrive-solar-lanterns-for-nepal

Please spread the word! And read more about this amazing organization below.

As a wanna-be comedian growing up, I once came up with a little routine where I’d think of silly products. There was instant water (just add water). There was bottled air. And of course, there was the solar powered flashlight. The joke as a kid, of course, was that if you already had sunlight to power your flashlight, why would you need the flashlight?

Well, a lot has changed since I was a kid. They actually do sell water in bottles now, and in some places I hear tell they even sell air. But the innovation I find the most useful and practical turns out to the solar-powered flashlight.

Of course, solar flashlights aren’t only on when the sun is on. A solar cell charges a battery, and it’s the battery that powers the flashlight. Over the years I’ve always been fascinated by solar technology, and have purchased a number of solar devices, mostly radios and incandescent flashlights and cell phone chargers. In most cases I’d been disappointed. I’d charge an emergency light for three days and then when I’d switch the light on maybe it’d last 20 seconds.

But a few technical advancements in the past few years have gotten us to the point where the technology is pretty impressive–and pretty cheap. THRIVE Solar Energy has done something remarkable with this. They created the Thrive Solar Lantern, which happens to be one of the best reviewed solar flashlights on Amazon. It’s a nifty portable lantern that uses LED lights, meaning that not only do the bulbs draw less power, they also don’t burn out or need to be replaced. Even the batteries don’t need to be replaced, as the built-in battery is charged during the day.

This is by far the best product you can have handy for emergencies like blackouts or power outages. Rather than running to the store and trying to fight with your neighbors to get that last set of batteries, all you need to do with the Thrive Solar Lantern is to leave it in the sun and by the time the sun goes down you’ll have light to help you get through the night for however long a power outage lasts.

I had the opportunity to try the Thrive Lantern out for myself. At first I admit I was a little taken aback because it didn’t look exactly like a “high-end” product. I’ve gotten accustomed to flashlights being in slick packaging and having slick designs like the Maglite. So when I saw a generic-looking box…

solar powered flashlight box

…and the unit itself in bright green plastic…

solar powered flashlight

…I wondered to myself how high the quality really was.

The answer came to me in a flash. Literally. I pressed the black button in front and then a blinding light came out of the unit.

powerful solar flashlight

 

It was quite literally one of the brightest flashlights I’ve seen, easily brighter than any of the other flashlights I have around the house. It easily lit up my whole living room. Something else I like about it is that as a “lantern”, I could place it down or hang it from my belt, something not as easily done with handheld flashlights.

As for my initial perceptions of it not being high quality, it dawned on me that this was just the result of years of marketing brainwashing which convinced me that flashlights somehow had to be heavy, metallic, and as slick-looking as luxury cars and to come in slick, over-produced packaging to be any “good”.

But that’s just silly–a flashlight above all needs to have substance over style and function over form, and in this case the plastic made the unit extremely lightweight and portable and useful in any situation you can think of, not just lighting a room during a blackout, but also useful when working on the car, hiking, camping, finding something in the closet, and any other situation that needs illumination. As someone who’s lugged heavy lanterns on hiking trails, let me say that weighing in at only 3 ounces, the lightweight nature of this lantern literally takes a big load off.

And it dawned on me that I really appreciate that they don’t waste money on slick packaging and marketing to keep the price amazingly affordable at under $20. How they do this is fascinating and brilliant. They do it by cutting out the middleman. They set up facilities in developing nations (currently India, Kenya, and Ghana) and as much as possible source its raw materials and equipment locally. They help local communities by providing jobs (one of the facilities in India employs 320 people, 260 of which are women) which provide them with livelihoods and help them support their families. It’s so rare to see an organization where whatever profit they make go towards directly to helping build economic opportunities in the developing world, not to governments and corporations that maximize profits at the expense of human rights.

I equally was pretty impressed by the unit’s engineering. The entire back of the unit consists of the solar cells that charge the batteries that power the LEDs.

solar cells

The LED itself is new technology that was invented by Shuji Nakamura, who received the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics for inventing a new kind of efficient and bright light emitting diode. The unit will provide 8-10 hours of light in its normal mode, or 5 hours in its bright mode.

But what impressed me the most was the note I got from Maria Caluag, the owner of Cosas AutoSuficientes, LLC, who partners with THRIVE Solar to sell their products online. Marisa herself was a Peace Corps volunteer who worked in the developing world and runs the Amazon shop that sells THRIVE lanterns.

THRIVE’s itself has an amazing history. It was formed in 2001 as an NGO in India aimed at tackling the issue common to many developing countries of children and families without electricity who relied on dangerous, expensive, and hazardous kerosene lamps just to do basic things after the sun goes down. We take it for granted here, but just the ability to have light to study at night is a luxury many children don’t have.

They started out by purchasing and distributing solar lamps, but there simply weren’t any products out there that lasted more than a few weeks before breaking. That’s when the founder of THRIVE started a company to manufacture its own solar lamps that were more durable, brighter, and lasted longer than any other.

To date, they have helped well over half a million school children receive study lights, and have helped over 1 million families benefit from solar lighting systems off the grid.

It’s rare to see a company that started as a charity and created innovative technology that creates a virtuous circle of helping not just people who use their product, but also entire communities who make their product and the many, many people who benefit from their philanthropic mission.

And best of all, the product is absolutely fantastic. It’ll be the flashlight of choice I use in my household moving forward an I don’t say this out of “charity”, I say it because this is truly the best flashlight I’ve ever owned.

 

→ No CommentsTags:

The Give Back Box – A Convenient Way to Donate by Mail

April 21st, 2015 · Goodwill Industries

logowhiterimWell, April 15 has come and gone.

One thing that Uncle Sam lets us do is to write-off donations to charity. Now I’ll start this post off by the usual disclaimers that I’m not a tax expert and you need to consult your tax advisor on any of this stuff.

That said, one thing I’ve become acutely aware of after getting married is that I have a lot of junk. Well, prior to getting married I thought this was treasure, but my wife has helped open my eyes to certain things. Like how our clothes closets aren’t being used to store clothes but boxes of things. Or how our second bedroom isn’t being used as a bedroom, but as a storage unit.

My first reaction was to go on eBay and sell as much as I could. But boy did that become a hassle. You have to take the time to write a listing, take pictures, get payment, box it carefully, buy postage, and drop it off at a post office. At the end of the day, the few dollars I earned from it almost seemed not worth it.

Donation of goods is never something that really crossed my mind before, but when you think about it, it’s a fantastic idea, whether or not the tax write-off. You have stuff you don’t need that’s taking up space–furniture, lamps, appliances, clothes, shoes. They’re not in terrible shape, but for whatever reason you just outgrew them. But donate them to charity, and the charity will re-sell it to someone else. That person gets your used items are a huge discount over what it’d cost to buy it new, the charity will get a little bit of profit, and that profit will go towards helping someone who’s in desperate need. All while keeping your local landfill from being cluttered with your stuff.

One brilliant idea I recently heard of is the GiveBackBox.Com. The concept is simple. How many times do you receive boxes of more “stuff” from UPS or FedEx or the post office? Oftentimes, you’ll unpack the box and then throw it away.

With GiveBackBox.com, you can print a pre-paid shipping label. All you have to do is empty the box you received from your e-commerce purchase, tear off all the labels, stuff the box with household items you want to donate (as can fit in the box), slap the label on the box, and call UPS for a pickup. Your donation will be send directly to Goodwill, where they’ll sort your items and sell it in their stores, with money going to help strengthen communities and help youth, seniors, veterans, the disabled, and others through education, skills training, and finding jobs.

Just a few suggestions that aren’t on their Web site. Avoid the temptation to donate things that are too old and raggedy–no one wants you old stained pair of sweatsocks or your underwear with the holes (and while I’m no tax expert, something tells me the IRS wouldn’t be too keen on your assigning value to those things). Instead, donate things that have value; the sweater you only wore a few times, the appliance that still works but that you don’t use anymore, and so on. Things that you believe that someone shopping in a Goodwill store would snap up as a bargain. Also, be honest with yourself and with the IRS about the valuation.

As you put things in your box, be sure to keep track of them, of course. You can get a donation receipt from the attached link.
http://www.goodwillindy.org/mod/donate/gici-receipt/

I love this idea because it avoids so many of the hassles that usually prevent us from donating. Driving to a donation bin and finding that people are basically using them as dumpsters. Driving for miles to the nearest office of a charity who may or may not be open. Scheduling an appointment for a charity to come pick up your items. Already, companies like NewEgg and Amazon are jumping on the bandwagon.

This won’t (and shouldn’t) replace you from donating to other charities (The Lupus Foundation is one with special significance to me, whose bags I will continue to fill), but it’s a great way to remind you that whenever you get cool new “stuff”, it’s time for you to evaluate which of your “cool old stuff” you can donate.

 

→ No CommentsTags:

The Best Ball Tossing Toy for Dogs – the Bamboo Wood Chuck from Planet Dog

April 10th, 2015 · Animal Causes

Ever since my sister adopted Clancy as a rescue puppy, you probably notice I’ve been taking every chance I get to highlight dog treats and dog toys. Part of the reason, of course, is that animal and pet charities are near and dear to my heart, and when I come across companies that make great products that contribute to them, I’m always eager to showcase them and let people know about them.

But another reason is that it’s just so darned fun to try out new products with Clancy. He’s still in that puppy mode where he just wants to play, play, play all the time. And as I’ve shown in previous posts, he’s turning into a very, very athletic dog with an energy that doesn’t quit.

Now my sister will readily admit that she’s the epitome of the phrase “throws like a girl”. And while my arm is a little better than hers, I don’t think if I were a centerfielder I could throw a baserunner out at home on the fly, or even after five bounces. But luckily for both of us, there’s the awesome ball tosser from Planet Dog called “Wood Chuck”.

best dog ball tosser

Like other ball tossing toys, this one uses the laws of physics to allow someone with girly or girly-man muscles to throw a ball like a major leaguer. I’m no physicist, but I believe it uses the concept of leverage to let someone who ordinarily couldn’t throw 10 feet to throw 100 feet. And for dogs that love to run, no doubt they’re saying “it’s about time”.

At first I wondered if they built it with wood just so they could name it with a silly pun. But after trying it out, I’m finding that it’s one of the best ball tossers I’ve ever used. Unlike plastic, which get dirty and icky and can break pretty quickly, the bamboo wood used in this product stays clean and beautiful looking and is very, very durable. One end of the toy is a “claw” that is perfectly sized to hold Planet Dog balls (in their catalog, they mark certain balls as being “Wood Chuck Friendly”), and can also hold tennis balls. One added benefit–for the inevitable point of play when your rubber ball becomes totally covered in drool, you can actually load up this toy without touching the call–just put the “claw” over the ball and press down on the wood with a little force. Voila–you’re loaded up for another long throw.

The other end of the tosser is the handle, which is made up of smooth, rounded, and solid cork. It’s extremely comfortable on the hands and is ergonimic–no matter what your tossing style or whether you toss with one hand or two hands, it feels great. On a side note, both the bamboo and the cork are natural, the wood is produced sustainably and the cork is made from reused scraps. It’s always fun to read the labels on Planet Dog products–they have the familar recycling logo with the three arrows, but the words read “Reduce, Reuse, Rewoof”.

Cleanup is a snap–just wipe it down after each use, and don’t leave it in the rain or out among the elements. And of course, keep it out of doggie’s reach if doggie thinks everything is a chew toy.

Planet Dog also makes the best dog balls around. My sister said that Clancy’s favorite ball by far was this Orbee-Tuff Glow For Good ball from Planet Dog. In fact, it was such a great dog that one day my sister came home after a session in the park, only to realize that one of Clancy’s pals in the dog park ran away with it. Happily, we have another one now to take its place.

best dog ball

This ball has a lot of great things going for it. First of all, it scores 5 of 5 chompers on the “chew-o-meter” scale, which is Planet Dog’s measure of how durable a toy is. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, there isn’t a dog toy yet that Clancy hasn’t totally destroyed and disemboweled, but even after hours with this ball, it’s good as new.

There are other great things about this ball. It’s got a minty flavor (when I opened the box, the whole thing smelled minty fresh); I’m not sure how much this really does towards freshening doggie’s breath, but on the positive side you don’t need to hold your breath as you might with an old tennis ball with weeks and weeks of slobber baked in. It’s also glow-in-the-dark (the kind where you hold it up to a light for a while), which is useful for late night sessions. And there’s a “treat hole” in it, like a Kong, so doggie will have hours of fun trying to get it out (my sister, who’s a vet, explained to me that it’s not mean and dogs don’t get frustrated like humans do, as this just encourages their natural instincts.

Here’s some video of Clancy and me at a house we rented over the weekend with a huge (and I mean huge) meadow. I figured, what better opportunity to put the Wood Chuck to the test? Here’s a video of me chucking the ball to Clancy.

As you can see, the Wood Chuck has a nice long handle, which means I can throw the ball really far–I was getting close to 80-100 yards at one point, which made me start feeling like Peyton Manning. It was about double what I could throw just with my hands. And as you can see, it took me a little while to figure it out, but once I got the hang of it I could grip and throw the ball without touching it, meaning that the none of Clancy’s dripping drool got on my hands.

You can see from the video that Clancy was having a ball (literally). This video only shows a few minutes, but we were out there about an hour, and he just didn’t seem to get tired–and then he wanted more that evening, the next morning, and the next afternoon; he just didn’t get tired; from start to end of our tossing sessions he’d run to fetch the ball at full speed and run back at full speed.

I was throwing the ball so far that there were times he’d lost track of it, but then his hunting instincts would kick in and he’d be able to use his nose to track the ball down, his tail tagging vigorously the whole time he was looking, and then he’d prance back to me proudly once he found it. Clancy’s a mutt, so we’re not sure what breeds he has in him, but clearly he’s got the athleticism, the nose, and the unbridled enthusiasm of a great hunting and sporting dog.

This weekend was one of the most fun weekends I’ve had in a while, and a lot of it is thanks to the Wood Chuck. While ordinarily my arm would get sore from all that throwing, this toy let me keep up with Clancy and really maximize his exercise. He was pretty conked out, sleeping like a puppy through the whole night.

And best thing about these products is that, 2% of all purchases at Planet Dog funds a great cause. Purchase of the Wood Chuck in particular goes to the training, placement, and support of service dogs that help people in need nationwide. And purchase of the Glow for Good ball, as the name suggests, goes even further. 100% (that’s right, 100%) of the proceeds of the ball support the Planet Dog Foundation and the various causes it supports.

For more information, visit the Planet Dog Foundation Web site. This great cause has supported over $1 million in amazing causes, thanks to the purchases and donations of dog lovers everywhere.

I have some more Planet Dog products to show you, but the Wood Chuck and a durable Planet Dog ball should be on the “must have” list of every pet owner out there. If you know a pet owner who doesn’t have one, there are few better “essential” gifts you can give.

→ No CommentsTags:

The Best Radio to Have When the Power Goes Out – Eton’s FRX3

March 24th, 2015 · American Red Cross

A few years ago during Hurricane Sandy, all of the power on Long Island went out for weeks. Now I thought I had been prepared, and had about 30 AA batteries charged, thinking that would be enough to allow me to charge my phone, power on a radio, and power my flashlights. All the batteries were drained within a day.

I’ll admit, my wife and I ended up having a pretty nice time. We played a full round of Monopoly by candlelight, and heated up food by the heat of the candle.

playing monopoly during hurricane sandy

That was fun for one night. But the next night, and the night after that, and the next few nights after that weren’t as fun as we began to realize how much we really rely on technology. It’s important to be able to have a radio to hear updates on the weather, especially if there are evacuation warnings or news of danger. And it’s really, really important to have a cell phone to keep our loved ones updated (and yes, to play the occasional game of Candy Crush Saga to help pass the time).

Now in our tiny apartment, we can’t buy a generator (not that we could have gotten any gas for it). And I’d purchased some solar powered battery chargers that didn’t seem to work (they need a full day of full sunlight to even have a hope of charging one AA battery).

the perfect radio for a power outageIf there’s one radio I wish I’d had, it’s the Eton FRX3 Radio. I had a chance to try this radio out, and my first impressions is that this is like the “Swiss Army Knife” of portable radios. It is truly the next best thing to having a generator. It won’t power your TV or your microwave, but it will do just about everything else, including:

  • Allow you to listen to AM or FM radio
  • Allow you to listen to NOAA weather radio
  • Charge your smartphone
  • Let you see in the dark with a bright white flashlight or signal for help with a flashing red light
  • Play audio from other sources using an AUX input
  • Let you listen in quiet with headphone output
  • Wake you up with an alarm clock

The unit lets you switch between two modes of power: battery mode and “dynamo mode”.

Battery mode will power the radio using AAA batteries under normal power conditions.

In Dynamo mode, when the AAA batteries are drained, you can continue to power the unit through an internal rechargeable Ni-MH battery that can be charged in one of three ways:

  • A solar panel on top of the unit (must be exposed to direct sunlight, not a lamp or through a window to work).
  • A hand-crank turbine.
  • A USB port with DC input (you can use this on normal days to quickly charge the internal battery using a USB source like your phone charger. If the power goes out, you can also charge it using another device that provides emergency power through a USB port like this one we’ve highlighted in the past). A USB-to-mini USB cable is included.

The explain how the dynamo feature works, think of The Professor’s bike on Gilligan’s Island. You’re basically taking your mechanical energy and converting it to electrical energy. The hand crank is as pleasant as it can be to use–it turns loosely with a slight “whirring” sound, and the handle itself rotates for efficiency and comfort. That said, you might want to take turns as a family cranking it, as it does get tiring.

attach the rechargeable battery to the eton radioWhen you get the unit, setup is easy. First, you open the battery compartment and make sure the Ni-MH battery is plugged in (I missed this step at first and tried to figure out for the longest time why all my hand cranking was doing nothing). Then, just charge the Ni-MH battery using USB until it’s full.

As with all rechargeable batteries, this battery pack has a limited number of charges it can hold, but the good news is you can buy additional packs from Eton for the really low price of $8.95; buy enough of them and you can ensure that you can power your smartphone all throughout the zombie apocalypse (and listen to some cool zombie tunes when they take over the FM radio).

From there, it’s just a matter of pushing the right buttons to listen to radio. Push the power button to power the device on. Turn the knob of the left for radio volume (clockwise for softer, counter-clockwise for louder), and turn the knob on the right for tuning. Use the clicking switches on top of the hand crank to switch between AM, FM, and one of seven weather bands, at least one of which should be broadcasting in your area (assuming there isn’t a government shutdown going on!). An LED panel tells you your band, frequency, and battery charge level.

To set the time and the alarm clock there are buttons on top, under the handle. To set the clock, make sure the radio power is off and then press the “Set” button and then adjust the hours by pressing the “Up” and “Down” buttons. Press the “Set” button again to adjust the minutes, and then 12/24 time format. You can do the same for the alarm by clicking “Alarm On/Off” follow by “Set”.

There’s also an “Alert” feature. To use it, set your radio volume to a comfortable one, move the dial to a working weatherband frequency, and press the Alert button on top. The word “alert” will start flashing on the screen. Now, in the case of a weather emergency, your radio will power on and you’ll get the news right away.

bright flashlight perfect for blackoutsUsing the Flashlight is a snap. Just press the button on the front of the unit to unleash a really powerful flashlight with two bright white LEDs (so powerful when I just accidentally looked into the light I still see spots). There’s also a single red flashing LED for emergencies, also really bright.

And now, for the most important feature IMO: charging a cell phone. To do this, you first make sure your Ni-MH battery pack is sufficiently charged–if it’s not, turn the crank, set the unit in sunlight, or charge it with a USB power source to get it there.

Then, you plug one end of your phone charger cable into the USB port…

charging a cell phone in a power outage

…and the other end into your phone. In my case, I used an iPhone 4S whose batteri I’d run down to nothing. Then, you press the “Cell” phone on the top right, under the handle. You’ll see the word “Cell” appear on the LCD panel.

eton radio charging iphoneVoila! I could see the battery indicator on the radio start to flash and the charge on my iPhone start to go. In a half hour, the iPhone battery charged to 23% before the Eton radio gave out. Not a full charge, of course, but more than enough if you’re desperate in a total power failure.

As for how long the unit works after charging it using these various approaches, here are some figures:

  • It’ll take about 2 hours to fully charge the Ni-MH battery with a USB adapter, or about 10 hours of direct sunlight. With a fully charged battery, the radio will run about 3 to 4 hours at low volume.
  • 90 seconds of hand cranking will charge the Ni-MH battery to a point where it can power the radio for about 5 to 7 minutes at low volume, or run the flashlight for about 20 minutes continuously. If you’ve got the strength, you can keep cranking to more fully charge the battery (the manuals says to continually crank at least 2 or more revolutions per second, and if you stop for any reason, to take a 5 second break before starting to crank again).

I can’t say enough good things about the usability of the radio. It’s not the prettiest radio in the world, but they’ve definitely made up for it in functionality. All the buttons are intuitive and easy to master, something I appreciate in an emergency.

And I haven’t gotten to the best part. For every radio it sell, Eton donates 57 cents of the sales price to support the American Red Cross. Moreover, Eton has been active in helping in areas ravaged by natural disasters, most recently during the Colorado floods. Eton was there, donating many of their products to help many of those affected by the storms.

Whether it’s hurricane season, tornado season, snowstorm season, a truck runs into a utility pole, or the zombie apocalypse, you never know when you’ll completely lose the power to your house. This is definitely the radio to get when it does.

→ No CommentsTags:

Wonderbag – Works like a Crock Pot with no Electricity!

February 15th, 2015 · Amazon, Developing Areas

I love my Crock Pot. Granted, I lug it out almost as often as I lug out my ice cream maker or Ronco Rotisserie (meaning almost never other than the first two weeks I owned them when I used them constantly). But whenever I do have a slow cooked meal it’s always heavenly. I can’t go back to cooking beef stew any other way.

The Wonderbag is an ingenious product that’s a slow cooker just like your Crock Pot, except that it doesn’t use any electricity. No plugs, no cords, nothing. You basically bring your dish to a boil on the stove in a pot, place it (pot and all) in the bag, and then just plop it down on a counter or anywhere else. For the next 4-12 hours your food will continue to cook, thanks to the clever way the bag is insulated. Any pot from two to nine quarts will work; cast-iron pots like ones from Le Creuset will work the best.

Unlike with the Crock Pot, you’re not running electricity all day, so it’s friendlier to the environment. And you’ll be amazed that just like with the Crock Pot, your food will come out steaming and ready to eat.

the amazing wonderbag slow cookerThere are a ton of uses for these. If you’re entertaining during the holidays and only have one Crock Pot, why not use this Wonderbag as its “understudy” to cook larger quantities (you can even do a “taste test” between the two). Or, take one camping with you and instead of cooking pork and beans on the fire, upscale it to butternut squash soup (it comes with some great recipes). You can also steam rice in an hour.

While they’re cleverly pivoting the marketing of Wonderbag to sell as a kitchen appliance for us with first-world problems like wanting to save money on our electricity bills or wanting the novelty of cooking without electricity, Wonderbag actually got its start in the third world to solve much more important problems. Specifically, in many areas of Africa and the Middle East, there is no access at all to energy. Charcoal is expensive, so many people have to cut down trees, resulting in deforestation. Both charcoal and wood cause smoke inhalation. And women usually are the ones who are left to forage for wood and cook, meaning that girls who could otherwise be in school can’t be. And worse, often when women and girls have to wander farther and farther away to forage, they are open to attacks.

South African entrepreneur Sarah Collins and poverty activist Moshy Mathe designed Wonderbag to help societies like these. Hundreds of thousands of Wonderbags have been distributed to countries like South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Syria, and Jordan. It’s saved poor families upwards of 30% of their household income, provided for healthier air to breathe, and reduces time cooking which opens up more time to raise kids and get educated. A side benefit is that because the Wonderbag “locks” moisture in, which means less water (another precious commodity) is wasted. Another side benefit is that because food is simmered and not cooked on an open fire, less food gets burned and wasted.

They’re still distributing Wonderbags to the poor, and that’s another reason you should buy one: for every one you buy, one will be donated to a poor household. So what we might see as a relatively inexpensive novelty could be a life-changing gift for someone on the other side of the globe.

The Wonderbag comes in three colors and costs under $55. It’ll make a great gift for the cook in your life who already have everything else. You can get yours here.

→ No CommentsTags:

Going 100% Paperless with Evernote

January 29th, 2015 · Causes

(If this article piques your interest and you’d like to try out Evernote Premium yourself, click here and you’ll have a free month of Premium to try it out!)

evernote-logoAs someone who came all the way back from the 20th Century, I have boxes and boxes of papers. I mean literally I have credit card statements, banking statements, invoices, utility bills, and receipts. Lots and lots of receipts of every size and shape.

I downloaded the Evernote app years ago but it pretty much sat on my phone without any use at all. I thought it might replace the Notes app since I could access my notes from anywhere (my phone, my laptop, my work computer). But at the end of the day, I realized I really didn’t need to access my Notes in so many places, and the Notes app was just so much quicker and more convenient.

Just this past month, Evernote released a new app called Scannable. And this app completely opened my eyes. It’s a smartphone app where you can simply hold your phone camera over a receipt of any size and shape and it’ll click it and let you upload it to Evernote in one fell swoop.

Suddenly I realized that Evernote could be used as an archival tool. Not long after that I was clicking and storing all my receipts. Out of about 10 boxes filled with papers, I ended up clearing and tossing about 4 of them so far–and counting.

They have a 60 MB limit a month, which is probably fine for normal use, but in order to accomplish my goal of digitizing all 10 boxes of papers I had to upgrade to the Premium account ($5 a month) which lets you upload up to 4 GB a month. And they do have unlimited storage, meaning that it’ll hold 10 or 100 or 1000 boxes of your scanned papers.

Just to give a short review of the Scannable app–I love it. It’s fast and it does a great job of taking the document you’ve snapped, optimizing the focus and resolution, and automatically sending it to Evernote. You can snap one receipt by itself and send it off to Evernote, or if you have a multi-page document you can combine all the pages and send it to Evernote at once. The optimization is impressive: you’ll see a grey-scale image get converted to black-and-white (which saves storage space) and if you’ve taken your picture at an angle it’ll even straighten out the picture for you. And another cool thing about it–once it’s in Evernote, it’ll do OCR so that you can do a text search (it’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing).

My next goal is going to be to start digitizing all my bank and credit card statements. I’ve admittedly been hesitant to sign up for electronic statements because most financial companies will store only up to 24 months. One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that sometimes I do need stuff from years ago, and by that time it’ll have disappeared from their Web site. And most of those financial companies have such horrible interfaces that it’s a pain in the neck to save the PDF month after month. So I’ve opted to receive paper, which is tangible and feels more “real”. I’ll keep it for a while, and then when I’m reasonably sure I won’t need it anymore, that’s when I’ll scan it into the cloud.

Now that Evernote got me hooked on them and the Scannable app, I decided to bite the bullet and get a Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 Scanner for PC and Mac (PA03656-B005). From reviews, this is THE scanner to get if you have lots of papers to scan. (Note that there is a similar model called the “Evernote” model, in a clever bit of cross-promotion, but you want to get this original model as it has more features and is more flexible).

So between Evernote, Scannable, and the Fujitsu scanner I’m finally going paperless. If you’re interested, click here to sign up and if you can get a free month of Premium yourself (enough to upload probably all the papers you have lying around and then some).

Even cooler, if you’re a charity or 501(c)(3) non-profit, you can get 75% off if you have 5 users or more, according to this post from Evernote. They’ve always offered this discount for schools, but according to their post, they’ll apply the discount to any 501(c)(3).

→ No CommentsTags: