Ten Years Later

On my last business post about the upcoming BPM conferences where I will be speaking, I accidentally typed “2001” instead of “2011” for the title. As I fixed up that little goof, it had me think about the past 10 years. 10 years ago, I was finishing off my last few weeks as an evangelist for FileNet, having given my notice at the beginning of August, and I ended it with a customer trip east just before the Labour Day weekend, swinging back through Toronto to see friends before my last few days at work in southern California. September 6th, I was out of there, putting all my belongings into storage, packing the necessities into the tiny trunk of my S2000, and heading north with the top down. Destination: Vancouver, by way of everyone who I knew on the west coast for a grand tour/extended farewell party, (Canadian) Thanksgiving with my bro in Vancouver, then off to New Zealand and Australia for a couple of weeks walkabout before deciding on what was next.

FileNet had been part of my mid-life crisis. Working for my own companies (one product, one services) for 13 years before joining FileNet in 2000, I had just shut down my 40-person services company and decided to take some time off. FileNet execs had a different idea, and convinced me to relocate from Toronto to Costa Mesa and create my own position there. I picked “Director of eBusiness Evangelism” as my title, worked directly for the president, and travelling to 14 countries in 16 months. I loved the job, the people and the travel, but poisonous corporate politics eventually wore me down, and I decided to call it a learning experience and move on. Hence the road trip, to meet up with all the great west coast FileNeters who I had worked with, then off to Australia to see the gang down there.

Five days later, things changed. I was in Lake Tahoe when the planes hit the towers, and heard about it when  a friend called me that morning from Sacramento, where we were supposed to meet that evening. “Turn on your TV”, he said. “I’m in a cabin in the woods, I don’t have one”, I replied. So he described the events of 9/11 to me, the towers having already fallen, before I headed for the main lodge where I spent the day watching the news coverage and trying to get word of NYC-based friends and colleagues.

With life seemingly frozen in time, I decided there was no better time to take a real break, like I should have done back in 2000 instead of joining FileNet: I spent a month driving up the coast to Vancouver, a leisurely 10 days there, then a trip to New Zealand and Australia that ended up lasting three months (after my host down there pointed out that I didn’t have a job, so didn’t really need to go back after three weeks as originally planned).

January 2002, I finally ended up back in Toronto, the city that owns my heart, picked up some consulting and did my third incorporation to form Kemsley Design. That turned into more implementation consulting work, business blogging, conference presentations and industry analyst cred, and I’ve been doing the one-person consulting gig ever since. I sometimes think that I have one last startup left in me, but really like the lifestyle of the independent consultant.

Kemsley Design hasn’t quite reached the 10-year mark, but it started with that decision 10 years ago to get out of a corporate culture that was bad for me. Happy anniversary to my decision to get back to doing the work that I love.

Zero History

I’m really enjoying reading William Gibson’s latest, Zero History, which includes such lovely bits of writing as this:

He looked down at the screen, the glowing map. Saw it as a window into the city’s underlying fabric, as though he held something from which a rectangular chip of London’s surface had been pried, revealing a substrate of bright code. But really, wasn’t the opposite true, the city the code that underlay the map?

Porter Airlines: Great Flying Experience, Crappy Website. Does This Matter?

My message to Porter today sums it up:

Your site has sent me 85 flight reminder messages so far about my flight tomorrow, starting at 7am today and continuing approximately one every 2-3 minutes. Please fix this.

There are a few other problems with your site:

  • Online checkin required two attempts, with no apparent cause for the failure.
  • I was unable to book my last two flights online in spite of repeated attempts in two different browsers. Eventually, I gave up and called an agent but this is not my preference.
  • This comment form that I’m filling out right now doesn’t prefill with my contact information in spite of the fact that I’m logged in. Also, on Chrome, it only allows 3 characters in the comment field (when I tweeted about this, several friends replied that "wtf" fits in that space).

As a long-time software engineer and heavy user of many consumer websites, I have to say that I’m sorely disappointed in the quality of your site — you need to hire a serious QA person to test this stuff out before you start inflicting it on the rest of us. As much as I love flying Porter, the online experience is enough to put me off. It might not drive me back to Air Canada (yet), but it certainly is not making me happy.

I tweeted to them about the problems, but I don’t think that they have anyone monitoring their tweets or comment emails on weekends, and I don’t expect to get an answer back for a few days. Even then, it is unlikely to be satisfactory, based on my last exchange with them about their website, which went most along the lines of them telling me that I was obviously doing something wrong. In the meantime, I’ve set up an email filter that removes the messages from Porter as they arrive.

I fly Porter on the routes that it covers because it’s a great in-person experience:

  • They almost always have a 20% off promotion available, which undercuts Air Canada fares.
  • The airport is 2km from my home, which means that I can actually walk there, or take a $8 cab ride instead of the $55 required to get to Pearson airport.
  • I get to take the shortest ferry ride in the world to get there, which earned me the “I’m on a boat” FourSquare badge.
  • I am only required to be at the airport 45 minutes before my flight.
  • The lounge, available to all passengers, has free coffee, tea, soft drinks, cookies and wifi, as well as comfy chairs.
  • I love the smaller propeller planes since it actually feels like flying.
  • They fly to Midway rather than O’Hare.
  • The flights that I’ve taken so far have a good on-time record.
  • If I’m at the airport early enough to catch the previous flight, they’ll change it for free if there’s room on the flight rather than trying to shake me down for extra cash (are you listening, Air Canada?).

The only downside is that they don’t have US customs and immigration pre-clearance in Toronto, meaning that I end up in the international arrivals area at the destination airport where there is rarely a NEXUS kiosk and often a lineup. Not a problem for early morning arrivals, but from late morning on, I’ve sometimes ended up stuck in a crowd of arriving European travelers.

The good news: the flight reminders seem to be holding at 85 for now.

Living the Mobile Life

This morning after I left the house, I checked the real-time streetcar tracking to see when the next car was coming by the end of my street, looked over a presentation that I’m working on, checked which subway car to board so that I would exit near the escalator at my destination, read a chapter of a book, checked in at my hairdresser’s, then told you all about it.

Thanks for this mobile productivity goes to the following iPhone apps: NextBus (actually a mobile site, not an app), DropBox, TTC Exit Guide, Kindle, FourSquare and WordPress.

Some of this might seem trivial, but these things enhance my life and make me more productive. Knowing when the next streetcar will really arrive tells me whether I need to take a taxi to avoid being late. Accessing active project documents allows me to some work done even thought I’m in the middle of a haircut. Knowing which subway car to board can save me battling through crowds on the platform, only to end up at the wrong exit. Even reading a book is business in this case: ironically, it’s “Empowered”, all about allowing people to use their own tools and methods for getting things done better.

In case you were wondering, the ringer is off: I take calls and read email on my schedule, not just because my device tell me to. Use your mobile device to work the way that you want to, not to turn you into a phone and email slave.

Agnes of God, Live in Toronto

My long-time friend Pat Anderson is performing in a local production of Agnes of God over the next two weeks: August 14, 15, 21 and 22 at No One Writes to the Colonel, a bar/cafe at College and Bathurst. Pat recited a few of her lines as Mother Superior to me at dinner last weekend, and I’m really looking forward to this.

Agnes Of God

You can find all the details here, including how to reserve tickets. At $20 per ticket, it’s a deal if you’re in the mood for a bit of culture. Also, it’s a great neighbourhood to dine on Portuguese churrasqueira and Italian gelato before or after the show.

Fresh Restaurant Becomes Nutritional Nanny

I really like Fresh, a small restaurant chain in Toronto that grew out of a juice bar and now has three thriving vegetarian food locations. We used to eat in there a lot – the rice bowls are really seriously good, and the pancakes at weekend brunch are amazing – but the noise levels seem to have crept up in the past few years so we tend to do more take-out. Living quite close to the Spadina location, I often pop in there at lunch to pick up one of their prepared salads or sandwiches. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the crispy tempeh on the salad was salty; in fact, so salty that I couldn’t eat it. I started poking around for nutritional information on their website, and found that they don’t have any, which was surprising for a company where, for the founder “learning about the numerous medicinal and nutritional benefits of many fruits and vegetables brought an almost evangelical desire to share this with as many people as possible”. Apparently, however, she only wanted to share the benefits, not the actual information.

I wrote to the info email address on the website, asking if they publish the nutritional content, and received the answer that they don’t publish that information, and were just writing a statement about why that is. I checked back on the site today, and here it is:

At Fresh, we have chosen not to have nutritional breakdowns for our food and juice menus. Here’s why:

We believe that for the last few decades, food industry marketers, nutritional scientists and journalists have confused us about what to eat. Knowledge that used to be passed down from one generation to the next has been taken over by a money-making agenda put forth by people looking to profit from the confusion. We are taking a stand against this and want to follow a philosophy closer to what Michael Pollan talks about in his book “In Defense of Food”. His mantra is deceptively simple.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Meaning: Eat real food-real ingredients that haven’t been processed beyond recognition. Don’t stuff yourself. Be mostly vegetarian.

Nutritionism started in the 70s, and is basically the science of breaking down food into its various components. For instance, rather than saying “Oranges are good for you”, nutritionism would say “Oranges have vitamin C, fibre and calcium. These elements are good for you”. Nutritionism suggests that food is simply the sum of its parts and that the effects of individual nutrients can be scientifically measured, and that eating requires ever changing expert advice. One day it’s saturated fat that is bad, next day it’s carbs, then it’s trans fats…what’s next?

I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it for me. For a restaurant chain to basically say that they don’t need to publish nutritional data because everything there is good, when they serve foods that are high in sodium and fat, is total nonsense. I want the data, not a patronizing statement that implies that Fresh knows more about my nutritional needs than I do. I responded:

I read the new section on your website but have a pretty serious problem with it because it implies that I’m not smart enough to handle data such as how much of any particular nutrient is in my meal. I like to know what I eat, in particular, I want the calories, fat, carbs, protein and sodium content so that I can manage my overall food consumption. Sorry, but I just don’t trust you — or any other restaurant — to pick the right choices for me since you have no idea what my specific needs are. I already eat mostly vegetarian, and not too much, as Michael Pollan advises, but I notice that my overall health suffers if I consume too much sodium, or if my protein-carb-fat balance is too much out of whack. That means that I track those things, and unfortunately, if I can’t track what I eat at Fresh, I’ll be eating there much less often.

You need to trust your patrons to make their own choices, not try to make those choices for them. Most people will never go to the website and look for nutritional information; for those of us who do, we really want that information, not a patronizing statement about what you believe rather than the nutritional facts.

If we’re going to get out of the dysfunctional eating mess that we’re in today, everyone needs to become more aware of what they’re eating. For some people, they just want a feel-good nutritional nanny statement like the pap that Fresh already serves up. But for some of us, that means that we want nutritional breakdowns including protein, carbs, fat and sodium. Bring it on, please.

Another Toronto Farmers’ Market Map

I found this map on the Toronto Farmers’ Market Network site today; it combines the calendar and map information into one by using different coloured pushpins for different days, and having the market hours in the popup if you click on the pushpin. Nice work!

View Toronto Farmers Markets 2010 in a larger map

It covers a slightly different list of markets than the map and calendar that I published earlier this week (and I actually like the calendar view since I can overlay it on my own Google calendar with a single click), but it’s a great consolidated view.

When And Where Are All Those Toronto Farmers’ Markets?

Thanks for all the great feedback on the St. Andrew’s market update yesterday: we’re all sad that it’s not happening this year, but hopeful for next year.

In the meantime, I started to mark my calendar with the other markets close to me, realized that it was too much info for my private calendar so ended up creating a public calendar of all of the Toronto farmers’ markets from the Farmers’ Markets Ontario site:

You can add this to your Google calendar using the button at the bottom right of the calendar so that you see it overlaid with your own calendar, or go to it directly so that you can bookmark it. Click on each item in the calendar for details, or switch to Agenda view using the button at the top right to see them in a date-ordered list.

Since someone had created nice Google map locations for each of the markets, I also pulled those together into a single map so that you can see what’s close to you:

View Toronto Markets in a larger map

You can zoom and pan directly on this map, or click on the link at the bottom of the map to open it directly so that you can bookmark it.

If I’ve missed any, let me know by adding a comment to this entry. I did not validate that the FMO entries were correct, I just used them as printed on their site; until today, they still had the St. Andrew’s market listed as active for 2010 and there may be other errors.

Alas, St. Andrew’s MyMarket Is No More (For Now)

Last year, we (the local volunteer committee) worked with the MyMarket organization, the farmers and the City of Toronto to help bring you the Historic St. Andrew’s MyMarket. I blogged a number of times about the market, including this last update in March following the planning meeting that was held with MyMarket, the farmers and volunteers from all of the markets. At the time of that meeting, I noted that the feedback wasn’t promising: we only had two farmers willing to commit to our market for this year, and the stringent rules of the MyMarket program meant that we couldn’t include other vendors unless they passed the MyMarket “certified Ontario farmer” program.

In early May – when we should have been planning for the opening day – MyMarket informed us that not enough vendors were interested in participating in our market this year. We looked into the possibility of organizing an independent market to replace it, possibly with the few vendors who did want to participate plus those that we could approach on our own, but it wasn’t possible to get everything in order for a market this year: there were issues of negotiating with the city for use of the space, licensing and insurance, managing the market on a weekly basis, and organizing the farmers and other vendors. As unpaid volunteers with no government mandate behind us, it just wasn’t possible.

We haven’t given up, however: 2012 will mark the 175th anniversary of the original St. Andrew’s market, and we are working at resurrecting a market in 2011 that will be sufficiently successful to carry us over into 2012 and the years to come. That could mean getting the city involved to run the market, or some local fund-raising to cover the costs of rent, licensing, insurance and a market manager.

Hyper-local markets like St. Andrew’s are the only access that many city-dwellers have to farm-fresh produce: nearly 100% of our shoppers arrived on foot (or bicycle), and a large percentage don’t even own cars, which makes a trip to more distant farmers’ markets unlikely. We have a few other farmers markets downtown; although none are close enough that I’ll be walking home with a load of fruits and vegetables, they’re worth checking out. The closest three are weekday markets in non-residential areas, targeted at workers on their lunch hour rather than full-on weekly shoppers:

  • Closest to St. Andrew’s, at just over 1km, is Metro Hall. Thursdays, 8am-2pm.
  • A close second is Nathan Phillips Square, 1.5km. Wednesdays, 8am-2:30pm.
  • Closest MyMarket (certified Ontario farmers), at 2km, is Sick Kids. Tuesdays, 9am-2pm.

The next two closest markets are on evenings or weekends, and in residential areas, although each are 2km or more from St. Andrew’s and its dense residential surroundings:

  • Closest evening market, at 2km, is Trinity Bellwoods (the park is closer, but the market is in the northwest corner of the park at Dundas and Shaw). Tuesdays, 3-7pm.
  • Closest weekend market, at 2.4km, is Liberty Village. Sundays, 9am-2pm.

Stay tuned in the coming months for more information on our plans for St. Andrew’s Market in 2011.

Special for Earth Hour: Solar PV at Tower Power Toronto

Tonight at 8:30pm we’ll celebrate Earth Hour, when we all turn out the lights for an hour. Although mostly symbolic, this should actually translate to reduced power consumption; in Ontario, you can track this on the IESO Earth Hour site which will show a graph of actual consumption against that of a typical Saturday night.

Being green is a trendy thing to do, but some people have been doing it long before it became fashionable: the members of Tower Power Toronto, for example, who focus on energy savings for multi-unit buildings such as condos and co-ops. I attended a meeting of the Tower Power group earlier this year to hear all about solar photovoltaic (that is, solar panels that make electricity directly rather than heating water) and some of the recent government initiatives to make this a reality for small condo buildings like mine. We met at the Windward Co-op, where they have already undertaken a number of green initiatives such as thermal solar (solar hot water heating as a pre-heat for domestic hot water) that has reduced their hot water costs by 40%.

My other half is an electrical engineer, and when I told him that I was attending a meeting about solar PV, he pooh-poohed it as inefficient and expensive, costing more per kWh than we could save. He’s right about that: the high cost (and relative inefficiency) of solar PV panels makes it infeasible for generating power for our building directly. Furthermore, even if we felt that it was a good thing to do, the condo reserve fund cannot be used for solar PV projects, meaning that we would have to create a special assessment such that the owners would pay the costs directly. In a building like ours, where the resale timeframe is fairly short, that just wouldn’t fly.

This is where the government incentives come in: the provincial government would really like us to start greening up, in part to reduce the load on current electricity infrastructure, increase the resiliency of the power grid, help phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2014, and reduce the cost of having to buy electricity from other provinces or states during time of peak loads. If you take a look at the ISEO website, which shows Ontario electricity demand and the price paid for external electricity during peaks, you’ll see that prices for buying electricity from outside the province can be as high as $1.50/kWh. This also has a social value as well as an economic value by promoting micro-generation and green thinking.

To that effect, the Ontario Power Authority started the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program whereby you can sell up to 10kW of electricity that you generate (e.g., using solar PV) back to your local power authority (in our case, Toronto Hydro) for $0.802 per kWh on a 20-year contract. Given the current cost of installing solar PV, and the fact that the panels are expected to have nearly zero maintenance costs during the 20-year period, the panels pay for themselves in about 13 years: in other words, that provides seven years of electricity revenue free and clear after the panels are paid off. Current domestic electricity costs in Ontario are around $0.012 per kWh, so OPA is willing to pay you over six times the current price of electricity in order to subsidize your solar PV installation, since they will eventually save the cost of having to build new power generating facilities.

As mentioned previously, condo reserve funds can’t be used to fund solar PV installations, so there needs to be some other form of financing. Alternatives include:

  • Work on getting the condo laws changed so that reserve funds can be used for projects like this. Our local MPP, Rosario Marchese, is working on this, but this could take some time and may never occur.
  • Sell debentures to raise the money for the initial costs, then use the electricity revenue to pay off the debenture with interest. Residents of the building may choose to buy debentures, or anyone who is looking for an investment with a decent interest rate. The risk is that electricity revenues are not sufficient to cover the debenture costs, or that unexpected maintenance costs reduce revenues.
  • Use PV venture, venture firms that specialize in solar PV installations. They effectively own the solar PV system, installing the panels and taking the electricity, then pay a percentage of the monthly revenue to the building on which the panels are placed.
  • Non-profit organizations (including co-ops, but not condos) can take advantage of 0% loans available from the city of Toronto’s Sustainable Energy Funds including the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which I heard about at a green energy panel that Olivia Chow hosted last year.
  • Live Green Toronto (another city initiative) has some limited grant funding for education and feasibility studies; condos are not eligible but could partner with a not-for-profit.

For buildings within the city of Toronto, you’d be selling power to Toronto Hydro, but the contract would be with the Ontario Power Authority, who are backing the FIT and microFIT programs. OurPower, part of the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative can perform assessments on a building to estimate the feasibility and costs: there needs to be a place with good sun exposure (usually the roof) to mount the panels, a method for connecting the panels to the electrical room, an inverter to convert the DC electricity generated by the panels to AC, and a metered connection from the inverter to the power grid. That means that you’d have two meters: one for inbound electricity at the usual market rate (e.g., $0.013/kWh), and one for the outbound electricity that you generate at $0.802/kWh. Ideally, installation would be coordinated with the building roof replacement schedule; otherwise, you’d have to remove and remount the panels during any roof repairs. In addition to the panels, costs include cabling to the electrical room, any modifications required to the roof membrane, insurance, and maintenance (considering a 20-year replacement cycle for the panels, but more frequently for the inverter). Solar PV panels are usually stationary; although panels that move to track the sun generate more electricity, they also have higher maintenance costs due to the moving parts. In order to qualify for the FIT/microFIT program, 50% of the equipment must be manufactured in Ontario, but that can include the framing, inverters and labour costs in addition to the panels. There are some local solar PV manufacturers, including Photowatt and SolGate, making it possible to put together a solution that pumps some money back into the local economy as well as providing green benefits.

How much energy could we really generate with this? Well, our building probably has 200-300 square metres of roof space that could be used; using the estimate of 1 square metre generating 150W in peak sun for a total of about 1kWh/day, that means 200-300 kWh/day, or $160-240/day in electricity revenue. I’m not sure if that 1kWh/day/square metre is an average over the year, or the value for a sunny summer day; assuming that that amount could be generated 1/3 of the time, that’s still $19.5k-29k per year in electricity revenue. As for costs, using a provided estimate of $10k/kW; I’m taking a leap in logic and assuming that’s equivalent to 1000/150 = 6.7 square metres of solar panel, which would be a cost of $300k-450k for the initial installation. That gives an ROI of just over 15 years; assume that my estimate of electricity generated is conservative, I can see how this works out to an average 13-year ROI.

At the end of the 20-year contract to deliver electricity to Toronto Hydro, you’d be in a position to renegotiate a contract with them to continue to provide power, or switch to providing power directly to your own building if then-current price of electricity makes that a better deal.

When you talk about residential solar power, many people think of thermal solar, but there are some fundamental differences:

Solar Photovoltaic Thermal Solar
Photovoltaic panels generate electricity directly from sunlight Water in pipes warmed by sun used as a pre-heat for domestic hot water (hot tap water or central building heat)
Generates revenue by creating electricity to sell back to Toronto Hydro Generates savings by reducing gas consumption for domestic hot water system
Panels connected by cabling to building electrical system Panels connected by (water) piping to building hot water system
All electricity sold to grid, hence no wasted capacity Hot water used only by building and can’t be shared
Peak capacity during summer when demands on power grid are at maximum Peak capacity during summer may be wasted if more hot water is generated than building requires
ROI can be calculated before project start ROI is based on actual gas costs over life of project

It used to be the case that thermal solar was the only economically feasible alternative for residential buildings; however, the FIT/microFIT program brings the cost-benefit calculations for thermal versus PV much closer together.

If you’re in Toronto and interested in learning more, come out to a Tower Power Toronto meeting. OurPower hosts a wiki page for Tower Power Toronto; it’s sadly out of date, since it shows the next meeting as the January meeting, but it contains contact information and I may take it on myself to update the page when I receive notice of the next meeting.

I’ll leave you with a video of Rob Hopkins from last year’s TED conference, on transitioning to a world without oil: