Best sites of London & Cambridge Trip Report

We made a 9-day trip to England, Ireland, and Scotland during the last week of July 2008. This was our maiden trip to Europe. Tickets were purchased well ahead in February – bmi (British Midland - operated by United) provided the most economical fare at $2082.07 – round-trip for two including delivery charges through Priceline. The base round-trip ticket cost was $646.80 with taxes and fees accounting for the additional $381.76. Considering July is peak-season in London, the ticket pricing was OK.

There is no denying London is an expensive city and with the dollar having declined drastically against the pound over the previous few years, it was all the more apparent. It was difficult to find accommodation among London Hotels in our price range (under $200, preferably under $150 for a 3-star type hotel with bath attached). We did reserve a standard double room with attached bath at the YMCA Indian Student Hostel for about $135 a night including breakfast and dinner following a recommendation by one of the travel guide books – the name is a misnomer - the place is open to all. We ended up canceling our reservation though, as our close relative graciously insisted on hosting us for all the five nights we were in London. For a real hotel environment & service, the options we found were either below par or well above our price range. One that seemed reasonable was the Hotel Shaftesbury Metropolis London Hyde Park and it is blessed with a great location.

London Underground is a marvelous metro system that epitomizes public transportation at its best. The system is the world’s oldest underground metro system and lines are frequently suspended. Even with the problems, it efficiently transports multitudes of people around London. The system has a tiered pricing system within zones 1 through 9. Most of the London attractions are conveniently located in zones 1 and 2. With an Oyster card that can be purchased from any station, the maximum travel expense per day could vary between $10 and $30 per person depending on whether the travel was made during peak hours and the zones traveled in – expensive by any standards. Alternatively if the hotel is within the Central London area, the itinerary can be planned so as to not use the system all of the days – many of the attractions are within walking distance from each other.

Of the three days spent sightseeing in and around London we used the Oyster card for two days and covered the following attractions:
  1. Westminster Abbey – allow an hour at a minimum once you get to the place by getting out at Westminster using the Tube (London Underground metro system). The Abbey is not open to visitors on Sundays but the rest of the place is open for free that day. Opens at 9:30 and the entrance fee was £10 for adults, £6 for students and children under 18, free for children under 11. The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are right by Westminster Abbey, but entry into them requires advance planning. An alternative is to visit Jewel Tower across the street instead – they have a virtual tour of both the Houses of Parliament at the top floor. Admission was £2.60 for adults.
  2. No. 10 Downing Street and Trafalgar Square – located walking distance from Westminster Abbey - The official Prime Minister’s residence and London’s most famous Square are both overrated but must be experienced nevertheless. Downing Street itself is closed off by security personnel at the entrance. Crane with the crowd to catch a glimpse of 12 Downing and 10 Downing is further down.
  3. Buckingham Palace, The Mall, and St. James Park – located right by Trafalgar Square – Parts of the Palace are accessible to the public for an eight week period starting in August, for other times the options are to walk around outside the palace/mall and partake in the famous Changing of the Guards scheduled for 11:30 AM. To experience the entire ceremony from the vantage point, it is recommended to be at the square across by 10:30 AM, otherwise it gets cordoned off. There is also the Horse Guard Ceremony which is less crowded. From Buckingham Palace, strolling through St. James Park gets you to Horse Guards, the headquarters of the British Army. The horse guard’s ceremony takes place here every day at 11 AM and Sundays at 10 AM. Both the ceremonies and the stroll through the St. James Park with the beautiful pond in the middle are all advisable. For lunch, we took the tube into Leicester Square where options abound.
  4. London Eye – allow 2 hours at a minimum - exit at Westminster using the tube and walk over the bridge. Tickets were £15.50 and it was advertised as the world’s largest observation wheel. The wheel rotates so very slowly and takes about half an hour for a complete rotation. It has several pods and each pod carries about 15 people. On a clear day, the view is definitely worth the money. The attraction is very popular and lines tend to be long with waiting period upwards of an hour.
  5. Tower Bridge and London Bridge – Tower Bridge is a visual treat while London Bridge is under whelming. If lucky, you might even get to see the majestic Tower Bridge draw up for sail boats to pass through.
  6. Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Princess Diana Memorial, and Harrods’s – Tube to Kensington – all three attractions are walking distance from this station – It is a serene experience and you are limited by your own time. There is a 14-acre lake in the middle where paddle-boats can be rented. Harrods’s only advertised sale of the year runs in July and lot of items are marked down between 10-30%. We found the best value for our money for mementos in the coffee/tea department. Better chocolates marked with the Harrods’s name were tremendously expensive even after discounts.
  7. Tower of London – The giant fortress is well known as the host of the Crown Jewels. While that is a great attraction in itself, the guided tour by the Yeomen Warders known as the “beefeaters” provides entertainment by narrating gory details of its history. Plan at least two to three hours. Ticket pricing was £16.50 for adults, £9 for children under 16, and free for children below 5.

We also spent a day in Cambridge, 60 miles north of Central London. The lovely old university town was teeming with tourists. There are several options for a daylong visit including punting. The city center is crowded and so walking/bicycling are the best options.

Two days is way too little for London. The attractions we missed out include the British Museum, British Library, and Victoria and Albert Museums all of which are free but require a day each at the minimum to give justice to what is on offer, and the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum.

Related Posts:

1. European Vacation – Gotchas to avoid and frugal options for cost conscious American Visitors.
2. Best sites of London & Cambridge - Trip Report.
3. Best sites of Edinburgh - Trip Report.
4. Best sites of Ireland - Trip Report.

Last Updated: 04/2013.

Roomba Parts/Accessories Replacement (Side Brushes, etc)

We have owned the iRobot Roomba 535 since December 2007 and the experience has been very satisfying – we appreciate its relative quietness and the low labor input from us. As with most products designed to handle household chores, proper maintenance is an essential element of the equation. The parts requiring periodic replacement with Roomba are the brushes – in particular, side brush leads that listing. The main brushes are very sturdy and are holding up well for us. But, the side brushes are in a different league altogether – we have had to replace them a few times as one of the six spokes eventually comes apart.

iRobot must have been paying attention to customer input regarding the side brushes as recently the design of this accessory changed: Instead of a six-sponge design, it is now a three-sponge design. We asked Roomba customer support why the three-sponge design is deemed better than the original six-sponge design. Below is the response from Roomba customer support:

The three sponge is made out of a much more durable material it is designed to last you longer, this brush do not snap in place it just screws on.

Interestingly, our Roomba’s brush is also screwed on leaving the main difference to be the material. One still has to wonder why a three-sponge one would be better overall compared to a six-sponge one. We will wait and see!

We also asked Roomba customer support whether the new design brushes would be available to us under warranty coverage. They asked for some product registration details and almost immediately replied they have processed an order to send us a new spinning side brush. The notification also mentioned we should receive it within 7-10 days. A little later, we received another notification indicating that the side brushes are currently on back-order. Strangely enough, the product is available for purchase through their online store. We pointed this out to customer service and their reply was:

Thank you for writing back. The inventory for in warranty replacement parts sent free of charge is separate from the inventory for purchased items. However, we have just received a shipment of the side brushes to our warehouse. Please allow an additional 4-6 business days for all orders to be processed and released for shipment.

Overall, the experience turned out fine but for immediate results, a little bit of research and prodding was necessary. On the whole, we rate the Roomba’s customer service top-notch, given our request didn’t strictly qualify under warranty coverage.

Other parts that need replacement, albeit less frequently include the batteries and what is termed the Cleaning Head Module (CHM). If you have pets but own a 500-series robot as opposed to the PET-series robots, purchasing the Aerovac upgrade kit for around $70 is a good option to consider.

Related Posts:

  1. Roomba 900, 800, 700, 600, and 500 Series Comparison/Review (980, 960, 880, 870, 790, 780, 770, 760, 650, 630, 620, 610, 595, 585, 580, 572, 570, 564, 562, 560, 555, 550/551, 535/540, 532, 530).
  2. Best Value Robotic Vacuums - A Comparative Review
  3. Roomba 400 & 500-Series vs Infinuvo CleanMate QQ-1, QQ-2, QQ-2 Plus, QQ-2 LT QQ-3 Comparison/Review
  4. Roomba Parts/Accessories Replacement (Side Brushes, etc) (this post).  
  5. Roomba 535 - Our Experience
  6.  Features of the different Roomba-500 series models

Last Updated: 04/2017.

Central Europe & Russia Fund Inc. (CEE) Analysis - Revisited

We did an analysis of CEE on 9/2007 and concluded for global diversification, it is one of the better ways to invest a segment of the stock portfolio in the Central European market. Since then, we lost about a quarter of our investment including the whopping $10.26 capital gains payout in December 2007. That performance is respectable considering the backdrop of significant stock market correction in the markets where the fund invests.

The table below summarizes CEE’s current Top Ten investment allocations along with historical comparisons:

StockAllocation % - 6/30/2008Allocation % - 6/30/2007Allocation % - 4/30/2006
Gazprom RU Gas utilities13.29.79.8
JSC MMC Norilsk Nickel RU Metals and Mining7.47.04.5
Lukoil RU Oil and Gas77.310.7
Bank Pekao PL6.13.6NITT
Ceske Energticke CZ5.43.93.2
Powszechna Kasa Oszczednosci5.4NITTNITT
Rosneft Oil Company5.13.1NITT
Sberbank RU Commercial banks3.44.6NITT
Telekomunikacja Polska PL3.43.63.1

*NITT – Not in Top 10.

The big change over the two years is the shift away from oil and gas. (Surgutneftegaz, which had accounted for 11% allocation in 2006, is no longer in the top 10 holdings). The realized funds were channeled into investments in the banking sector. There was also a minor geographical shift in allocation during this period, which was the shifting of about 5% of assets from Turkey to Poland. The shift away from oil and gas into the financial sector is very much in accordance with the fund manager’s stated goal to diversify into consumer sectors. All in all, given the allocation shifts and the current investments, CEE is a good proxy for growth in the consumer sector and general economies of Russia and Central Europe.

Compared to the benchmark (CECE-45%, RTX – 45%, ICE-30 – 10%), the Turkish allocation (8%) is somewhat inline. There is roughly a 10% divergence in the CECE and the Russian allocations – Russia accounts for 56% of the assets while the benchmark allocation is only 45% and CECE accounts for 30% while the benchmark allocation is 45%. It is evident from the last two years that the fund has been following a different benchmark blend (CECE – 35%, RTX – 55%, ICE-30 – 10%) than what is indicated in their investor reports. While such divergence is reasonable, given that it has continued for two years, it is misleading that the fund is not following the published benchmark index.

Similar Fund Comparison:
The following table is a comparison of funds that have exposure to Central Europe:

Fund NameRegional Details*Expense RatioCapitalizationPremium/Discount to NAV**
Morgan Stanley Eastern Europe Fund (RNE)Russia – 72.4%, Poland – 14.2%.1.9992M(5.79)
Central Europe & Russia Fund (CEE)Russia - 56, Poland - 22, Turkey - 81.01655.27M(14.73)
Templeton Russia & East Europe Fund (TRF)Russia – 911.73235.88M(4.34)

* Regional Details as of 3/31/2008.
** Premium/Discount data as of 9/19/2008.

The expense ratios of the funds are roughly proportional to the capitalization with CEE being lowest at 1% and RNE highest at 1.99%. CEE is trading at a discount of about 15% while TRF and RNE are trading at a discount hovering around 5%. Given the size of the fund, low expense ratio, and the sizeable discount compared to the NAV, CEE is a good choice among CEFs focused on Central Europe & Russia.

Projected Distribution:

Historically the fund announces distributions in December. The mid-year realized gain (as per the investor update) stands at over $100M making the distribution on that portion to be in the $7.5/share range, conditional to no further trading in the last 4 months. Last year, the payout was $10.26/share and the payout for this year is expected to be similar. The distribution is taxable to shareholders. As indicated in the mid-year investor update, last year's distribution was as follows: Ordinary Income: 0.84, Short-Term gain: 0.47, Long-Term gain: 8.84. Of these, the long-term gain is the most desirable type of distribution for shareholders because it is taxed at the relatively low long-term capital gains rates. For this year, the distribution ratio among the three classes should follow last year’s and looks favorable given most of the gains are long-term.

Many of the risks mentioned in our previous update still remain, and added to it are the following additional risk factors:
  • Banking exposure: In the consumer slow-down spreading over Eastern Europe, banks are especially vulnerable and the fund’s increased exposure in the financial sector can backfire as the slow-down spreads to Central Europe.
  • The gradual re-nationalization of the Russian energy sector has the risk of Russia getting isolated. They are also very vulnerable to a global energy-demand slowdown as they are dependent on energy exports. Investors are already choosing to move away from holding Russian assets
  • Rising tensions with the US and to a lesser extend the European Union has resulted in the possibility of Russia getting isolated diplomatically. This has far-reaching consequences.
  • Devaluation of the Ruble against both the Euro and the US dollar as evidenced by the biggest drop in Ruble against the Dollar-Euro basket since 1995. The sizeable Russian foreign currency reserves of about $600B mitigates this risk somewhat as the central bank tries to keep the currency pegged based on the policy of a “managed float”.
  • Ageing demography’s in the region is a long-term risk that needs to be managed.

A new investor should pay attention to the Distribution effect and the Geopolitical factors. As the shareholders are inline for a large distribution in December, it makes sense to consider purchasing the fund after the distribution date to avoid taxes. Such an event will be especially painful for new investors: They did not get to participate in the funds gain in market value in the years prior to their purchase. But, since the fund is realizing sizeable gains this year by trading out of many of their holdings, current investors have to pay taxes on the gains the fund realizes.

For an investor who purchased the fund earlier this year, the unrealized return should roughly be in the range from –15% to -35% depending on the timing of the purchase. Sitting tight is indeed the best option as the short-term risks and the distribution effect are not sizeable enough to justify exiting the position.

Lastly, for a long-term investor, the guiding criterion is the likelihood for out-performance in the future. Central European and Russian markets are undervalued by most measures although significant risks still remain.

The fund has relatively low expense ratios, is one of the largest funds specializing in Central Europe & Russia, and maintains a low turnover ratio while also being aggressive about shifting allocations to growth areas as such opportunities arise. The stocks listed in the Central European & Russian markets are generally not available to US investors as they are not listed in the NYSE or Nasdaq markets. For this reason, funds that specialize in those markets are the best bet to participate in the growth in those areas and Central Europe & Russian Fund (CEE) is a good choice.

12/09/2008 update:

The fund announced a distribution of just $0.07 for the year on 12/05/2008 payable 12/15/2008 - the ex-dividend date is 12/11/2008. They had significant capital gains in the first eight months of the year and so such a small distribution indicates one or more of the following happened in the last four months: a) The fund realized significant capital losses, and b) The fund experienced redemption pressure which resulted in them having to sell portfolio company investments at a loss. The Net Asset Value (NAV) as of yesterday is close to $20 - the fund is trading at a significant discount of close to 18% and as such represents good value.

Related Posts:

1. Central Europe And Russia Fund (CEE) - Analysis - 09/07.
2. Added to Central Europe And Russia Fund (CEE) holdings - 01/08.
3. Added more to Central Europe And Russia Fund (CEE) holdings - 09/08.

European Vacation – Gotchas to avoid and frugal options

We did a 9-day trip to Europe in the Summer of 2008 covering England, Scotland, and Ireland and below are our list of gotchas to avoid for frugal travelers:
  1. Exchanging money at the airport: It is tempting to use the Travelex counters prevalent at various airports for converting US dollars into Euros or Pounds as the destination demands. While there is no denying the convenience, the fees and the difference between the buy and sell rates makes this prohibitively expensive. To exemplify, around our travel time, the official exchange rate for Euros was hovering around 1.5 while pounds was around 2.0. With Travelex, we got roughly £40 for $100 and converting to Euros while in Ireland got us €44 for that £40. Finally converting back to dollars at the end of our trip, we ended up with roughly $45 thereby reducing our money to less than half in that round-trip conversion. A better alternative is the ATM. We used the Bank Of America Visa debit card at ATM’s and the average fees added up to around $7 per withdrawal. By managing wisely the frequency of withdrawals, the fees as a percentage of total withdrawals can be contained within reasonable levels. The best option by far, is to do the currency conversion from your local bank before embarking on the trip. This obviously requires planning a budget and sticking to it. If using a money exchange service is a necessity, American Express counters have much better rates overall compared to Travelex, although Travelex counters are much more established at the airports we were in. Minimizing money exchanges by using credit cards for your expenses is another great choice. 
  2. Opting for GPS at car-hire places in Europe: There are several downsides to using this option –
    • The maps are invariably outdated as rental companies do not renew them rendering them as old as the GPS itself,
    • They are expensive – we availed of the GPS while in Dublin at the cost of €25 for the two days. At that rate, buying a GPS with European maps before leaving the US would have paid for itself in less a week. Good choices in this regard at the moment are the Garmin nüvi 270 3.5-Inch Portable GPS Navigator (less than $150 at most retailers) and the TomTom GO 930T 4.3-Inch Widescreen Bluetooth Portable GPS Navigator with Traffic Receiver
      (around $250 at most retailers).
  3. Opting to use the train instead of flying between European cities: Ryan Air has revolutionized flying within Europe and has made it extremely affordable assuming one steers clear of frills which can cost an arm and a leg. For e.g., we used Ryan Air to fly from London Stanstead airport to Glasgow Prestwick (to visit Edinburgh), then to Dublin, Ireland, and back to London Stanstead. The entire trip at peak July airfares for the two of us weighed in just over $170. Ryan air charges fees for most conveniences including a convenience fee for purchasing your ticket using a credit/debit card. Even so, the savings compared to the alternatives is tremendous. To illustrate, if we had instead chosen to get to Dublin from London using the heavily touted “cheap” alternative of train+ferry, it is £27 one-way per person. The downsides are two-fold:
    • It adds up to roughly $215 round-trip for the two of us which is well above what Ryan Air ended up costing us including the trip to Edinburgh. For Edinburgh, the cheapest fare was £39 round-trip for GNER’s (Great North Eastern Railway) standard-class (no flexibility) off-peak tickets, and
    • The train+ferry trip uses up the better part of a day and so you essentially lose two days on the round-trip.
  4. Driving: In the English archipelago, they drive on the right side of the road and correspondingly the steering wheel is located on what is the passenger-side for an American. While this arrangement enables the driver to get the “feeling” right, the minute you take the steering wheel, it is a couple of other gotchas that make it imperative that you take the first-hour of driving easy and preferably with someone who is experienced driving there:
    • Roundabouts: This is Europe’s alternative to traffic signals at junctions as in the US. Instead of having signals, they get by with a circular road called the roundabout in the middle of the junction and the right-of-way rules in place mandates who gets to use it first and dictates the turns of the others. In the UK, as you approach the roundabout, one signals their intention of how they plan to use the roundabout by using turn signals - Left-turn signal indicates you are planning to take the first “exit” out of the round-about. No signal at all indicates you plan to take the 2nd exit and the right turn signal indicates your intention is the third one or a later one. As you approach the exit while in the roundabout, the left turn signal is still clue to fellow travelers of your exit indication. These basic rules, intuitive after the first few times, can be very confusing for a first-time visitor,
    • Narrow Roads: Roads that can barely fit two cars are the norm in the UK and this can cause undue grief for US drivers who may have forgotten the benefits of steering as much to the driver’s side as possible to avoid side-swiping on the passenger side.
  5. Rental Cars: The rates quoted through the Internet are seemingly low, but several factors can add significantly to this base cost:
    • Insurance: On the upside, liability coverage is mandatory and so is included in the base rate. But, your American auto-insurance coverage is useless outside the US. Credit card CDW coverage is spotty in many countries. For example, Ireland (Dublin) is one of the countries in the exclusion list (Master Card Gold or Platinum card may offer this coverage in Ireland – please check with the card company) and so you need this coverage from the rental car company while driving in Ireland. Further, the base CDW has a deductible of €500- €2000 and so excess waiver coverage that takes out the deductible will also be necessary,
    • Airport Surcharges: This is upwards of €25 and applies if you rent the car from the airport. A better alternative might be to rent from a location nearer to your hotel as opposed to the airport,
    • No coverage is available for Tires as rental companies recognize that the passenger front and rear tires take a lot of abuse from American drivers as they adjust to smaller driving lanes, 
    • Automatic cars are generally a lot more expensive to rent than stick shift cars. This again is a ploy by the car companies as they recognize that many Americans are not used to driving a manual and will be forced to use the automatic option even though it is much more expensive.
    • All said, our two-day car hire from Budget at Dublin airport for a mid-size (Toyota Yaris is surprisingly a mid-size car in Dublin) stick shift including GPS and insurance coverage added up to a whopping $220 for two days. With careful planning, it probably could have been much easier on our pockets.
  6. Restaurants: Restaurants in general are much more expensive than the US. For e.g., a relatively simple meal (no drinks, no appetizers) at a local Thai restaurant in the Celbridge neighborhood in Dublin cost more than $100 for four of us – a comparable meal in the US would be well below $50. The alternatives are pubs and fast-food places but then healthy options take a back seat. For healthy eating, the best choice is to purchase food from 24-hour grocery shops. Another oddity is the option of taking away, which buys an almost 10% discount in the bill – it applies if you purchase the food at the counter and choose to take it with you as opposed to sitting inside – Sitting in the patios outside is fine…
  7. Tipping: Tipping is far less customary than in the US. Restaurants sometimes add a surcharge in the 5-10% range and if not, you might do it on your own – giving the change directly to the server as opposed to charging the tip to the credit card. Rounding off is all that is expected for taxis and tipping hotel staff is also nominal – one euro per night/bag for the cleaning staff/porter. Carrying around coins is fairly mandatory as public restrooms are rarely free – 30 Euro-cents is the average.
  8. Opting for car/cab in the city centers as opposed to using public transportation and/or walking: Most of the cities have very good public transportation compared to US cities and many of them are pedestrian friendly. Unless speed is of the essence using a cab usually is a waste of money.

Related Posts:

1. European Vacation – Gotchas to avoid and frugal options for cost conscious American Visitors.
2. Best sites of London & Cambridge - Trip Report.
3. Best sites of Edinburgh - Trip Report.
4. Best sites of Ireland - Trip Report.

Last Updated: 12/2012.

Frugal Choice On Gifts - Giving Stock Certificates

We discussed in a previous article, that when it comes to gifts our preference is to develop a culture of no gifts in the household. Yet, there are situations when giving a gift is the appropriate choice. As a frugal consumer, it is a challenge choosing gifts, as there is an inevitable loss in value when buying something material (including a gift certificate). Add to it confusion in choosing for other people and you end up with a double-whammy.

One strategy that compensates for some of the downsides with gift giving is to find items that have the potential to increase in value over time. An obvious choice is gifting a certain amount as a certificate of deposit (CD) or savings bonds. While such options are fairly popular especially among grandparents, they rarely beat inflation. A gift idea that sits well with us is giving actual stock certificates. As the holiday season approaches, this should qualify as one of the unique Christmas gift ideas for frugal consumers. Below are the benefits of opting for actual stock certificates:

  • Since you own the stock represented by the stock certificate, you are eligible for the underlying appreciation in the share price over the years. Further, as stocks overall beat inflation by a wide margin, chances are good for your stock value to also beat inflation over the long-term, assuming some research is done on the company concerned before investing in any particular stock certificate.
  • Stock certificates (bearer stock certificate, to be exact) are a dying breed in corporate America as the securities industry is slowly shifting completely to digital securities. This can serve as an opportunity for it is likely that some of these company stock certificates will eventually become sought after collector items and thus end up have additional antique value associated with them.
  • Scripophily, the hobby of collecting stocks and bonds is fast-growing because of certain unique features associated with them:
    • Historical Context – Stocks associated with the Dot Com mania is a recent example that is fast becoming popular among collectors,
    • Value as an art piece – many are produced on hand-etched printing plates by artisans and provide excellent examples of engraving - as such, that paper has value as an art piece,
    • One-of-a-kind value – each certificate is individually numbered and has the shareholder’s name etched in them, and
    • Scripophilists also are on the lookout for signed certificates from famous personalities. Share certificates usually have signatures of three to four company executives including the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). If any of those personalities become famous or infamous, the certificate will enjoy additional value.
Giving stock certificates also comes with a certain amount of flexibility with respect to the amount and scope. As one of your unique Christmas gift ideas, you can choose to give any number of shares of a stock in a single certificate and you also can personalize it to an extent by opting for a business that has some personal connection to the receiver – for example, if your kid, grand-kid, or parent is a big Disney fan, giving Disney stock certificate helps personalize the gift to a certain extent.

Related Posts:
  1. Frugal Living – Ten Great Gift Ideas for Frugal Families (Christmas Holiday Shopping Tips).
  2. Frugal Living – Skiing Story.
  3. Frugal Choice On Gifts - Giving Stock Certificates.
  4. Frugal vs Cheap – A definition to go by.
  5. Frugal Living - Top ten frugal living tips for families.
  6. Reducing Expenses.
Last Updated: 10/2009. 

Sites of Eastern Canada – Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal - Roadtrip Report

We toured Niagara Falls, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Boston during the first week of July 2008. Price wise Southwest provided the best option at around $350 per person both ways – we flew into Buffalo, NY from Oakland International and out from Providence, RI. The rental car was picked up from Buffalo Airport and dropped off at Providence Airport. It was surprising that auto rental companies allowed one-way routes like this one without a hefty premium. Even though, the miscellaneous charges (airport and other taxes) added up to $60 for the week, at under $300 without LDW (Loss Damage Waiver), it was a pretty good deal.

The route was planned more around the places where we had close friends and family than sightseeing interest. Both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the Niagara Falls are majestic, providing ample returns on the time spent in the vicinity. On the U.S. side, the major attractions include the Maid of the Mist, Cave of the Winds, Goat Island, and Luna Island. Goat Island provides for a leisurely two-mile hike around the Niagara River and has access to the Three Sisters Islands. Luna Island is located perfectly between the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls (a narrower fall on the American side of the Niagara River) with impressive views of both the falls. Maid of the Mist is the world-renowned boat tour that gets one to the front of the falls. Even small kids can sense the grandeur of the falls in the boat ride.

There was plenty of parking right at the park entrance for $10. The Maid of the Mist ticket pricing was reasonable at $12.50 for adults, $7.30 for kids between 6 and 12 and free for kids under 6. The boat tour is also offered from the Canadian side where the pricing is slightly higher. Cave of the Winds, which lets you enjoy the Bridal Veil Falls up close off the Hurricane Deck, the terminus of the walk-way that leads you along the base to the closest point to the falling water, is a real treat. An elevator ride takes you 175’ down to the base of the falls. It was priced at $10 for adults and $7 for kids between 6 and 12.

On the Canadian side, the major attraction is the ‘Journey Behind the Falls’. This is considered as the equivalent to the Cave of the Winds on the American side, but if we were to choose one over the other, we would prefer the Cave of the Winds. While impressive, the ‘Journey Behind the Falls’ falls short in imparting a true sensation of proximity to the falls mostly due to the glass window that separates visitors from the water that is hitting the river beneath. On the Canadian side visitors get to experience the entire life cycle of the waterfall. Undoubtedly, the view is superior on the Canadian side. Parking at the Canadian side is more expensive although there were several options starting at about $4 per hour with a $16 daily maximum.

Next we visited the CN Tower right in Toronto downtown. Underground parking at the Rogers Centre (home of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team) right by the tower came up to $9. Ticket pricing at the tower was expensive and is layered starting with $21.49 for adults and $14.49 for children between 4 and 12 for the Lookout + Glass Floor package all the way up to $31.99 (all ages) for the Lookout + Glass Floor + Skypod + Movie Simulator Ride package. The wait at the line was about 30 minutes. The views were great; the elevator ride was not scary but an acrophobic might find it so. Listed in the Guinness book as the tallest freestanding structure, it is 553.33 meters tall and is used as a communications tower broadcasting TV and FM stations and is owned by the Canadian National Railway. The visitor areas are at 342 meters (seven stories with public access to the main deck area) and the Skypod at 446.5 meters. The antennae extend another 100 meters.

En-route Ottawa is the famed Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River. There are several boat-ride options available from different companies along the 50-mile stretch. We chose Rockport boat lines at Rockport because they offered a 1-hour cruise as we were on a time crunch. Pricing was $16 for adults and $10 for children between 5 and 12 – a $2 online coupon was available as well. The boat-ride was tranquil at best– a lot of the islands have a single house on it – and per the narrator most of the houses are owned and maintained by affluent Americans. There are two giant castles and some boat-ride options include a tour of the castle(s).

July 1st is Canada Day and we were lucky to be in the capital city of Ottawa on that day. We had two days in Ottawa and a couple of things worth mention are
  • Public transportation is remarkable and unlike the Bay Area a lot of people utilize it, and
  • Canada day is celebrated in good vigor and a greater part of the general public participates.
The ByWARD market on George Street between Sussex drive and Dalhousie street in downtown Ottawa can be considered the equivalent of Farmers Markets across USA, Parliament Hill at Willington Street, the Rideau Canal Promenade which has the eight locks that drop from the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa river are sights not to be missed. Ottawa provides opportunity for many scenic drives too which we enjoyed.

Two hours from Ottawa is the city of Montreal and as you cross over to Quebec province from Ottawa, the language shifts from English to French and one can see French influence in other subtle ways as well. Not to worry, conversing in English works just as well as French. Known as Paris of North America, Montreal provides a whole different experience compared to other Northern American cities with its exquisite dining, cosmopolitan atmosphere, and pedestrian friendly nature. The Saint Joseph’s Oratory on Queen Mary Road is an imposing structure atop one of the slopes of Mount Royal and the Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal (nominal entry fee applies) with its imposing pipe organ are not be missed. Old Montreal and Old Port areas with its cobblestone paved streets and copper topped buildings dating back to the 17th century are other unique attractions. There are several other attractions that charge an entry fee to get in. Those include museums, planetarium, botanical garden, and the Olympic park. The best bets if pressed for time are the Biodome, with its unique idea of combining a zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, and the museum along with Parc des Iles with its two islands that provide a beach, leisurely strolling, etc. for the city dwellers. The area also houses La Ronde, the province’s largest amusement park and the Montreal Casino (children not permitted).

Motoring down from Montreal to Boston, we pulled over at the Ben and Jerry’s factory attraction just north of the town of Waterbury in Vermont. This was a great break along the 6-hour drive and the kids appreciated it very much. The tour fee was nominal and the kids were free. At the end of the tour they offered a “mini scoop”. A whirlwind tour of the Harvard and MIT campuses in Boston completed our road-trip.

Overall, we had a great time although another week would have made it even more so. Some other experiences follow:
  • Canada’s most popular fast food place is Tim Horton’s whose coffee is better compared to most fast food places in the US,
  • Our Garmin C320 GPS with the 2008 North American maps encountered several problems on the road: Point Of Interests (POI) functionality came up really short with the GPS providing long detours without getting us to the destination, including Tim Horton’s. On numerous occasions, the GPS confused the road/freeway we were on with roads passing above or below us. Typing in addresses also did not work on several occasions. We had printed directions as well and that came in handy. In Montreal, GPS displays continued in English, while the streets were in French, which caused a slight confusion initially.
  • Most things were more expensive in Canada, as the US dollar had lost about a third of its value in the recent past, and
  • In Montreal, blinking green is equivalent to the green arrow in the USA and one cannot take a right turn on red.

Last Updated: 11/2012.

Google Chrome Web Browser Beta 1 User Experience - Review

Chrome is the new web browser from Google. Its Beta program is open to public as of yesterday. Compared to other browsers in the market, Google’s interface is unique in that the whole functionality is hidden within two small buttons – a page icon for managing tabs and a wrench icon for browser options. Three rows – for holding the tabs, the address bar (called the omni bar) and buttons, and bookmarks (user has a choice to take this row out) complete the remarkably minimalist user interface.

Google was rumored to have been developing a web operating system and this is their first step in that direction. The idea is to make Google Chrome so minimalist in the interface so as to make the user feel like they are using web applications directly as opposed to using a browser to run them. A bunch of unique features make this possible while also keeping the browser as powerful as the primary competition – Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3.

Chrome is much more similar in its interface to Apple’s Safari, but with no explicit File Menu, Tool Bar, etc. While that design make most of the real estate available for the web applications it hosts, the product itself doesn’t look like a Windows application. The beta is only available for Windows XP and Vista although plans are for it to be made available for Linux and Mac platforms as well.

  • Omnibar: Google marketing says this feature as “One Box For Everything”. Typing in the Omnibar results in suggestions for both search and web pages.
  • Incognito Window: This allows for private browsing. It is accessible from the Page icon.
  • Thumbnails to your top sites: There is a “most visited” sites page built into the product and is the default Home page. The page has thumbnail images of the most visited sites. As with other browsers, the Home page can be configured to restore the tabs that were open last or you can choose the tabs to load at startup.
  • Shortcuts for your apps: Chrome allows you to make a desktop, start menu, or quick launch short cut to any web application. This feature along with the ability of certain applications like Google Reader and gmail to perform well in off-line mode makes this a compelling feature that has the potential to blur the line between web-applications vs normal OS applications. This is also very much a step in Google’s efforts to eat Microsoft Office applications pie.
  • Tab and Plug-in Isolation: Tabs and plug-ins are both their own processes in Chrome. This makes each tab implicitly more secure while also isolating any performance issues within that tab.
  • Task Manager: The performance of each tab along with all active plug-ins can be monitored through this window. Since each tab and plug-in runs as its own process, they can also be controlled individually – for example, if one such web application or plug-in is turning out to be a memory hog, you can just take that one tab or plug-in down.
  • Speed: The tabs load visibly faster compared to other web browsers.

  • While attempting to import bookmarks, history, etc. from Fire Fox automatically after install, it asks to close all Firefox windows - an inconvenience to the user.
  • The Uninstall program asks the user to close all Chrome windows and try again. This is a minor inconvenience to the user.
  • Task Manager is up even when other applications are in-context just like the Windows Task Manager. While it makes sense for the Windows Task Manager, for the Google Chrome specific Task Manager, it doesn’t.
  • You can’t have two sessions with the same web-application simultaneously. This functionality should be easily achievable since the product has process isolation at the tab level.
  • Print options are limited and the Preview functionality is missing.
  • Sites that are based on Microsoft’s technology have a hard-time functioning well within Chrome. Specifically, hotmail showed warnings and sites that use Silverlight caused an error.
  • If you have History window open in one tab with the scroll-bar scrolled half-way down, browse to another tab, and come back to the History tab, the scroll-bar is back all the way up. This is another minor inconvenience.
  • The “Google Chrome” link takes you to a 38-page cartoon sequence (a nice marketing job, we must say, although some pages need editing – see picture) and at the end of it, the logical progression should have been to allow the user the option to download/install the beta. Instead, you just get a page with acknowledgements.
  • Uninstall dialog warning message has the normal warning message followed by the wording “Was it something we said?” – Didn’t quite like that wording…

Google Chrome is in its first beta cycle and as such is not ready for prime time. The design and the features make the product a very good first-try. As the features improve during the beta cycle, it should provide a very good alternative to the other browsers in the market.

Our desktop currently has four browsers (Fire Fox, IE, Opera, and Safari in that order) and we constantly switch between them. The primary browser we use is Fire Fox and it will continue to be that for the foreseeable future. In about six months or so, Google Chrome should replace IE as our secondary browser – at least we hope so. The one feature which would make it compelling enough to make us switch to Google Chrome as the primary (and possibly only) browser will be the ability to simultaneously access different accounts of the same web application. For example, the ability to open two gmail accounts in two different tabs within the Chrome application.

9/4/2008 Update:

Early Crash/Bug Reports:
  • Undefined handler followed by special character crashes Google Chrome (all tabs and sandbox). Credit and explanations from Rishi Narang at: This can be easily reproduced by doing one of the following: a) Type in “:%” on the Google Chrome’s address bar (omnibar) and press Enter, and b) Create an HTML page with the following content “<a href="nothing:%"><img src="nothing.jpg" /></a>”, save and access it from Google Chrome. On the web-page, mousing over the picture or clicking will crash Google Chrome.
  • Exploit “Carpet Bombing” vulnerability: The demo shows how malware can be place on windows desktop through exploiting this vulnerability in Google Chrome: The bug happens because Google Chrome uses an outdated version of WebKit v525.13.
  • Max-out available memory in the system using tabs that contain web applications that are resource hogs. This will cause Google Chrome to crash and in some cases the Blue Screen of Death. Not reproducible.
  • Please also see bug reports at:

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