Can shomi solve Canada’s video streaming problem?

When I drove past a billboard earlier this week that promised me a new universe of streaming media, I nearly pulled over to the side of the road so that I could try it. Right. Now. Was this the day I’d been waiting for? The day when I’d finally experience the joy of unlimited TV, packaged in a decent online interface?

This reaction won’t make a lot of sense to my American friends, who live in a competitive paradise of free and low-cost options for on-demand TV and movies.  Up here, north of the 49th parallel, we still mostly have to carve our TV shows frame-by-fame onto hunks of ice, which we then push into the ocean until they’re floating fast enough to approximate a really cold flipbook version of Grey’s Anatomy.

You see, the hassle of sorting out IP rights for the handful of people who live up here just doesn’t make the effort worthwhile. So while we finally have Netflix and iTunes, they both offer fewer titles than their American counterparts. And the joys of Hulu, Amazon streaming and US broadcaster apps (like NBC’s iPad app) aren’t available at all, unless you use a proxy server that convinces the interwebs that you’re actually in America.

Thus my excitement about shomi: a made-in-Canada streaming service that I’d hope would replace my homebrewed version of on-demand TV. Something about the all-lowercase brand name and the ultra-minimalist billboard just gave me the sense that somewhere in the shomi HQ lurked a techno-hipster with dreams of user experience greatness.

And user experience has long been the primary driver behind my approach to media consumption on this side of the border.  Thanks to Plex,  the application we use to organize, view and stream our media files on our awesome home media server, we have a media system that addresses virtually everything that drives me crazy about the user experience offered by a PVR.

You mean that just because I taped in upstairs, I can’t watch it downstairs? (Yes, I know, there are devices that can now solve this problem….but Plex solved it for me five years ago!) You mean that just because I didn’t remember to tape it, I can’t watch it?  You mean that even if I don’t know which Canadian network carries the show my American friends are talking about it, I can still watch it? You mean that anytime I want to watch something, I have to look at your butt-ugly interface, which may or may not offer me a teaser of the episode, doesn’t play the show’s theme music while I’m scanning for the latest episode (gosh, I do love that about Plex) and can’t hold every single episode of every TV show I’ve ever watched, just in case the world ends and I need to trade TV shows for food?

These are the user experience problems our home media server solves. But that solution comes at a price: while I do love my Plex-based home media setup, I’m feeling increasingly worn down by the maintenance.  If I’m not working around the prolonged outage on our favorite torrenting service, I’m troubleshooting the disappearance of subtitles from Borgen; if I’m not fixing the mysterious sound problems on the computer hooked up to our bedroom TV, I’m re-installing our proxy software so I can watch the latest season of Amazon’s Alpha House.  No wonder we’re only one episode into the latest season of Homeland: for the past couple of months, I’ve spent an hour on video troubleshooting for every hour I spend actually watching TV.

Along with the maintenance burden, our home media server poses another problem: guilt. I know Shonda Rhimes and Joss Whedon are  probably doing OK, but my religious torrenting of all their shows doesn’t count for much when they’re trying to convince a broadcast exec to greenlight their plan for a new program in which an army of time-traveling African-American lady clones use their scientific know-how and seductive looks to take down an interplanetary conspiracy. We do our part to keep Shonda and Joss in business by paying for a premium cable package, even though we watch virtually all our TV shows on our DIY server; I feel better about choosing my own media consumption interface when I know we’re paying for almost all of that content through our cable bill. But I’m not sure Shonda and Joss would agree.

Shomi suggested it might solve my guilt and maintenance issues without sacrificing user experience. After all, it offers streaming, on-demand content, available via web, mobile device or even (getting crazy here) our cable box. And my first browse through the interface looked promising: I like the ability to tell shomi what kinds of programs I enjoy, the option to customize for different family members, the snappy search functionality and the jitter-free streaming. And I love the fact that their terms of service link is labeled “The Lawyers Made Us Do It”.

shomiThere’s only one tiny problem: it turns out user experience isn’t just about the interface. It’s also about the content. And here, as with so many other Canadian services, shomi falls way short. No Grey’s Anatomy. No Good Wife. No How to Get Away with Murder. No Nashville, no Flash, no Mindy Project, no Brooklyn Nine-Nine, no Mythbusters.  Yes, it’s got Scandal, The Americans, Modern Family and Homeland — but only older seasons, not the current one. And we haven’t even gotten to our weird niche commitments: Sherlock, Borgen, Covert Affairs or Episodes.

I don’t blame shomi for these shortcomings: they’re no more limited than any other Canadian viewing option, and I suspect some of the shows on our must list aren’t even broadcast in Canada. But that’s the joy of living in the Internet era: if you’re willing to put up with a little bit of maintenance, and a little bit of guilt, your media habits no longer have to be limited by your national borders. In a world in which the good good media goodness of American media is just a proxy server away, a successful media service needs to be more than just a pretty interface.

 

Is this an ice cream? A 2×2

It has recently come to my attention that many people seem to be unable to recognize whether their preferred frozen dessert is ice cream. At last! A modern dilemma I can actually solve, thanks to this handy 2×2:

Is it ice cream?

Butterfat content

10 to 20%

Less than 10%

Ice cream flavors (chocolate, vanilla, salted caramel, cookies and cream) Yes, this is ice cream. Enjoy! You may be eating gelato, which is ok, as long as you know it isn’t ice cream.
Flavors that aren’t ice cream flavors, or maybe not even food flavors (lavender, bone marrow & bourbon cherries — no, I am not making this up) Artisanal yuppie pseudo-food. Be honest, you would be way happier with a nice scoop of chocolate peanut butter swirl. I am worried you are eating some kind of vegan coconut thing, which is fine, but don’t delude yourself: that is not ice cream. Go eat a piece of fruit — and no, you can’t call that ice cream, either.

Yelpless: What kinds of reviews get squelched by Yelp?

Gorgeous Georgia's Yelp listingI’m an ardent (some might say pathological) Yelp user, and since I am incapable of putting anything in my mouth without first validating its viability on Yelp, I try to contribute back to the community by sharing my own perspectives and information, particularly on the all-important subject of artisanal ice cream.

But today I got censored on Yelp for the first time. Last summer, during our family vacation in the Okanagan, I posted this review of Gorgeous Georgia’s Homemade Ice Cream Truck:

Attention: this is not actually ice cream. I somehow missed that when reading the online descriptions. It’s ALL nondairy, coconut-based frozen ice creamesque product. Couldn’t persuade the kids to try it, so I haven’t actually had a real try myself.

Here’s what Yelp says about why they removed it:

We wanted to let you know that we’ve removed your review of Gorgeous Georgia’s Homemade Ice-Cream. Our Support team has determined that it falls outside our Content Guidelines (http://www.yelp.ca/guidelines) because it lacks a firsthand customer experience.

The content guidelines describe “personal experience” as follows:

Personal experience: We want to hear about your firsthand consumer experience, not what you heard from your co-worker or significant other. Try to tell your own story without resorting to broad generalizations and conclusory allegations.

I understand the importance of focusing on reviews that offer personal experience, and I imagine that most of the time, that constitutes direct experience from someone who purchased the product. But I was sharing a personal experience — the personal experience of discovering that, despite the name of the food truck and its place in the “ice cream and yogurt” category, this isn’t actually ice cream. That seems like useful and relevant information for anyone thinking of visiting the food truck, and is certainly information I would have wanted to know beforehand as a Yelp user.

This strikes me as an interesting example of the dilemma social networks face when they depend on advertising rather than subscription revenue (or better yet, a mix of the two). I’d gladly pay as much as $50/year for Yelp, in addition to the effort I put into creating Yelp content, in order to have a site that offers comprehensive information about the businesses and restaurants I may want to patronize. But of course, as an advertiser-supported business, Yelp is in a bind: it depends on retailers not just as content but as sponsors. My assumption, in a case like this, is that the deletion was precipitated by a complaint from Gorgeous Georgia — but of course, I’d love to hear from Yelp or Gorgeous to find out if that hunch is correct.

UPDATE: Gorgeous Georgia tells me via Twitter that the deletion request didn’t come from them, so I’m following up with Yelp. My favorite working theory comes from this comment on my Facebook thread, suggesting I angered a vegan…which we all know is very, very dangerous.

What’s your take? Is this kind of review a useful contribution of “personal experience”, or do you prefer to hear from people who’ve actually made purchases?

How 17 essential travel apps can improve your next vacation

Whether you’re packing your bags for a summer trip to Europe or packing the car for a summer road tip with the kids, you may be tempted to define your vacation by what you’re not packing: your computer, tablet or mobile phone. As more and more of us struggle with the invisible electronic leash that keeps us tied to our (virtual) desks, it can feel like the only way to get free is to cut ourselves off from technology altogether.  More than one friend has excitedly told me that they’re taking their holiday out of cell range — so that it can be a real holiday.

I’m not beyond spending the occasional day off the grid — in fact, our own summer vacation plan includes a couple of days at a retreat centre with no cell coverage or wifi. But I’ve also found that my favourite devices and apps can make every stage of a family vacation more enjoyable — before, during and afterward.

Here is how we use some of our favourite apps to enhance our vacations — and our ability to remember them!

Organizing Your Trip

  1. Evernote: I create an Evernote notebook for each and every vacation we take, and use Evernote’s web clipper to compile lists of accommodation options, recommended restaurants and suggested activities. I share this personal guidebook with my husband, and we each save it as an offline notebook in Evernote on both our phones and iPads, so we always have access to our trip notes and ideas — even when we don’t have cell service.
  2. Airbnb: Inspired by the recent experience of immersing myself in the sharing economy for the report I co-authored with Jeremiah Owyang, I finally put our own home on Airbnb. The rental fees are not only subsidizing the cost of our long-planned summer vacation (part of which we’ll be spending at an Airbnb rental in another city) — they’re also allowing us to take more weekend trips. We’ve made our house available for most weekends this summer, and whenever we get a booking, we use the money to take a weekend trip…or to improve our collection of camping gear.
  3. Google Maps: Whether we’re trying to decide on which town to visit or which house to rent, Rob fires up Google Maps and uses street view to check out the neighbourhood. It’s a great way to get a feel for whether a particular community or location is going to suit us.
  4. RoadTrippers: My new favourite travel site is the beta version of a new-and-improved RoadTrippers, which lets you plan an itinerary much more easily and powerfully than you can do in Google Maps. Unlike Google Maps, which just gives you the total travel time for your entire trip, RoadTrippers shows you the drive distance and time for each segment….and then makes it easy to delete, rearrange or add stops if you want to adjust your timing (crucial if you have kids who get rangy after a few hours in the car). Cooler still, it can suggest everything from restaurants and campsites to scenic drives and attractions — all of them calibrated to your specific interests and the number of miles you’re prepared to deviate from your route. You can add points of interest to multiple “bucket lists” (I’m building separate lists for kid-friendly attractions, campsites and swimming spots) and then view them on your map at any time. And of course, you can sync to your phone using the RoadTrippers app.
  5. Craigslist/Ridejoy: The last time we were planning a big road trip (Vancouver to San Francisco), our desire to drive less and relax more led me to the idea of a one-way trip: while we hated the idea of driving for 16 straight hours with the kids, we knew they’d love an overnight train trip that allowed them to roam between cars. And taking a faster way back would allow us the time for a more leisurely drive down. The only problem: one-way car rentals are expensive, as are services that move your car between cities (yes, they exist). Our solution: posting to Ridejoy, a ride sharing service that included a lot of people looking for a lift from San Francisco to Seattle. When we were contacted by a responsible-sounding woman who shared a common point of contact (the service identifies any mutual Facebook friends), we arranged for her to drive our car up to Seattle while we took the train with our kids. She got the ride she was looking for, and we got our car back to Seattle for the cost of the gas.
  6. TripAdvisor: When we’re evaluating potential hotels, TripAdvisor is usually part of the process — but not based on the star ratings alone. I try to look at a range of reviews and get a sense of how people describe the positives and negatives of each option; that lets me figure out whether a given hotel’s drawbacks are going to matter to us.
  7. OpenTable: Travel is stressful enough without the additional drama of being hungry! The hungrier I get, the crankier I become…and the less willing I am to eat at some place that might represent a “waste” of this on-the-road culinary opportunity. Making advance reservations with OpenTable ensures I never get to that OMG I MUST EAT BUT I CAN’T FIND A TABLE state. I try to make reservations on the later side, as a fallback position in case we don’t find something we want to do on the spur of the moment.
  8. TripIt: I’ve written quite a bit about using TripIt for business travel in the context of Work Smarter with LinkedIn, but it’s also a fabulous way to create and share your itinerary while on vacation. Just forward all your random travel confirmations to TripIt, and their magic itinerary parser will chew through your confirmations and provide you with a nicely-formatted itinerary that provides direct links to things like airline seat recommendations and airline check-in. If you connect it to OpenTable, your OpenTable reservations will show up automatically, too. Again, there is a nice iPhone app that lets you see your itinerary from your phone.
  9. Hotwire, Expedia and HotelTonight: I keep a bunch of different hotel search engine apps on my phone so that I can search for last-minute deals when we’re taking a spontaneous overnight trip. These are the three that have impressed me the most in terms of both functionality and pricing. We got a great hotel deal on our last weekend trip with an Expedia rate that was mobile-only.

    Enjoying your trip

    Once you’re on vacation, the name of the game is play. Here are some of the apps that keep us (or our kids) amused while we’re traveling:

  10. Plex: I lavish attention on our home media center setup as if it were our third child. And when we go on the road for vacation, that effort continues to pay off. Thanks to the MyPlex service, which connects to the Plex media server we have at home, we can watch any show or movie on our hard drive from anywhere we have Internet access — even the car. Which is why we also have the rule: no streaming video over 3G when we’re outside the country.
  11. Audible: Our kids love listening to audiobooks, and Audible makes it easy to build and manage a collection. When we’re traveling, we make a point of downloading audiobooks related to our destination. (Sadly, during our recent trip to Hawaii, Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes lost out to the Beacon Street Girls’ Ready! Set! Hawaii!
  12. Location-specific apps: When we hit the road, I hit the App Store and browse all the apps related to our destination. We’ve had our trips enhanced by apps like Exit Strategy (tells you which part of the NYC subway platform as possible if you want to be as close as possible to the exit at your destination station) and Paris Pastry (where to eat carbs in the city of light). Before you leave home, search the name of your destination(s) in the app store for your mobile device to find the apps that might make your holiday that much tastier.
  13. Carcassonne: The iPad version of this excellent board game is our family’s go-to activity when we’re waiting for food in a restaurant. It moves quickly even with multiple players, it’s interactive (i.e. you will actually converse with your fellow players) and it allows for reasonably even play among players of different ages and skill levels.
  14. Scrabble: Look, you’re either a Scrabble person or you’re not. But if you are a Scrabble person, let me just point out that the pace of a competitive Scrabble game is singularly well-adapted to a poolside vacation with kids. While you take your turn, your partner watches the kids. When you finish your turn, you watch the kids while your partner tries to avoid crushing defeat at the hands of your 7-letter, 87-point burst of genius.

    Remembering your trip
  15. Yelp: If you like using Yelp to get the low-down on the restaurants, shops and experiences you may want to enjoy on vacation, you know that all those handy and amusing reviews have to come from somewhere. If you’re already using Yelp to find and bookmark potential watering holes and activities, you’re just one step away from compiling a travel journal that not only helps you remember your vacation, but helps other people plan theirs. Whenever I hear from someone who’s contemplating a West Coast road trip, for example, I point them to the exhaustive Yelp list I compiled when we drove from Vancouver to San Francisco. It’s fun for me to revisit, and even more satisfying for me to share.
  16. Facebook: When we’re on the road, I like sharing photo highlights with friends — as well as the Yelp reviews I write every day or two while traveling. Setting up a more limited Facebook list, which includes only the people who might actually want to hear about our road trip, allows me to share our travel news with a handful of friends and family….without boring and annoying all my other friends and colleagues. I get the added benefit of a one-stop overview of our trip, since both photos and Yelp reviews get archived to my Facebook timeline as long as I leave Yelp connected to Facebook.
  17. Aperture: Creating a photo book from all your vacation photos is a great way to create a memento of an exceptional vacation. You can do that using iPhoto, Shutterfly or many other photo book services, but I like using Apple’s Aperture to build my photo books, because it gives me more control over layout and formatting. I include some text reflections on our trip, and leave (carefully measured!!) blank spaces to glue in the ticket stubs, brochures and postcards we collected along the way.

What apps do you use on vacation? Let me know on Twitter, or in the comment field below.

More jobs of the future: essential staff for your tech lifestyle

A while ago I blogged a list of anticipated jobs of the future: new categories of employment that will be necessitated by our increasingly plugged-in lives. It’s time to add a few to the list:

Update concierge: 2 laptops + 2 home computers + 1 ipad + 1 iphone + 2 ipod touches = 5,842,102 software updates per week. (I’m sure that’s what it would come out to if I actually stopped to count.) And since those software updates are linked to a bunch of different online accounts and serial numbers, and inevitably run into a different set of obstacles on each machine (“This version of TimeWaster is not compatible with Mac OS 10.7.1.2.b”) it is pretty much a full-time job to notice which updates are available, and then actually download and run them. A full-time job, but God willing, not MY full-time job.

Charging butler: Take the wattage for any device charger, divide it by the number of prongs or pins in its charging cable, and multiply that number by .6: you’ll have the number of minutes of human effort required to keep that device charged.  Based on this math, I calculate that for every 4 devices you own that are powered by a rechargeable battery, you will require two full-time equivalent employees to ensure they are charged when you need them.

Cord wrangler: If someone had told me how many cables I would have to keep track of in order to enjoy the fruits of this here Information Revolution, I would have given serious consideration to sticking with wax tablets. I can pretty much guarantee that whatever cable I have in my purse (and there are usually about 7 of them), it will inevitably be too short, too tangled or too mangled for whatever I need it for — and that is if it is even the right type of cable in the first place. That is why I look forward to hiring a full-time cord wrangler — ideally someone with really extreme piercings that they use to wrap my various cables directly onto their person.

Returner-in-chief: In our household, this has been the Year of Amazon. The combination of a US mailbox, an Amazon Prime account and a couple of iPads (to keep the kids busy during the 45-minute drive to the border) has finally opened our eyes and wallets to the convenience of shopping online. So this would also have been the Year of Amazon Returns — if I were organized enough to actually ship back my failed purchases. That’s why I need a Returner-in-Chief, a role that would pay for itself in Amazon savings.

Conversation bird: As more and more of us yield to our compulsion to check email or play Angry Birds during every vacant moment, we gradually lose our capacity for coping with the boredom of waiting….driving us to spend even more time on screen, and further eroding our capacity for life offline in general. The obvious solution is to short-circuit the choice between boredom vs. screen time by creating the modern equivalent of court jesters: professional conversation partners who exist to provide an amusing, live alternative to angry birds. Coming soon to a line-up near you!

Human keychain: You know those dystopian movies where a future society grows brainless human clones to use as organ donors? They got it backwards. What I actually need is a Brain-In-A-Jar-On-A-Keychain, which I can fully dedicate to remembering all my passwords, so that my primary brain is available to write War and Peace: The Sequel and come up iwth the cure for cancer. But until the BIAJOAK comes along, I will settle for a full-time human staffer who does nothing except remember and enter my passwords. And I will pay her really well, ’cause she will have the power to seriously fuck up my life.

Do any of these jobs of the future sound like a great fit for your skill set, interests or lack of motivation? Please contact me to apply today. In keeping with the Payroll of the Future, the pay is terrible.

Of shoes and men

I have a dear friend who used to say that a woman should always have three men in her life: the one currently in her heart, a second recently dispatched, and a third waiting in the wings.

I now have a  comparable philosophy about shoes. Every woman should have one pair that are reliably perfect, a second pair that she’s just breaking in, and a third pair that she is actively seeking online and in stores.

7 ways to enhance your vacations with Facebook

This post is part of a series of thank-you notes to the social media services that made our family vacation possible!

Dear Facebook,

I know that we’re together so much that sometimes it feels like I take you for granted, and I don’t tell you how much it means to have you in my life. But our recent holiday together really helped get the spark back, and reminded me of what makes you so special.

Without you, Facebook, I wouldn’t have discovered the beautiful Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, where we camped for two glorious nights, thanks to a tip from the beloved Jessi. I found it because I posted a question on my wall:

My request for advice on where to camp with kids in Northern California

And that Facebook post is what also led us to the Andiron Inn near Mendocino. Because, you know, when you ask for camping suggestions, what you are really expecting is:

Madeline's comment suggests her inn, the Andiron

I’ll confess: we booked our visit in the spirit of “isn’t it cool that someone we know owns an inn?” But it turned out that it wasn’t just a fine place to stay…it was a totally relaxing, delightful, beautiful, immaculate, fun and inspiring experience. The suite we stayed in was a tribute to Madeline’s mum and dad’s WWI romance, decorated with their love letters and other mementos of the time. It was all I could do to keep from unboxing my ancestral papers the second we got home!

See, this is the kind of serendipity you make possible, dear Facebook.

Here are some of the other ways you made this the best vacation ever:

  1. Road trip triage. When we realized we didn’t have enough time to see both the coastal redwoods and Yosemite, we asked our Facebook peeps to help us decide. The overwhelming consensus in favour of the redwoods made our decision easy!
  2. The BlababoothWe visited a couple of touristy spots that had the traditional photo booth — with a twist. The strip of photos it printed out included a code that let us share our photo strip on Facebook, and watch a YouTube video capturing the quarreling that went on while getting everyone to pose. Super fun!
  3. Need-specific activity planning. I asked friends for their picks of the best things to do with kids in San Francisco. Their answers helped me get beyond the universal touristy recommendations, and find the kinds of activities we knew our kids would like.
  4. Audience-specific travelogue. We kept our friends and family amused with our endlessly delightful kid photos and stories (they were endlessly delightful, right?) that are visible only to a small circle. We shared reviews of our favourite stops by cross-posting from Yelp, visible to anyone. And we shared selected snaps with our whole circle of friends — enough to be charming, not enough to be tedious.
  5. Arrange special opportunities. One of our kids wanted to visit a relatively inaccessible destination as part of our trip. I asked our Facebook friends for help — and got an introduction that made a very memorable visit possible.
  6. Create a trip timeline. Even if you’re not diligent about reviewing stops or uploading photos the second you write or take them, posting them to your Facebook timeline gives you the option to edit the date. That allowed me to turn my Facebook timeline into a chronologically-accurate record of our trip, which I know my great-great-grandchildren will appreciate and treasure when they figure out how to scan a Facebook server with their nanobot implants.
  7. Pay it forward. One of the friends following our travelogue was planning a similar trip herself. Once she started asking questions about my posts, I made a point of addressing her likely travel needs — like finding gluten-free food — in my reviews. ‘Cause I’m that kind of Facebook friend.

Ironically, dear Facebook, there was one more way your presence was felt throughout our vacation: by the apparently endless stream of criticism targeted at your IPO. And I know that kind of thing can really leave a social network feeling down in the dumps.

But that’s why I wanted to thank you for what you did for us — not your shareholders, but your grateful users. We still know what makes you special.

Take a one-way road trip with Ridejoy

Dear Ridejoy,

Thank you for allowing us to undertake a 2,000-mile road trip with two young kids at a relaxing pace.

When we first decided to road trip to San Francisco as our family vacation, we thought we’d visit the coastal redwoods and Yosemite on the way down, and take the interstate on the way back. Then we realized that doing that much driving with two young kids — even kids equipped with iPads — would take all 16 days of our vacation, and leave us virtually no time to explore or to stay in San Francisco itself.

TIP: Use Ridejoy or Craigslist to find a driver who can bring your car home the next time you want to take a one-way road trip.

We trimmed our itinerary aggressively, consulting our Facebook friends on the relative merits of Yosemite and California coast in July. (The consensus was all in favour of coast.) But even that route would take at least 4 days — and would be possible only if we did long stretches of driving each day, leaving us little chance to actually explore. The only way to have more time on the coast would be to trim the time we spent in San Francisco — but it seemed like a very long drive to undertake for just a few days in the city.

Out of curiosity, I looked into the possibility of Amtrak. The famous Coast Starlight route, running from L.A. to Seattle, could get us back from San Francisco to Vancouver in just about 24 hours. (Unlike Mum and Dad, Amtrak doesn’t have to stop just because the kids need to pee or run around.) Taking Amtrak back would allow us much more time for the drive down, because we’d only need one (fun!) day for the return trip, instead of three or four (hellish) driving days.

There was just one problem: how would we get our car back to Vancouver?

The obvious answer was to book a rental car for a one-way trip to the Bay area, and then leave the car there. But a one-way, 14-day minivan rental would cost at least $1,000.

In the course of looking for one-way car rentals, I came across the phenomenon of “drive away” services, which could provide a driver to take our car back to Seattle while we took Amtrak. Cost: $500.

I decided to check for independent drive-away offers on Craigslist. Mixed in with the “ride wanted” and “ride offered” ads on Craigslist, I saw the occasional request for one-way drivers. And appended to one ad, I saw the intriguing line, “contact me on Ridejoy”.

That’s how I discovered Ridejoy, a ride-sharing site that matches drivers and riders in 790 cities across North America. Ridejoy cross-posts to Craigslist, so you still get the benefit of Craigslist’s rideshare board, but you get a much better search and matching tool.

Here’s how it works: you post the dates (or date range) when you want to travel, and the start and end points. If you are a driver, Rideshare can match you with riders who are looking for rides along all or part of your itinerary (so if you’re traveling from San Francisco to Seattle, it can suggest riders who are traveling from Oakland to Portland). If you’re a rider, it suggests potential drivers. Drivers can specify how much they want passengers to contribute to travel costs, and both riders and drivers can specify their ride preferences or perks they are offering (like AAA membership or wifi tethering).

I used Ridejoy to post an ad asking for someone to drive our minivan back to Seattle while we took the train. I noticed that Ridejoy’s would-be passengers ranged from advance planners (“I’m a teacher taking a bicycle trip up the coast in 2 months, need to get a lift back down to the Bay”) to relaxed itinerants (“been in the Bay a while, feel like it’s time to move on, looking for a ride heading somewhere in Washington in the next few days”). Since we were planning to hand over our car full of possessions, we wanted to find one of the advance planners, who we thought would likely be older, more experienced drivers.

Our ridejoy adI posted our ad on June 12, looking for a driver for the weekend of August 4. Within a couple of days, I had heard from several people, including a couple of “advanced planners”. One of these had put Ridejoy’s Facebook integration to good use: she had noticed that we had a Facebook friend in common — someone we both knew from our nonprofit work. That made me feel a lot more comfortable about the idea of handing over our car.

I looked up E. on Google and LinkedIn and confirmed that yes, she was a responsible adult with a regular job — not a permanent traveler with no fixed address. I made a phone date to talk with her about driving our car from the Bay up to Seattle, and to discuss potential timing. She sounded very responsible, and happily sent me a reference (her boss) and a copy of her driver’s license.

I checked with our insurance company (ICBC) to make sure that that our insurance would cover an American driving our car in the US; no problem, as long as it was legal in the US. I checked with US border services — it was fine with them. (Note that the reverse is not true: it’s illegal for a Canadian to drive a US-plated car in Canada, a measure that prevents Canadians from buying cars more cheaply in the US.) Then, just to be on the safe side, I increased our liability coverage to $5 million, something our insurance broker recommended for anyone driving in the US (even us!) because it’s more litigious and accidents can lead to much higher claims.

We agreed to a driving schedule in which E. would leave the Bay area the morning of August 4th; we were scheduled to take the Amtrak train that night. Since E. was driving without kids, she figured she could easily drive up to Seattle in 2 days (it’s a 15-hour drive, roughly.) We paid for the gas so that E. wouldn’t need to find additional passengers; we were more comfortable handing our car over to one person, rather than a group of people, as long as she felt comfortable doing that much driving.

I met E. at her office the day before she was scheduled to start driving, so that we could make eye contact and ensure we both felt comfortable with the arrangement. She turned out to be a totally lovely person who reminded me of a lot of our friends — someone I had no worries about giving our car to. I showed her the car’s various quirks and we went for a short drive so she could get a sense of the vehicle. Since she’s used to driving a (smaller) Honda, our Honda minivan felt very familiar to her and easy to drive.

That night, we packed up our minivan with all the luggage and detritus of our trip, except for a couple of bags we needed for our last day in the Bay and our night on the train; we also packed an extra night’s worth of clothes in case E. was delayed or some other hitch kept us from re-uniting with the car on schedule. The next morning, I drove to E.’s house in our car, and picked her up with her baggage. She dropped me back at our hotel, and headed on our way.

We had planned to rent a car for our last day in the city, but it turned out that the car rental offices near the Amtrak station weren’t open after 1 pm on Saturdays, so there was no way to drive to the train and leave a rental car there. So we went carless for the day, and some kind friends took us to the station that night.

We had kept the train trip a secret from the kids, partly because we didn’t want to disappoint them if it turned out E. couldn’t do the drive, and partly because we thought it would make a fun surprise and a great finale for our vacation. I was intrigued that our kids didn’t ask about how we were getting back from our time in the Bay; perhaps they assumed they had another long drive ahead of them. They did ask some questions about where the car was on Saturday (we told them it was getting a pre-departure tune-up) but were amazingly uninquisitive when our friends dropped us at the train station at 9 pm on a Saturday night. After all, there were vending machines! and the job of getting change so that they could buy Skittles was much more interesting than wondering where we were.

Eventually, our daughter stopped to ask what we were doing. We encouraged her to look around, and she noticed we were in a train station. Her eyes widened: “Are we taking a train home?” Yes, indeed, we told her — complete with sleeper car. She burst into tears of joy. Her brother was somewhat less excited, mainly because he was almost asleep.

Our trip home was a wonderful 24 hours of exploring the train, enjoying the scenery and eating a virtually non-stop series of meals and snacks. Thanks to the sleeping compartment, we got a decent night’s sleep, which left us ready for the late-night drive home to Vancouver. While our train was a little late to depart, we made up time en route, and we kept in touch with E. via text message and cel phone. When we got to Seattle, she was waiting at the station with our car!

We got back in our minivan at 9 pm on Sunday night, and were back in Vancouver by midnight. The trip that had taken us eight leisurely days on the way down took us only 24 hours on the way back. Thanks to Ridejoy’s help in matching us with a responsible, efficient driver, we were able to organize our vacation around a slow-paced drive down the coast, stopping two nights in each spot along the way, while still enjoying a full week in the Bay area.

Ridejoy has opened up a whole new horizon for family vacations. Now that we know it’s possible to do a one-way drive, I can see us organizing future vacations throughout Western Canada and the U.S., or even across the continent.

Thanks, E., for helping us enjoy the best road trip ever. And thank you Ridejoy, for making it possible!

ShoeCamp: An (imaginary) unconference for the footwear-obsessed

The wonderful Madeline Stanionis left a comment on one of (several) shoe-related Facebook posts I wrote yesterday, suggesting we get together to talk only about shoes sometime. This suggests a wonderful possibility for an unconference:

ShoeCamp: The footwear unconference

With events and tracks on:

  • Online shoe shopping: Sites, search engines and search hacks
  • Traveling with shoes: the essential packing list for any length of trip
  • New frontiers in shoe design
  • Shoe blogging
  • Best styles and sources for large-size shoes
  • Best styles and sources for small-size shoes
  • Heels: when is it worth the suffering? How high is too high? How do you mitigate the short- and long-term impacts?
  • Best shoe styles for orthotic wearers
  • Coping with asymmetric feet
  • Shoe fetishes and foot fetishes
  • Pedicure wisdom: the best colours and embellishments for your open-toed footwear
  • Sandals and socks/tights: Great trend or crime against footwear?
  • Shoe storage and display solutions
  • The great shoe swap: Bring the beloved pairs that don’t work for you but could work for someone else
  • Shoe walk: A visit to the best shoe stores in the city

More suggestions for unconference events are very welcome. Campers, you are the most obvious sponsors for an event named ShoeCamp, but Zappos, we’re open to offers.

The Genzlingerizer: An app to enhance offline reading (and an IFTTT workaround)

This morning I read a travel story about cruising the Mississippi via steamboat. It’s the kind of piece I often flip through in the Sunday Times, reading just the first paragraph or two so that I know what the story is roughly about, and then moving on. But in this case, I caught myself eight paragraphs in, fully engrossed, and absolutely delighted with the way the story was written. Who was behind this fab piece?

The answer, of course, was Neil Genzlinger. Genzlinger is a long-time New York Times critic who covers everything from movies to board games. But his byline first entered my consciousness last October, while reading his review of the kids’ TV show Pajaminals:

Ignore for the moment the somewhat disturbing fact that four puppets whose DNA clearly comes from four different animals are calling the same entity “Mom.” Focus instead on Apollo’s words: “Blankie will be safe with Mom.”

Let me here address the toddlers in the readership directly. Children, I can tell you from personal experience that this is a cruel, soul-destroying lie. Blankie will not necessarily be safe with Mom. Sometimes Mom will unilaterally decide that blankie has become too ratty and stained — how can she not understand that the rattiness and the stains are what make it a good blankie? — and will throw it out while you are asleep or at school. Or, worse, she will cut it up and turn the pieces into rags. Just pause and picture that for a minute: your most precious possession, now being used to scrub bathroom mold or clean out the cat’s litter box. Sweet dreams, kid.

Your attempts to complain about this and demand justice will be swatted aside with callous adult indifference. It will be your first realization that life is full of pain and utterly beyond your control. You will grow up cynical and devoid of hope, unable to love or be loved. On your deathbed, you will utter a single dying word: “blankie.” But on the bright side, the movie later made about your life by a precocious young director will be considered the greatest film of all time.

I was so startled to find this charming digression hidden inside a TV review that Genzlinger lodged in my mind. Sure enough, there have been at least half a dozen more occasions where I’ve gotten deep into a Times piece, hit a delightful passage, and realized it’s another of his.

But that’s just the problem: my encounters with Genzlinger’s writing are the product of serendipity rather than devotion. Oh sure, if I spot his byline, I read the story.  The way I read the paper, however — working my way through whatever section springs to hand in the 14 minutes I have to read while eating breakfast — I miss far more of his stories than I read.

TIP: Tweet your latest creations
Anyone who is an author or content creator should consider setting up a dedicated Twitter feed that includes only the links to his or her latest post. (Arguably, this is something I should do myself). That way, fans can follow that “latest” feed to ensure they don’t miss any of your stories. If I were following a bunch of people who did that, I’d create a Twitter list called “Latest and Greatest” consisting of the latest posts by my favourite writers and bloggers, and run it as a separate column in HootSuite.

The obvious solution, which I’ve just implemented, is to add the RSS feed for his stories to my iGoogle home page. Since iGoogle loads as my browser’s default home page, I’ll see those story headlines throughout the day. But I’ve become so used to seeing iGoogle that its headlines frequently fail to register.

Workaround number 2 is to use If This Then That. It’s a service that lets you create “recipes” that trigger specific online actions based on online triggers. Since I reliably read any tweet that mentions me, I figure I will definitely see each of Genzlinger’s posts if I get IFTTT to tweet each post with a tweet that mentions my Twitter handle.

The trick is that this requires me to tweet from a different Twitter account, so that I can mention the Twitter account I actually monitor — @awsamuel — in those tweets, without filling up my own Twitter account with random tweets. Fortunately, I have about eight different Twitter accounts, so I can use @awsamuelgoogle, which is a Twitter account I originally set up as a way of auto-tweeting from Google Reader. (An approach that has since been deprecated by a different IFTTT recipe.) Unfortunately, you can only hook up an IFTTT to a single Twitter account, and since I’m already using IFTTT as @awsamuel, I had to set up a second IFTTT account as awsamuelgoogle so that I could hook it up to my @awsamuelgoogle account on Twitter.

Once I had the new account in place, I just created a simple IFTTT recipe that sucks in the RSS feed of Genzlinger’s latest New York Times posts, and set it to tweet out each story, appending @awsamuel and the hashtag #NGNYT to the end of each tweet:

If This Then That recipe for tweeting articles by Neil Genzlinger

That does the job, but it has a few major limitations. First of all, you have to be kind of crazy to do this — the kind of crazy that thinks nothing of creating multiple Twitter accounts and IFTTT accounts and brewing up your own recipes. Second, it’s kind of stalker-y. I deliberately used #NGNYT rather than @genzNYT because I don’t want to spam Genzlinger’s mentions stream, but even so, if I were him I’d probably be equal parts flattered and creeped out.

But the chief limitation is that this workflow doesn’t actually mirror how and when I’d like to read Genzlinger’s stories. I get daily delivery of the New York Times — no small financial commitment for a Canadian subscriber — because I love reading an actual physical newspaper. And since Genzlinger rarely writes the kind of tech stories I blog or tweet about, there is no particular value to me in reading his stuff online, (In fact, I have the opposite problem when reading the Times’ tech writers: I am constantly trying to remember to find the online version of the story I’m reading so that I can tweet about it, but almost never do remember.)

So here’s what I’d like: an IFTTT-style app that bridges from online to offline and back again. I want to set up a set of IFTTT-style rules for the publications I read in print, specifying the authors or topics that qualify as must-reads. When said publication appears at my door, I want to launch an iPhone app that tells me which pages to look at in this morning’s New York Times, this week’s New Yorker, or the latest Entertainment Weekly.

Then I want an easy way to take whatever I’m reading in print, and convert it to a set of links that are ready to share online. Ideally I’d just snap a picture of the article I’m reading, using the app in question, and it would recognize what story it is and add it to my online queue. (Dear God, please don’t use QR codes to achieve this.) The best-case scenario would be a service that lines up my already-read stories as a set of short links, bit.ly style, and gives me a one-click option for posting each link to Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr or Delicious (assuming I have authenticated with each of those services). In fact, given my penchant for reading MacWorld while on an airplane, I’d like this app to hook up directly to the iTunes and Amazon stores, so that any app review I’ve snapped is just one click away from purchase, and any device I’m drooling over can be ordered before I think twice.

All of this seems eminently monetizable: Surely the New York Times would like to serve me clickable ads along with that list of stories I want to read in today’s paper? Surely MacWorld would like to take a cut for pushing me to device purchases?

So let me officially christen this liberated idea: the Genzlingerizer, an app for identifying must-reads in your offline reading, and for getting the must-shares from your offline reading back online. If anyone cares to build it, I hope you will specify that any reviews of the app must include long and charming digressions.