A couple of years ago, I discovered my grandfather’s WWI journal, which he wrote in from the day he left home in November 1916 until the day he arrived back in May 1919. I wrote a day-by-day blog publishing his journal, which was a wonderful exercise in family history.
During his time in Europe, he took leave in Dublin a couple of times, and appears to have struck up a friendship (or maybe more) with a woman named Hannah, and referred several times while he was in Dublin to visiting Pembroke Cottages for evenings of dancing. I looked up the address entries in the back of his diary and found a page that is almost certainly Hannah’s address at the time, based on various references:
Misses K. & H. Whitston
29 Pembroke Cottages
So here’s what I have about Hannah Whitston:
- Born April 6, 1897 (probably in/near Dublin) – may have been 1896, as per census records (see comments below).
- Had a sister (probably, although could have been a cousin), first initial K.
- As of 1919, living with her sister at 29 Pembroke Cottages, Donnybrook area in Dublin.
I would love to find out more about Hannah, especially if there are any journals or letters that she may have written or received mentioning my grandfather, Frank Kemsley.
Anyone have any ideas?
This is not a post for dummies or idiots: this is for smart people who want to take control of their personal finances. I’m inspired to start a series on personal and small business productivity based on the positive response to my post on a paperless small office – I use exactly the same methods for keeping paperless personal files as well, so that’s a good place to start.
This post is about keeping your personal finances organized, not about budgeting or investing (which you can read about in a variety of other places), so covers more about the paperwork and tracking of finances.
Here’s how I keep my personal finances organized:
- I use credit or debit cards for almost all purchases. Since these transactions are downloaded and categorized (see next point), it lets me see exactly what I’m spending on what. If you’re going to do any budgeting, this is essential.
- I enter/download every financial transaction into Quicken. You can use a different package, but my point is, get it all in one place. I’ve been using Quicken for many years, and once I got over the initial chore of setting up my accounts and got into the routine of updating it frequently, it’s become my primary source for information about my finances as well as a huge timesaver when I’m doing monthly expense reports and annual tax returns. It tracks my bank accounts, credit cards, investment accounts (both taxable and retirement), lines of credit, money owing to/from my small business, and even my assets such as my condo. It’s really valuable for seeing when I need to move funds from one account to another, such as from a savings account to a brokerage account to make a new investment. One thing that I do not track is what I do with cash once I withdraw it from the bank: I just show the withdrawal transaction. I’m not that anal, and since I use credit or debit for most purchases, my cash spending is pretty minimal.
- I monitor my finances frequently, usually only spending a few minutes at a time. Once I was organized, it was really easy to just start monitoring any changes to my finances:
- I download bank and credit card transactions directly from my banking site into Quicken and check for any unusual transactions every couple of days, rather than waiting for my monthly statement. Several years ago, when I was just moving back from the US to Canada, this helped me spot a forged cheque drawn on my US bank account and uncover the underlying identity theft before it could spread, all within two days of the cheque being cashed. Recently, although this is quite rare, I found a duplicate transaction for an airport limousine service on my credit card, which I then called Visa and had reversed. If I hadn’t been tracking the transactions, and had a way to search through old transactions, I likely wouldn’t have noticed the transaction on my monthly statement since I take a lot of airport limos and occasionally misplace receipts.
- I apply meaningful categories to transactions in Quicken. Since this is my primary source of financial information, I make sure that (for example) a business expense on my personal credit card is categorized as such, so that I will catch it in my month-end expense report. Quicken is smart enough to auto-categorize transactions that it recognizes when downloading, so it knows that a charge from Fido is a business telecommunications expense, not a personal expense.
- I enter investment transactions manually (my discount brokerage doesn’t support manual downloads of these) at least once a week. If I actively make a trade, then I enter it immediately, but I use the other times to record things such as dividends and fees on my accounts. When I notice that the cash balance of any investment accounts gets above $100 from accrued dividends, I immediately reinvest it into a money market fund since my brokerage doesn’t pay interest on a cash balance, which earns me a bit of extra cash each month.
- I reconcile my investment accounts to the monthly statements. Although I regularly enter transactions, I still reconcile to the statement since it allows me to compare the number of shares/units held of an investment as of the statement date, to ensure that I didn’t miss any transactions during manual entry. I don’t do this with bank statements, since I have them set to auto-reconcile every time transactions are downloaded, which alerts me to any difference between the online and Quicken balance.
- I use automated debit for recurring payments whenever possible. This includes everything from property taxes to phone bills to my credit card, which I pay in full every month. I set these up as recurring payments in Quicken, which then reminds me when these are coming up in case I need to move funds around to cover payments. I never pay late fees or interest charges because I forgot to pay something on time.
- I track expenses as they occur, and capture the receipts. I use a spreadsheet for tracking business expenses, although there are a number of good applications out there such as Expensify. I haven’t found one that’s quite flexible enough for me, since I often have multiple currencies as well as monthly recurring expenses such as internet. If a receipt is available online (usually), I download it right away, or I scan the paper receipt. By the time I get to the end of the month, usually all I need to do is check Quicken for any business expenses that I might have missed (I have a custom report saved in Quicken to display transactions from the business expense categories), create a PDF of the expense report and attach the scanned (or downloaded) PDF receipts. For personal expenses, I only scan the paperwork if I might need it, such as for a product warranty. An example: today, I received my property tax bill in the mail. It’s already set up for pre-authorized monthly payments, so I opened Quicken and added the five recurring payments noted on the bill: they will automatically show up as a reminder in my Quicken cheque register three days before the automatic payment is made, giving me time to transfer funds if I need to. I then scanned the bill, added the resulting PDF document to my condo tax folder, and shredded the document. Total time, less than five minutes, and this was a complicated transaction because it involved recurring payments for a half-year of taxes. I also discovered by reading a bill insert that I can receive future tax bills via epost.ca, so I signed up for that: from now on, I’ll receive my tax bills electronically and won’t need to scan them.
- I use online money transfers for one-off payments whenever possible. Between this and using credit/debit, I no longer write personal cheques. I have some stashed away just in case, but typically only use them as proof of my banking information when I’m setting up for automated debits. It’s easier than writing cheques, and all the details of the transaction are right there in my bank account and downloaded to Quicken for easy tracking.
A huge part of my personal finance organization is around my use of Quicken. I also use QuickBooks for my small business, since it has better accounting features such proper double-entry accounting and a general journal, but that is completely separate from my personal finances since my company is incorporated. Transactions between myself and my company – payroll and expenses – are the same as with any employee and business, although the timing of my paycheque is a bit more sporadic. I do most of my company purchasing using my personal credit card (for the airline points) and submit an expense report each month.
As with the paperless office (and home) methods that I discussed in the previous post, this might seem a bit daunting to start. There’s really just two things to do, however: first, start changing habits to use direct debit, online payments and the other paperless (and automated) techniques; this is a one-time effort, probably spread over a couple of months as you figure out where all your transactions are occurring. Second, start using personal finance software such as Quicken by picking a point in time – like January 1st – and entering your account balances as of that date, then all new transactions from that date forward; there’s an initial effort to set this up, but then it’s just a matter of setting aside 30 minutes each week to download or enter new transactions, and reconcile accounts.
I love the internet. I really don’t understand people who say that they need to get away from the internet in order to take some time off: my time off is enriched by online access to a wide variety of services and information, and I wouldn’t want to lose that even if I am not taking the time to respond to (or even read) business-related email. For me, the key is avoiding email and phone calls, not avoiding the internet: there are too many things on the internet that I use as part of my leisure activities to turn it off altogether.
Case in point: last night, we decided to watch an hour of TV. We both like NCIS, and since we cut the cord on cable TV over three years ago, I pulled up the latest episode on the GlobalTV iPhone app (Global syndicates CBS shows for Canadian broadcast) and sent it via AirPlay to the AppleTV. That’s right, nothing but an internet connection, an iPhone and an AppleTV, and we’re watching this week’s episode of NCIS on our own TV. If I bothered to set up a US proxy for the AppleTV, I probably could have done this without the iPhone app, but this works just fine. Without the internet: not possible.
But that’s not all. I’m planning a trip to visit some friends for a few days, and will take only my Nexus Android tablet (for reading), my iPhone and my Nikon Coolpix camera – no netbook. Although it’s a short trip, I was a bit concerned about uploading the photos during the trip: when I have my netbook with me, I copy photos from the camera SD card to the netbook daily as a backup, and upload them to Dropbox if I have internet access. If I fill the memory card, I can delete photos from it since they’re backed up, and if my camera (or even my netbook) were lost or stolen, ditto. You’re probably wondering what this has to do with watching TV on the internet, but in that particular episode of NCIS, the murder victim had a wi-fi memory card in his camera that was automatically transferring photos to his tablet in the back seat of his car; the killer wiped the memory card but didn’t find the tablet. “Wi-fi memory cards? OMG FTW!” I thought (thereby missing a few minor plot points), “Where do I get one of these?”. Since my iPhone was busy serving up the TV show, I grabbed my Nexus and searched around. Eye-Fi was apparently the first to offer these, but Transcend offers higher data transfer speeds (during photographing, not the wi-fi connection) and is putting them out at a lower price. I bookmarked a couple of sites for later, and went back to NCIS. After the show, I searched around, found the Eye-Fi cards on Amazon, then found a camera shop in New York selling the Transcend cards through their eBay storefront, with shipping to Canada. I ordered the Transcend 16GB card, scheduled to arrive before I leave for my trip, and downloaded their iPhone and Android apps in preparation. Product research, comparison and purchase within an hour of discovering that a particular product type even existed: again, not feasible without the internet.
Taking full advantage of on-demand internet (rather than the internet having you on-demand) is a bit like turning off your phone ringer, and only using it when you want to: it only controls your actions if you allow it to. Turn off your push notifications, and your ringer if you like, but don’t disconnect if the internet adds value to your leisure time.
This post is cross-posted from my business blog. Because of the positive reaction over there, I’ve decided to write a few personal finance, organization and productivity posts here, based on my own experiences. Although I am not obsessive about organizing, having run my own small businesses and household for 25 years has taught me a lot about keeping things in order.
Earlier this week, I linked to the Paperless 2013 website, a vendor-sponsored initiative that encourages businesses to cut paper, ostensibly for environmental reasons. The products featured by the sponsor vendors – Google Drive, HelloFax, Manilla, HelloSign, Expensify, Xero and Fujitsu ScanSnap – can certainly assist with this, although I run a completely paperless office using only one of those (Google Drive), and that one only in a secondary role. The interesting part was a conversation that ensued with another small business owner, although she was primarily interested in going paperless with personal documents (which I have also done), which made me realize that most small businesses are a bit clueless about how to go about this in a secure and legal fashion. I’ve been involved in large-scale document scanning projects since the 1980s, and I’ve gathered a lot of ideas about how to do this on a scale suitable for organizations of any size, so I thought that I’d lay out a plan suitable for small businesses.
Keep in mind that although I run a single person business, it’s incorporated, so I have the same paperwork requirements as any other private company: invoicing, payroll, government filings, income tax and all. I also do some amount of document collaboration with other small businesses, as well as for some non-profits with which I’m involved.
Here’s how I keep paperless:
- If I receive a document in electronic form, I leave it in electronic form unless I absolutely need to print it.
- If I generate a document, I leave it in electronic form unless I need to physically sign it (such as a contract) or take it to a client meeting (since many of my clients have not embraced the paperless way). This is not just Microsoft Office documents, but any document including things such as invoices, which I generate from my accounting software (QuickBooks) directly as a PDF and email to clients: I keep a copy of the PDF invoice, but it is never in paper form in my office. Services such as Freshbooks pride themselves on offering electronic invoicing, but you don’t need to switch if you’re happy with what you have, just install a good PDF generator and send it via email.
- If something is in paper form but I can get the electronic version instead, I do. Although my bank doesn’t provide electronic bank statements for commercial accounts, many other banks and service providers do. Most of my monthly expenses receipts, including travel and telecommunications, arrive in PDF, since most airlines, hotels and car rentals will email a receipt to you if you ask. My most common question at a client site when they hand me a huge printed document or presentation is “can I get that in electronic form"?”
- As a last resort, if I receive something in paper form (or have to print it in order to sign it), I scan it and shred the paper as soon as possible. This is the crux of most document imaging projects, but in reality is a fairly minor part these days if you do most of your communication electronically and can keep paper out of the mix altogether. Yes, it’s legal (more on that below). Since my volume is very low, I use an inexpensive Epson scanner that I picked up at Costco, and the software that came with it. That’s fine for a few pages a day, but anything more than 10 pages at a time gets tedious because it doesn’t have a sheet feeder. I would highly recommend a sheet feeder if you have a backlog of paper to convert, or if you regularly receive large paper documents. For smaller receipts when I’m travelling, I snap a photo with my iPhone, back it up to the cloud, then destroy the paper document.
- I use automated backup to replicate everything offsite. This eliminates the risk of losing documents, and allows me to access documents from my netbook when I’m travelling.
- I use online backup/sync services for shared content management when I collaborate on a project with other small firms and independents. Even if I were working with people in the same office, I would use the same methods since there’s no need to own your own servers.
- I manually maintain retention policies on the electronic documents, and delete them appropriately. In Canada, that means I need to keep all corporate and tax-related documents for six years past the end of the fiscal year: I just deleted my 2006 files and shredded the paper files, since that was the last year that I kept any paper records. For any files with a retention policy, I keep them in dated folders so that I can quickly purge them without having to search through files; this means a bit of electronic reorganization at the year end, but it takes only a few minutes.
The result: I have no paper files in my office, except for a small pile in my in-tray waiting to be scanned. No filing cabinets, no boxes of documents in storage. As an added bonus, I have offsite backup, which most people with paper files don’t.
Quelling the nay-sayers:
- “I don’t like to read on a screen”. Get a bigger/better screen, or dual monitors, and a tablet for taking it with you. Cheaper in the long run.
- “It’s not secure”. Back everything up offsite, not just locally, in case of a physical disaster (fire/flood/theft). I use Jungle Disk (a division of RackSpace), which encrypts my data on the desktop, then uploads it to an encrypted Amazon S3 bucket. I hold the key, not them, so they can’t decrypt my data. My backup runs automatically, so I don’t need to do anything to make this happen.
- “It’s too hard to create electronic documents”. Get a good PDF printer/document assembly application. I use CutePDF Pro, which allows me not only to generate PDFs from any application that can print, but also to assemble multiple PDFs into a single document, rearrange pages and other functions. This is useful when I need to append a timesheet to an invoice before sending to a client, or to concatenate all of my expense receipts to attach to a monthly expense report.
- “I can find things easier in my filing system”. Easier than searching through full-text documents? I don’t think so, unless you have a really trivial number of files. Learn how to use search capabilities of your desktop environment (built into Windows, for example), install a third-party search utility, or (if your company is large enough) use a shared content management system.
- “I need to keep these paper documents for legal/regulatory reasons”. Probably not. Most government taxation bodies have long accepted digital copies (scans of paper, or original digital documentation such as an invoice received as a PDF) in place of paper – what they refer to as "electronic record keeping". You can see the Canada Revenue Agency’s take on this at http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/bsnss/tpcs/kprc/menu-eng.html, and similar policies exist for the IRS and other agencies. The Canada Labour Code has similar requirements for human resources records. You may need to research for your type of documents in your jurisdiction, but electronic record-keeping is most likely allowed.
If you’re starting from ground zero of a paper explosion, this might seem a bit daunting. Keep in mind that you can do this on a day-forward basis, since many of your old paper files can be shredded as they pass their 6th birthday: just go paperless starting today (or from the beginning of your fiscal year) and let the old paper cycle out over time. If you really love it and want to get ambitious, you can start doing some back scanning, but it may not be worth it. When I started in 2007, I was already keeping everything electronically that originated that way, but added in scanning of expense receipts (my biggest single paper volume) and government documents, which was not a big change. I still didn’t start scanning contracts for another few years, since they’re big and I don’t have a sheet feeder, but eventually went back and scanned all of the old ones just to clean out the last of the paper files.
A lot of these ideas, of course, are not limited to small business, but form the core of any ECM initiative. Things get more complex when you add in automated business processes to move those documents around between people, but the basic concepts, motivations and nay-saying are the same.
Worst Air Canada check in service ever, flying from Miami to Toronto last week. My first choice is to check in on my phone and get an electronic boarding pass, but Air Canada doesn’t do that for cross-border flights to the US (although it works fine for flights to, for example, the UK). My second choice is to go online and print my boarding pass, but the hotel didn’t have easy facilities for that. My third choice is to use an automated check in kiosk at the airport to print my boarding pass, but there weren’t any in Miami for Air Canada. My fourth and dead last choice is to check in with an Air Canada agent, even though I have gold status and can go through the fast line – it just takes longer. When you have the most inefficient check in agents in the world such as Air Canada has in Miami, it take even longer.
The two pictures above were taken at the Air Canada check in counter at Miami on November 9th at 11:42am (my flight left after 2pm so there was no danger of missing my flight). At that time, I have been waiting in line for at least 10 minutes, and had about another 10 to go. Note that there are 12 (!!) agents behind the counter: 4 at the left (one is almost hidden behind the waiting passenger), 2 just to the right of that (at the right of the leftmost picture), 4 just to the right of that, then 2 at the far right. These 12 agents were serving 3 customers in this set of photos, and taking an incredibly long time to do so. The leftmost counter, which would normally serve gold passengers, had 4 people working on one family’s check in for the entire time that I was there. The next counter, which would normally also take gold passengers, waved me off several times with a “we’re not ready yet”. The next two lines, ostensibly for non-gold passengers, would normally wave over gold passengers if they were waiting in line; they served 2 or 3 non-gold passengers but mostly put their heads together over their computers and provided no indication that they were serving customers. One person who walked over was checked in by one of the counters, another was waved off.
I really have no idea what all of these people were doing for the 20 minutes that I waited before being served. Some of them were tapping away at their computers. Others were chatting amongst themselves. None of them were providing anything approximating good customer service.
To the Air Canada check in staff who complain about cutbacks: this is why I want you to be replaced by a kiosk.
When the car2go car-sharing service appeared in Toronto, I signed up immediately. I’m already a Zipcar member, and will continue with my Zipcar membership (for now) since it’s useful for larger vehicles, but I really like the idea of a car that I can pick up in one location, drop in another, and just pay by the minute without having to predetermine the length of time that I am going to have the car. Where Zipcar is a better replacement for a regular rental car (I almost never use Budget or Avis any more), car2go replaces taxi and transit rides in a zone from Eglinton to the lake, and the South Kingsway/Jane to Victoria Park. You can take the cars outside the home area, but you can’t leave them there; within the zone, you can end your reservation and leave the car at any Green P (City of Toronto) parking lot plus a few of the Target Park lots. It costs $0.35/minute to drive, which sounds like a lot except when you consider that it’s cheaper than a taxi, and it maxes out at $12.99/hour and $65.99/day which makes it competitive with Zipcar’s weekend prices.
car2go is owned and run by Daimler, who make Smart cars, and their fleet comprises identical 2-seater Smart cars with a built-in onboard system for interacting with the car2go system as well as providing GPS capabilities. The GPS shows all of the valid parking locations, too, so when you get close to your destination you can see exactly where you can park and end your reservation. They’re also fun to drive, especially if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool standard transmission driver and tip it over to the semi-automatic mode where you can shift gears yourself (no clutch required). As a bit of a technology geek, I like how they can update the interface in the cars remotely: for example, they recently started prompting for your PIN when you got back in the car after a stopover, instead of just at the beginning of the rental, as an extra security feature. That means that they’re either pushing software updates out to each car, or the cars are constantly online and the onboard displays are purely presentation layer. I suspect it’s a bit of both, although would love to find out more about the technology that (ahem) drives a car2go.
I signed up using the promo code TDOT, which waives the $35 signup fee (valid until September 2nd); with no annual fee, there is no reason not to sign up if you currently use taxis, transit or even rental cars in the central Toronto area. If you are signing up and want to give me a bit of credit for referring, just append my name to the promo code on the form (i.e., use the promo code “TDOT sandy kemsley”) and I’ll get 15 minutes of driving credit. Thanks!
After a few weeks of driving around in car2go, tweeting about it, and getting my friends to sign up, I was invited to a VIP event last week. As part of that, I was given a block of three consecutive days of unlimited use of a car2go, which I took this past Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Since I wasn’t on the clock, I probably used it more than I would have under normal circumstances, but definitely went to some places where I would go again. Here’s the journal of my three days as a car2go VIP.
I’ve wanted to go to Wychwood Barns for the farmers market on Saturday mornings, but could never bother to TTC it up to Christie and St. Clair. In fact, it’s fitting that I would go there as my first car2go VIP drive since it was Suzanne Long, a big supporter of Wychwood, who turned me on to car2go in the first place and encouraged me to go there. I picked up my car in a lot a block from home, put my grocery buggy into the bag of the surprisingly large space behind the seats, and headed off. Getting close to where I thought it was, I saw several Green P lots appear on the GPS screen, guiding me in to a free parking spot. If I had been on a usual car2go by-the-minute trip, I could have ended my rental in any of those lots, although I would have risked having someone else grab the car before I got back to it. When I did park, I found another car2go and an AutoShare car there, so obviously others had the same idea about the Saturday market. I selected “Make a stopover” on the screen to indicate that I was keeping the car for now, took the keys with me, and headed to the market.
Great market! I made a number of purchases, from organic meat to fresh vegetables to some awesome chanterelle mushrooms. A lot of vendors there, and definitely worth the trip.
I dropped the car back at the same lot where I picked it up, and ended the rental.
In the afternoon, I enticed my other half into the car2go with the offer of a trip to Home Depot, plus a side trip to PetSmart for the “best” cat litter. We picked up a different car2go from the same lot (it’s a very popular car2go parking spot) and zipped off to Laird and Eglinton. At 6’2” and quite leggy, he found the passenger seat very roomy: there was at least a handsbreadth of space between his head and the roof, and with the seat all the way back, his knees had plenty of space. He declared it “cool”, both the rental process and the cars, and is now a car2go member too.
Plenty of room in the back for bags of cat litter, cat toys and a few electrical supplies. I pulled up in front of our condo to drop him off with the load, then I took the car back to the lot and ended the rental.
I figured that Sunday was a good day for an excursion, and we packed a beach bag in the back of our new car2go and headed for Bluffer’s Park in Scarborough. Out of downtown on the Gardiner and Lakeshore, I cruised out Kingston Road with very little traffic to compete.
I have only been to Bluffer’s Park once or twice (we west-enders tend to stay went of the DVP, if not west of Yonge), it’s a beautiful park and beach to wander around. The weather was hot and sunny, and although we didn’t end up swimming, we did have a great walk around a few of the park areas. The bluffs are quite dramatic looking, and there is an interesting set of settling ponds for the storm runoff, with some informational signs to let you know what’s happening there. Good spot for bird-watching as well as people-watching.
We had lunch at the Dogfish Pub at marina right on the water: food is okay, and the view is spectacularly peaceful. There was a lovely breeze off the lake, and we sat for quite a while enjoying watching the boats and the birds.
Our Smart car handled the steep grade down and back from the park with ease, and was great on the city streets. We had it up to speed on the Gardiner Expressway: it’s quiet and stable at highway speeds, as I had discovered a few weeks ago when I took one on a trip to Brampton.
Since we were coming in from a different direction and the traffic was heavy on Spadina, I decided to drop the car and end the rental at a different lot from where we picked it up, one that didn’t require crossing over Spadina. Although it is a small surface lot, there was another car2go already there, and the next day I noticed that the cars had moved around so they are obviously getting a lot of use.
I wasn’t expecting to use the car on my third free day because it was a bit rainy and I didn’t have any particular use for it that day, but made a last-minute decision to head to T&T Supermarket, which I rarely visit because it really requires a car: both for the distance and for the amount of interesting things that I tend to buy. I picked up Pat Anderson on my way since she lives near there, is car-less, and works from home so has a pretty flexible schedule (like me). Since I was heading east, I picked up a car on a lot across Spadina between rain showers.
Pat also declared it “cool” – she liked the design elements of the car, as well as the compact size for zipping around the city. T&T was fairly empty on a rainy Monday during the day, so we wandered the aisles, checking out the fish balls, the borscht in Chinese packaging and the huge variety of Asian foods that they carry. There was plenty of room in the back of the car for my wheeled cart and four bags of groceries. In fact, probably the only regular shopping trip that this wouldn’t work for would be a Costco run where I tend to get carried away and come home with 100-roll packages of toilet paper and the like, although maybe it would be a good lesson in restraint for me to go there in a Smart car!
I dropped the car at a different lot than where I picked it up, since it was more convenient to get to and closer to home. Again, I appreciated the flexibility to do that.
Summing it up
I used the cars a lot during the three days because I had unlimited use, but it’s helped to refine my actual use cases for them:
- Taxi replacement for one-way trips. I used car2go to drive to a client meeting near Yonge and Bloor a few weeks back: I ended up just doing it one-way since I was in a hurry, and took transit home. It was about half the cost of what a taxi would have been, although to be fair, I did have to walk a few minutes at either end of the journey. My other half, who works at Yonge & Eglinton (which is at the edge of the car2go home area) occasionally needs to go to work before the subway opens, so he’ll probably use it then instead of a much more expensive taxi.
- Trips where I’m not sure of the duration. A big down side of Zipcar (and AutoShare) is that you have to pre-specify how long you will have the car. If you’re over, you are penalized, since someone else may be waiting for that specific car at that spot. If you’re under, you still pay for the entire time. If I’m not sure of how long I’ll be, then car2go makes more sense and can end up being less expensive than Zipcar since I pay only for the time I use.
- Weekend running around, since the day rate is the same (or cheaper) than Zipcar’s and I get free parking at any Green P lot in the home area.
In addition to the website for locating cars, there are a few iPhone apps for finding cars and parking spots. Unfortunately, the car2go app is not very good, but since they’ve opened their data/API, there are a few 3rd party apps that work fine. My current fave is car2go App Lite (free) from rrooaarr interactive solutions, which shows both cars and parking lots. I find that it has a bit of trouble when you have multiple cars close to you, sometimes it only identifies the closest one, but that’s usually not an issue.
One things that’s missing, which Zipcar (and I assume some of the others) have: a damage waiver to reduce my liability in the event of damage to the car. At Zipcar, I can pay $75 for a year or some smaller amount for an individual rental to reduce my deductible to $0; that would be nice for peace of mind if I end up using car2go a lot.
As I mentioned previously, the $35 signup fee is waived until September 2nd, so sign up before then with the promo code TDOT. Use “TDOT sandy kemsley” as the promo code to get the deal and give me 15 minutes of free driving!
The real reason that I travel so much, as I confessed to my dinner companions last night, is to be able to eat my way around the world. They contributed to my journey by taking me to Room 39 in Kansas City, where there is a focus on seasonal, local food and a great wine list.
Room 39’s frequently-changing menu has a nice twist: it starts with a “featured farmer” – currently Green Dirt Farm of Weston, Missouri – including a loving description of the farmers, the farm and how Room 39 uses what the farm produces. This is followed by a list of the 10 other farms that are featured on today’s menu, before any description of the food begins: a great commitment to putting the local producers first, literally.
The chef started us with an amuse-bouche of devilled quail eggs, which has to be one the cutest things I have ever eaten, although I was struck by the idea of how fiddly it must have been to prepare them. Each was topped with a tiny sprig of dill that enhanced the devilled egg flavour without overpowering it.
Having spent sufficient time in French restaurants, I’m accustomed to seeing a cheese course at the end of the meal (either before dessert or instead of it), but here in the Midwest, dairy farms are a way of life and cheese comes first. I can live with that, especially when we start with a sample of each of the four cheeses that they have on the menu: a Montasio cow’s milk cheese from Friuli, Italy; a Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog goat cheese from Humboldt County, California; and two delightful sheep cheeses from Green Dirt Farm, the Dirt Lover and the Bossa. I fully intended to snap a photo of the cheese plate, beautifully adorned with clover flowers and honey, but we fell on it like starved animals, and I didn’t think of it until only a few scraps were left. It was awesome, with the Green Dirt cheeses very reminiscent of those that I have tasted from Fifth Town.
We all decided on the four course tasting menu, which allows you to select one each of a soup or salad, an appetizer or pasta, an entrée, and a dessert; these are smaller portions than when ordered separately, but gave a great opportunity to try out more of what the chefs had to offer. Also, at $39, a steal. They provided wine pairings with each course, some different for each of us even when we ordered the same dish, all nicely paired. I have to confess that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the wines since the food was so great, but I have tried to reconstruct what I was served based on their by-the-glass menu.
First up (for me) were local spicy greens with prosciutto, strawberries, shaved grana padano, almonds & balsamic vinaigrette. The greens were very spicy, with a bit of bitter thrown in, making a nice contrast with the sweetness of the cheese and fruit. One of the greens was raspy in texture, possibly a mustard leaf of some type, which had a bit of a weird mouth-feel. This was served with a lovely chilled rosé, but I couldn’t find one on their wine list so I have no idea what it was.
For the appetizer course, I had mussels steamed in white wine with sopressata, lemon and shallots, served with grilled ciabatta. The mussels were plump and tasty, and the broth wonderful: I absorbed as much as I could with the ciabatta, and wished that I had had a spoon since it was much too early in the dinner to be drinking directly from the bowl. The sopressata could have stood to be diced a bit finer; I found the chunks too big to match the dish, somehow, although the flavour was well-suited. This was well-paired with a white Côtes du Rhône (I always think of Côtes du Rhône as red, so this was new to me), presumably the 2010 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc that is on the wine list.
The main course was a huge decision for me: after pondering the crispy veal sweetbreads, I settled on the grilled Berkshire pork chop with Rancho Gordo good mother stallard beans, pancetta, roasted tomato, preserved lemon, sautéed local greens and hazelnut romesco. The pork was perfectly pink, although a bit fatty as tends to occur with the heritage breeds, with the wonderful taste that I have come to associate with Berkshire pork. After cheese, salad and mussels, I was happy to see that the entrée course was, as promised, a smaller version of a main. The sides were really good, especially the beans, and the roasted tomato puree on the plate was a good contrast to the sweetness of the pork. This was accompanied by the 2009 Ridge “Three Valley” Zinfandel, which struck me as an odd pairing for pork, but went really nicely with the Berkshire and its assertively-flavoured sides.
I haven’t been eating a lot of desserts lately and have lost some of my taste for sweets, making the savory cheese panna cotta (from Green Dirt sheep cheese, of course) with a black pepper tuille a good choice. However, I found the panna cotta a bit too firm and cold; both the texture and flavour would have been greatly improved from sitting at room temperature for a bit longer before serving, although since dessert orders were not taken until after the entrées were finished, that was scarcely possible. The black pepper tuille was delightful, and a nice contrast to the creamy, almost cheesecake taste of the panna cotta. I had a glass of ruby port with this, although I don’t think that it was the 2003 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Ruby Port that was on the menu due to some discussion about various things being out of stock; also served a bit too chilled.
Except for a few minor points, this was an outstanding meal, served in a lovely older building in Kansas City’s funky and historic 39th Street district. I really liked the focus on the local ingredients, especially at this time of year when nearly everything can be local if chefs make an effort. In addition to the amazing deal on the tasting menu, wines by the bottle (plus the tasting menu pairings) are half-price on Mondays. Expecting to eat nothing but barbecue while in Kansas City this week, Room 39 was a delightful surprise.
I don’t do a lot of food blogging, although I have covered some in the past, especially when we were kicking off a new (and unfortunately short-lived) farmers’ market in our neighbourhood; I’m more of a technology blogger, but most who meet me know that I enjoy fine food and wine. Sometimes a little too much.
Last night, I had the good fortune to join a much better-known group of food bloggers and photographers including my talented friend Pat Anderson at Vertical Restaurant in Toronto, for a social media dinner organized by Joanna Sable. Hosted by Vertical’s owner, Joe Alberti, and featuring the culinary creations of chef Giacomo Pasquini, it was like the world’s best Italian wedding feast: seven courses of perfection.
We started with quail and artichokes, then moved through four (!) pasta courses: lobster raviolo with an intriguing puree made from lemon pith, garganelli with rabbit and fava beans, sfoja lorda with halibut filling and the most tender calamari that I have ever eaten, and tagliatelle made with ramps (hence the green colour) and served with Berkshire pork fennel sausage and porcini mushrooms (my personal favourite of the evening). Just when we thought we were finished, we were served a beautiful piece of BC salmon with asparagus on a cauliflower puree, dotted with a few bits of black squid ink, then ended up with a deconstructed cheesecake of Montforte sheep’s milk cheese, elderberries and housemade granola.
My pictures (above), snapped with my iPhone, don’t do justice to the food; take a look at Pat’s pictures for the real deal.
They poured prosecco before dinner and two Italian red wines during dinner, 2008 Terre di Balbia Balbium Rosso and a 2010 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso; all were good, but the food was the shining star last night. I’ll definitely make another trip to Vertical when I’m in the mood for incredible Italian cooking with local ingredients.
We were sent home with a miniscule bill for the evening, and cookies. What more could you ask for?
I registered for PodCamp Toronto 2012 today, an unconference that has grown to include more than just podcasting: all varieties of social media are welcome as topics for discussion. I’ve attended in the past, really enjoyed the sessions.
Coincidentally, when I started iTunes, it downloaded an interesting podcast on 3D printers as disruptive technology, and thought it might be good to share the podcasts that I regularly download (although I don’t always get the chance to listen to all of them):
- Cory Doctorow’s craphound.com – Cory Doctorow publishes readings of his books and short stories, read by himself or others. Since he licenses all of this writing under a Creative Commons licence, others are free to record and publish his books on audio, which he republishes here. Great way to listen to his science fiction a bit at a time.
- Search Engine – Jesse Brown of TVO podcasts both audio and (short) video on a variety of technology in society issues. Always enjoyable, and some great interviews with willing and reluctant interviewees on topics of copyright and internet access in Canada.
- Spark from CBC Radio – Nora Young produces longer-form interviews on “your digital life”, that is, how technology impacts your day-to-day life. The interviews are slower-moving than those on Search Engine, but provide more depth and discussion on a subject. She also has a podcast of some (even longer) unedited interviews if you’re very interested in a particular one.
- Surprisingly Free – interviews with well-known authors, academics, researchers and others on a huge variety of topics on technology and society.
- Tech News Today – I used to listen to the Buzz Out Loud podcast because I loved the conversations between Tom Merritt and Molly Wood, but when Merritt left, I thought that the quality of commentary decreased, and I eventually stopped listening. Recently, I tried out this podcast that Tom Merritt is now doing on consumer technology, quite similar in nature to the old BOL, and I listen occasionally.
Each of the links above is to the podcast feed URL; to subscribe, just copy the link and paste into your podcatcher (iTunes, for example, or one of the apps that you can get to do this directly on your iPod/iPhone – I just bought Downcast to try it out and have already removed all podcast subscriptions out of iTunes).
Not surprisingly, all of the podcasts are technology-related, although they tend to focus on technology in society rather than the enterprise technology stuff that I do for a living.
Like most other people who I know, I latched on to the group coupon craze last year, buying coupons for things that I probably didn’t need at prices that seemed to be a good deal. I’ve slowed down considerably from my initial rush, although I still have a few coupons to use up from those heady days, and I’ve learned a huge lesson: some online group coupon sites are reputable, while others are not. One enormous issue is that the sketchier sites don’t check out their vendors very well, with the result that you might end up buying a coupon that the vendor makes it nearly impossible for you to reimburse, or tries to switch the product that you thought you bought for something else. When you have to deal with those sketchy sites’ customer service, they do everything possible to refuse the refund to which you are entitled, and sometimes are downright rude about it.
I’ve had some great experiences, where I’ve bought quality goods or services, and continue to be a customer of a business that I might never have tried otherwise. A great example of this is WineOnline.ca, who offered discounts through TeamBuy and DealFind; I used all of my coupons, and I’m now a regular customer for ordering wine by the case, delivered directly to my home by their always-friendly team. I’ve purchased other coupons through TeamBuy, too: Toronto Airport Express (which I still use occasionally), the One of a Kind show, Mankind Grooming Studio (great gift for a friend), Booster Juice (too sweet for me, but good to try it out), Smoke’s Poutinerie (yum!), Best Limousine (not as convenient as my current airport limo service) and Rock Candy Life (nice shower curtain). The only problem that I had was a failed delivery from Rock Candy Life that appears to have been a pure shipping error, and was corrected immediately with a new shipment. In other words, TeamBuy definitely falls into my “reputable” classification, since they appear to be offering goods or services from companies that are in turn reputable, hence provide an overall good experience both for buying and using coupons.
Groupon has also worked well for me, including their instant coupons via the iPhone app. I discovered a new tea shop in my neighbourhood, Herbal Infusions (great selection and nice staff), went on a ride with Toronto Helicopter Tours (highly recommended), and tried out Front Door Organics’ home delivery (didn’t work for me because of their delivery schedules, although the food was great). I also bought a Bixi membership that I plan to kick off in the spring, and will likely continue with after the first year if I’m using it enough to justify. I also have a couple of coupons to use for restaurants that I’m eager to try out.
I’ve had mixed results with Living Social: I bought a mani/pedi at Soho Spa, booked the appointment for the day before I was leaving for a Florida vacation, then had the spa call to cancel that morning – after they had marked the coupon as used. I had to contact Living Social to have the coupon reinstated, which they did immediately, so they get points for customer service but could provide better instructions to their vendors about marking coupons before they are actually used. On most sites, the customer marks the coupons as used on the site merely as a convenience, and the vendor doesn’t have the opportunity to mark them used; there’s significant room for abuse here if you don’t track your own coupons but rely on the Living Social site to do it for you. TeamSave, similarly, has “disappeared” vouchers from my account; if I hadn’t been tracking them myself, I would have lost coupons that I had already paid for. DealFind, although I had luck with them on the WineOnline and other vouchers, recently sold one for a 32GB SD card from a vendor that appears unable to process an order, and I’m having trouble even contacting the vendor to find out what it happening. I think that DealFind, like a few other deal sites, have lowered their standards considerably in the vendors that they promote, and they’re likely to see a big backlash from that.
In the “not so good” category, we have DealTicker. I’ve only bought one thing from them, and it’s been a massive fail both from a vendor product standpoint and customer service. In mid-November, I bought a coupon for touchscreen gloves – the vendor site showed some brightly-coloured striped gloves that I really liked. The coupon was not valid until November 30th; the day before, I checked the vendor website and the striped gloves were still there, but after the 30th, when I went in to place my order, they had removed all the striped ones and only have plain grey gloves left. I contacted the vendor; they replied:
A variety of colours were available, however, as an online retailer, we experience a high volume of sales (outside of group-buy deals) especially for this popular seasonal item. Our suppliers no longer carry the colours previously advertised on our site. Therefore we are not able to stock the same colours.
A pure bait-and-switch scam: sell the customer one thing, then attempt to substitute something else. I contacted DealTicker, who gave me a completely different response:
We have investigated your complaint, and have been assured that Lifestyl.info will restock any items currently sold out. As they received a great deal of response to this deal, some models inevitably ran out. As your voucher is valid for one year, there is plenty of time to allow them to restock any item that is currently sold out.
Obviously, no real communication going on between DealTicker and the vendor, in spite of what DealTicker claimed. I requested a refund; DealTicker responded that it would be processed by December 29th, almost a month later. Unhappy with this, I tweeted that DealTicker should be ashamed to sell a bogus coupon, then take almost a month to refund me for it. The following Twitter conversation, in which they stated that their really horrible customer service is “awesome” and I am “miserable”, ensued (read from the bottom up):
At the very least, whoever posts to their Twitter account should be moved to a position where they don’t interact with customers.
Also in the truly horrible category is WebPiggy, which took part in The Butchers scam. I bought two different deals from them – an airport limo company that wouldn’t even return my calls, and the Butchers – and had to have both of them refunded since I couldn’t get what I paid for. The airport limo refund came right away, along with a code for an additional discount on my next WebPiggy order, but I had to send several emails and make phone calls to the customer services director with accusations of fraud before he made the larger refund for the Butchers.
The upshot of all this is that I’m more careful about the sites that I will even consider purchasing from, and the specific deals that I will purchase. TeamBuy, Groupon and a few others are definitely on my list, while DealTicker and WebPiggy emails go straight to my spam folder. I also avoid deals from websites that appear to be pushing junky products purely through internet sales, like Lifestyl.info and xsv360.com deals that have proved quite unsatisfactory, and where the same goods can be found at a similar regular price at more reputable online retailers such as TigerDirect and Canada Computers. Instead, I now focus on deals for local businesses that I just need a bit of an excuse to try out, and of which I will potentially become a regular customer.
In my business, if I sold a service then tried to bait and switch to something else that wasn’t what the customer wanted, or was deficient/rude in my customer service, I’d be out of business. By that measure, some of the online coupon sites should definitely not be in business, and won’t be getting any of mine in the future.