2015 Holiday gift guide

Fashion, Lifestyle, Wishlist

It’s that time of the year again when we all take a pause and say, “I can’t believe it’s December already!” And if you’re like me, then it’s also that time when you scramble for gift ideas. Thankfully, the people in my life are relatively easy to shop for. But still, I still needed some ideas.

Search for “gift ideas” and the results can be quite daunting. But fear not, I’ve narrowed those results down a tiny bit to keep for future reference and hopefully this will help you too. If you’re celebrating Christmas, most of these can be ordered right up to Dec. 21.

Holiday gift ideas


1.Minted.com. Choose from hundreds (maybe even thousands) of independent artists and designers at several size/framing options with reasonable prices.

2.Beautiful hardcover books. Juniper Books have different jacket styles for the Harry Potter series – Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Slytherin and Hufflepuff. There are also the usual classics covered in beautiful designs. Speaking of classics, Rifle Paper & Co. has the 150th anniversary edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with a beautiful cover and full-color interior illustrations.

3.Digital download + framing. If you want to customize further, look into digital downloads available at Etsy. You can then upload it to Framebridge for custom frames.

Customized gifts

4.Custom portrait. Send in some photos for a custom portrait illustration that you can use for notes and calling cards.

5.Metallic silhouette. Also from Minted comes custom silhouette foil art in different sizes and frames.

6.Custom shoes. Gift these for women who obsess over those shoes that got away or love styles that may no longer be available.

7&8.Personalized style. The Trunk Club is a premium service where you get to connect with a stylist, preview a handpicked selection and pay for clothes that you keep. It’s available for men and women. Stitch Fix is similar but it’s more automated in that you only answer a style quiz. Right now, it’s only available for women. Start your loved-one off with gift cards.


9.Philz Coffee. I don’t think that you can fully recreate the drip coffee at Philz cafes in San Francisco but this is probably a good start. I still fantasize about that coffee, by the way.

10.Beauty box subscription. Available for men and women, a monthly box features a range of grooming and beauty samples for those who love to try new products but don’t want the commitment of full-sized products.

11.Floral arrangements. Make it weekly, monthly or reserve it for special occasions. It’s a way to ensure you don’t forget future special dates.

Toasty gifts

12.Cashmere-lined leather smartphone gloves. Cashmere, leather and you can use your smartphone without freezing.

13.Cozy slippers. I live in perpetual summer Florida so winter-y stuff are not in my radar but these would have been amazing living in Boston or Montreal.

Just because you can

14.Travel with a personal photographer. Pick from curated travel experiences to South America with a personal photographer. Because, you know, you need to ‘gram it and still enjoy the moment.

15.Hermés Apple Watch. Or is it the Apple Hermés Watch? Anyway, it’s available only in certain Apple and Hermés stores starting at $1,100.

Tech Gifts (of course)

16.Pencil by FiftyThree digital stylus. If you’re one of many still waiting for the Apple Pencil for the iPad Pro, this works just as well at half the price without the waiting list.

17.Amazon Echo. This is Amazon’s answer to Siri and Google Now, except it lives in your home, can play your music and can even control some home automation devices.

18.RIF6 Cube. It’s a 2-inch high resolution mobile projector that works with smartphones, tablets or laptops and projects a 120” inch display on any wall or ceiling.

19.Google Cardboard. No, this is not a joke. It’s the least expensive way to experience virtual reality. It’s compatible with thousands of VR apps on Android and iOS and can support screens up to 6 inches.

20.Samsung Gear VR. But if you’re willing to spend the dollars and the lucky recipient happen to have a Galaxy smartphone, then this VR headset powered by Oculus Rift would be quite a treat.

Kids (or the kid in you)

And since I’ve been thinking of this a lot, I can’t really leave this post without doing a (quick) gift guide for kids as well.

Gifts for Kids (or the kid in you)

1.Ruby’s Sky-high cable car (Ages 6+). From Goldie Blox, the company that sets out to introduce engineering to girls at a young age, one toy at a time.

2.Personalized book from Lost My Name (Ages 0+). This London-based company just received $9M in Series A round led by Google Ventures. But forget about that, the book is beautifully illustrated and the company delivers in less than a week.

3.Electronics Discovery Kit (Ages 8+) – This has 3,300 customer reviews (as of this writing) and has a 5 star rating at Amazon. I’m completely sold.

4.BB-8 Droid by Sphero (Ages 8+). Just in time for the new Star Wars to be released on December 8, it can listen, recognize and respond to you or your child’s voice and you can even record/view holographic videos.

5.Puzzlets Starter Pack (Ages 6+). Puzzlets is a game that can teach a child think like a programmer through hands-on-play and interactive gaming.

Happy Holidays!



Post-hiatus and what I learned about house-buying

Home, News and commentaries

So, instead of only taking a couple of weeks, in the end it took me more than a month just to surface above water and come back from said hiatus. This week, I’m still not completely above water as to be up to date with tech news so I will forego the weekly roundup until next week. In the meantime, I want to share a lot of the things that I learned over the course of 2 months of buying a house and renovating. It’s also a way for me to remember what I learned throughout the process.

This is from the perspective of someone who does most things online, can’t stand being on the phone with a live person (and that annoying hold!), and generally savvy about using productivity tools to keep track of everything. So, if you find yourself thinking, “why didn’t she just try to talk to someone?” It’s because most of the time, when you do talk to someone on the phone: a) they don’t write down your issue like they said they would; b) your issue gets lost somewhere and you’ll have to repeat yourself; c) loss of documentation. With that said, here goes.

  1. Most people take their time buying a house but for people like us who like to fast-track things, keep in mind that a mortgage loan approval (at least in the US) can take a minimum of 30 days and even a minimum of 45 days for some banks. That period also rests on you, the homebuyer, to be on top of all the paperwork needed. Being on top means a turnaround response to a lender’s request within hours or at most a day.
  2. Getting a mortgage involves the following steps in summary: loan application, conditional approval, good faith estimate (estimate of monthly payments, additional fees, closing costs), processing (where the lender verifies and reviews your information), home inspection arranged by borrower/realtor with seller, appraisal performed by the mortgage lender to estimate the value of the property (paid for by the borrower during closing), underwriting where all information are reviewed and verified and the title is legally cleared for transfer of ownership, closing where the borrower pays the closing costs and the purchase of the house is finalized. Read here for a more detailed account of the process.
  3. Personally, the underwriting took the most time for us. As non-US citizens, there are limitations and extra guidelines that we had to adhere to. Unfortunately, neither the mortgage officer (the one who helps you throughout the process) nor the underwriter (the one who actually approves or rejects the loan) may not always have the best knowledge on the immigration processes – anything out of the ordinary can throw the application for a loop. If you’re a non-US citizen, make sure all your immigration documents are current and valid.
  4. At the very least, get a pre-approval for the loan amount that you want to borrow. Getting pre-approved is the next step to being pre-qualified, which is only an estimate of how much you can borrow based on information you gave to the lender. A pre-approval involves completing an official mortgage application and in some cases paying a fee (usually to pay for the credit check). With a pre-approval, you will get a letter detailing the specific mortgage amount you can borrow and the interest rate (which can be locked in). This gives you some leverage in negotiating with a seller.
  5. There’s quite a difference between a 3.75 % interest rate and a 3.70% interest rate. On a $300,000 30-year loan, that may mean a monthly payment difference of $8 but over the life of the loan, that’s a $3000 difference. So, definitely shop around, you will be surprised at the seemingly minor but important differences in the interest rates that lenders can give. For a quick and dirty mortgage calculator, Google has you covered right here. Out of the banks I looked at: Wells Fargo, HSBC, Citi, Quicken Loans and TD Bank – only TD Bank gave an online rate quote based on information you provided via online form.
  6. If you have time, getting your credit score a few points above could spell a huge difference in your interest rate. A credit score is a rating 300 to 850 (850 being excellent) and is a numeric representation of your credit history with the following associated weights:
    • Payment history: 35%
    • Amounts owed: 30%
    • Length of credit history: 15%
    • How many types of credit in use: 10%
    • Account inquiries: 10%
  7. There are a few things that you can do to help with the score: pay off all the balances on the cards you currently own. Apply for 1 or 2 new credit cards, purchase a few things on them and pay off the full balance. This will help increase your credit rating by a few points. In order to keep track of your credit score, use sites like Creditkarma.com to keep track of your score. If you don’t want any surprises about your credit history, request your credit history for free (you are entitled to 1 free report/year) from the 3 major credit reporting companies: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. You can request your credit report on each of the sites or you can also visit Annualcreditreport.com to request reports from all three companies.
  8. Be aware of bank fees that may not be readily apparent during the mortgage application process. Fees can be any of the following: credit report check; appraisal fee (read above for the loan process); origination fee (similar to a commission-based payment and is an upfront fee charged by the lender for processing the loan; varies from lender to lender); title services fee, government recording charges, etc. There are more costs during closing such as the homeowner’s insurance, escrow account setup but I found the origination fee to be something that can be negotiated. As for the homeowner’s insurance, it’s also up to the borrower to shop around so that’s something else that you can actively participate in.
  9. This might seem really, really obvious now but check with the closing agent, mortgage lender and/or your realtor on what to bring during the closing. On the day that we closed, we were also moving out of our apartment so these kinds of details got lost in the frenzy. I had my IDs, my phone and a checkbook but got a call from the closing agent that we needed to wire transfer the closing funds instead of writing a check. Thankfully, our bank was 5 minutes from their office so that did not become an issue.
  10. Finally, buying a house is a major financial decision. We have been moving a lot so I got into house-hunting with the idea of renting. After several discussions and lots of research, we decided that now would be a good time to buy. What really convinced me is seeing the numbers laid out over the course of the 30-year loan. Despite the numbers being speculative (house value increases, rent alternative costs, rent increases based on Zillow), these are still very useful to consider. All credit goes to my amazing husband who came up with the Excel spreadsheet. You can download the mortgage loan worksheet (with sample numbers) here (automatic Excel download) or access it via Google Sheets here.

Smartphone apps to organize your life

Lifestyle, Technology

My first smartphone was the 1st generation iPhone in 2007. Back then, it was just a really cool and beautiful machine that you can use sometimes to browse the web or look up an address via Google maps. Everything was so slow probably because mobile network providers couldn’t really handle the load yet. Apps were still a new concept and app makers came and went so that an app that you liked one day could lose support the next.

Fast forward to today and this is what you get:

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 12.43.02 PM

With all that noise, we sometimes end up downloading apps that we use once or never. Over time, here are the apps that continually occupy my home screen and that I have found the most useful. I use an Android phone these days, the Nexus 6, so functionalities for Google’s suite of apps might be a little ornery on iOS and other mobile OS. But the rest of the apps I’ve outlined here should work just as beautifully and maybe even better on iOS since most of them were developed first for iOS. I hope these apps help you as much as they have helped me over the years. Remember, your smartphone is more than just for calling, it’s your mini-computer. Now, put that awesome and expensive device to work.

  1. Google apps
    • Gmail.This is a no-brainer. Even if you have an iPhone with a Mail app and use GMail extensively, nothing parses through Gmail better than the Gmail app itself. I don’t even have the Mail apps activated in my Macbook Pro and iPad. The last time I used the Mail app on my Macbook was in 2009.
    • Maps. Again, there’s not much to say except that Maps is a game-changer. I don’t mind driving but I really don’t like knowing where to go or how long it will take for me to get there. The longevity of Maps means that you have the best data available (for traffic, new routes, public transit/walking/biking directions). Plus, Maps now has data on major shopping centers and airports as well. Back when I used to have the iPhone, I refused to update my iOS (when Apple replaced Google Maps with its own Maps app) until I was sure that Google Maps was available for the iPhone.
    • Calendar. If you have an Android with the latest OS (Lollipop in this case), Calendar’s integration with other Google apps is amazing. If you received some sort of invitation via Gmail, Calendar automatically adds it as an event with all the details: location, time, date, phone number of organizer. On the day of the appointment (if the event has a location in it), it will appear as a Google Now card which tells you what time to leave for the appointment based on your current location. From what I can understand, a similar feature exists on the iPhone but you have to manually turn the settings on. Here’s a guide on how to do that.
    • Drive. This is probably not well understood by most people because of Google’s iterations over the years. Used to be simply called Docs, it became Drive. Within Drive, files can be opened/edited in 2 apps: Sheets (for spreadsheets) and Docs (similar to Word documents). But you don’t even have to think about that. Opening a file within Drive automatically opens it in those respective apps. If Sheets/Docs are not installed, Drive will simply ask you to install them. I used Drive for any document that I want to share and co-edit. If push comes to shove and I want some fancy formatting, then I simply do the final edits on Word or Excel but I hardly do that. I’ve submitted plenty of my MBA assignments formatted in Docs or Sheets.
    • Translate. If you’re planning to travel to a country where you don’t know the language, this is a must-have. For more on my thoughts about Translate, I talked about it and some of its new features here.
    • Wallet. I know, I know, Apple Pay is the bomb. But for Android users, Google Wallet has been around much longer and it does get handy (at least for online retailers where it’s accepted). I hope that Google’s latest moves of partnering with wireless carriers and acquiring of mobile payments systems Softcard will lead to Wallet’s widespread adoption. For now though, I use Wallet to keep track of my loyalty cards. You know those loyalty cards that you either clutter your wallet with or your key ring? Input or scan the barcode into the app and you can just use your phone to scan it at the store. Wallet can also keep track of gift cards via barcodes as well. For an alternative (before this Wallet feature), I’ve used the Cardstar app over the years as well.
    • Hangouts. There’s a lot of complaints about the replacement of the Voice app with Hangouts but I really can’t complain. I’ve moved 5 times in the past 5 years to different cities/countries. I’ve used numerous SIM cards/phone numbers but my friends/family only has one number to contact me by, which is my Google Voice number. No matter where I am in the world, I can forward phone calls to Hangouts and receive them. For US or Canada-based callers, the call stays free. The road has not been completely smooth on my phone because some network providers block Google from bypassing the default Phone dialer. For example, I want to use my Google voice number to call internationally which bills my Google account (at competitive rates) but my T-Mobile won’t allow it. With the release of Hangouts dialer though, I can now make those international phone calls using my Google Voice account. I would also mainly use the app for messaging but internationally, WhatsApp is still the leader.
    • Google Plus. G+ might be a joke for some people but it is my main photo storage provider. All my photos are automatically backed up in Google+. Only photos over 2048×2048 pixels and videos longer than 15 minutes count toward my free storage limit of 15GB. Any pictures/videos than these have unlimited storage in G+. When I’m ready, I can easily share them with families and friends via G+ or by sending a private link. As with any photo sharing feature, you can tweak the settings of each photo/album if you wan to make sure that photos/albums can or can’t be re-shared. Furthermore, G+ AutoAwesome automatically enhances some pictures or even transform series of photos into GIFs. Another great feature is “Stories” which automatically sifts through a series of photos, picks the best ones and give you travelogues that you can share or just keep.
  2. Flipboard. I’ve tried to look for alternative reading apps that curate the news for me but so far, this is the one that I keep going back to. It’s simply well-built and beautiful to boot. If you like to follow current events in any field (world news, tech, fashion, etc.), this app delivers in a beautiful format.
  3. Mint by Intuit. Other companies have tried and are trying to topple Mint’s dominance in personal finance but you can’t beat Mint’s integration with other products – most importantly Intuit’s TurboTax. Over the years, Mint has proven its worth – easy to navigate, easily integrated with banks/credit cards, great support.
  4. CamScanner. If you’re like me and don’t own a scanner but find yourself needing to scan something every once in a while all the time, then this app is for you. Via the app, you take a picture of the document, and the app transforms the picture into a PDF or JPG file that you can easily share via mail, upload to any cloud storage app on your phone or even over Bluetooth. On the iPhone, sharing options might be limited to Mail, iCloud and Bluetooth but on the Android, you can send it via messaging apps (doc link only), email, and any storage app you’ve installed on the phone.
  5. Trello. I’ve used other to-do-list apps such as Asana, but have since switched to Trello for its simplicity. You can organize to-dos based on timeline such as: To do this month, this week or Doing today. You can also organize it based on the person responsible if you’re sharing the lists with other people.
  6. Baby Connect. As a new mom, I needed a way to track my daughter’s sleep and feeding times. Even for parents, this may not be something that you will find useful. In fact, my doctor once told me to stop tracking the times and instead pay attention to visual cues from my daughter. Still, I find it fun to have all these data because I’ve learned to predict whether my daughter will be more or less resistant to naps based on the number of her sleep hours from previous days. You can also track milestones (first steps, first smile, etc.) which can also be exciting to do.
  7. SeatGuru. When I first traveled with my daughter, especially on airlines where we didn’t have any status, I wanted to avoid the most uncomfortable seats. I also needed to know where the bassinets can be attached or if they’re available at all. SeatGuru helped me figure this out because airline websites are not always reliable/transparent on seat information. Browsing seating maps also show specific notes for certain seats. Example: “Seat 17F (Economy, Standard, AC Power, Seatback, TV). Seat 17F is a standard Economy seat, however, this seat has extra space around it due to the blocking out of the middle seat… the armrests are still immovable which some may find uncomfortable.”
  8. Uber. You can use the same payment information in different countries, be able to track your driver, know the wait times and pay less compared to taxis. Enough said.
  9. Life360. I used to have Google Latitude to track my husband’s location or allow my husband to track mine. And no, it wasn’t that we wanted to control each other’s movements but every once in a while when I had to pick him up or vice versa, then we knew exactly where to go instead of getting frustrated with trying to describe a place (especially when traveling). Unfortunately, the app was retired in 2013 and I had to find a replacement. Life360 is a great alternative and can be shared with the whole family – especially useful for a growing family like mine.
  10. If this, then that (IFTT). To be honest, I have yet to set this up on my phone because it will require some planning on exactly how I want my activities to be organized. Furthermore, I find Google’s default actions (see Google apps above) to be more than sufficient for my needs. IFFT sets up of corresponding responses to certain actions. An example: if I post a photo on Instagram, upload that photo on a specific file on my Dropbox. If you’re very prolific and a power-power user, then IFFT can be very useful. IFFT users come up with different recipes all the time so you also don’t need to come up with your own recipes if you don’t feel like it.