Toshl Finance

Toshl is one of those weird little apps that, on paper, appear extremely useful but which I’ve never quite clicked with. On at least three separate occasions over the past year I’ve signed up for a free account, started setting it up, hit a road block and ultimately never returned. Every time, it goes like this: I’ll get an email regarding some new feature, think little of it and move on. Then, a couple of weeks later, I’ll decide I need to sort out my life and *bing*, up pops Toshl in my recent memory. “Perfect” I think, restart my account and… well, ultimately, remember some reason why the service isn’t right for me and abandon it again.

It happened again over the weekend. My partner and I are in the planning phase of a big holiday, unlike anything we’ve done together since officially entering “adulthood” and it’s becoming apparent that we’ll need to start budgeting and tracking our finances in order that we pull it all off. We were discussing this on Saturday when Toshl, obviously, popped into my head. It was only about a week ago that I got an email from them about some new feature (genuinely no idea what), so it seemed like fate. I fired up my account, set up a couple of payments, recorded all our monthly outgoings and began to get a decent overview of what we were spending money on. Recording every little purchase was a bit of a pain though, as it requires “adding” each one individually, which involves a number of dropdown boxes and deciding on stuff like categories (which didn’t always work: car, for example, should not be a “tag” or subgroup), and simply didn’t seem time effective. It was much quicker to create a Google Sheet, import our bank statements and quickly move cells around – plus we can both work on it simultaneously without having to share passwords, logins etc. However, this worked nicely in conjunction with Toshl, so was more of a speed bump than a roadblock.

As a result, it looked like I’d finally found a use for Toshl. The inbuilt calculators and setup, though a little fiddly, are genuinely great for recurring amounts of money (both in and out of accounts) and allowed us to quickly see how much it genuinely cost for us to live. Once set up, it was also easy to see break downs of what portion of our outgoings were flexible and which were not (e.g. taxes and rent). Excited and ready to start putting all this neatly sorted data to good use, I began setting up some savings pots. That’s when I hit the roadblock.

A free Toshl account can only have 2 “Accounts”, i.e. bank accounts, and 2 “Budgets”, which we were going to use as savings pots. Only two of the latter, however, was too little to even get a feel for how they worked. I do understand why companies restrict certain features and offer “Pro” or premium experiences at a cost, especially data heavy cloud services like Toshl. However, in this instance, the “free” version feels too much like a chore to actually use and restricts you from what I would consider its “core” feature: the ability to set and monitor savings targets.

So here we are again. My latest liaison with Toshl is already over and the account is now permanently closed. We moved over the monthly outgoing/incoming calculations to the spreadsheet, added some new functionality to mimic savings pots and everything’s working pretty great. Is our solution as shiny and well designed as Toshl? No, absolutely not. But it’s a lot more flexible, gives us exactly what we need and makes it very easy to expand upon, both from the perspective of functionality and the data being stored.

To be clear, this is definitely not meant as a take-down of Toshl, its services or methodology. I think it’s a genuinely good service and, especially outside of the US, is one of the best variants of this business model out there. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t do enough of what I want it to do and I’m not willing to spend extra money on something without finding it indispensable, which Toshl just doesn’t achieve. Oh well, maybe I’ll find another use for it in after another few months have passed.

2 Kinds of People

Two seemingly identical available WI-FI networks menus but one shows default network names and the other has networks all named using Wi-Fi related popular culture puns
I know several people who have “Pretty Fly for a Wi-Fi” as their network names… not quite sure what that says…

Occasionally, StumbleUpon truly comes through for me, providing a tiny internet gem that I’m certain I’d have never found otherwise. Today, that accolade goes to 2 Kinds of People, the type of microsite that Tumblr was made for. Some of the posts are a little obvious, though the simplistic art style makes them look great anyway, but I found myself genuinely laughing more than once as I browsed through their content. Definitely recommend a look.

Judging Time

Time, and specifically timing, is a very hard thing to judge and something which is largely overlooked in our day-to-day lives. That’s probably fine for common household chores, such as washing dishes or taking out the trash, but even these can benefit from a little temporal introspection. Don’t believe me? Okay, well, where I live we have two common problems: wild animals (read: gulls and foxes) and a storage heating system*. Stick your garbage bag out the night before and the gulls are likely to come raiding, but I often don’t have time to sort everything in the morning. Timing becomes important. As for the dishes, leave them for the first thing in the morning and you get scolding hot water, perfect for greasy pans; conversely, try and do them in the evening and you might not have enough water for a bath!

I’ll admit these types of examples will change for everybody and are highly subjective. So what about more measurable, universal timing issues? There is a common factoid that Thursday is the best day to upload a video to Youtube. I have no idea if this is correct, but a lot of content creators do abide by it. What about blog posts? Are there preferential days for either publishing or reading articles?

I imagine this will largely be dictated by the demographics that comprise your majority audience, but I also feel it safe to assume that most blog posts are “time-less”**; that is the “when” of reading is much less important as they are time non-specific (this will obviously change if you blog about current events, news cycles etc.). Impact, however, is often largely dictated by that self-same “when” – not the “when” of publishing, but of reading.

Take for example A List Apart, which I’ve been pushing to the bottom of my “to read” list since early December. There’s no particular reason for this decision, I’ve just felt like catching up on other RSS feeds for the past month or so, but that trend ended today. I fired up my feed-reader, opened up A List Apart and scrolled down to the oldest article: Professional Amateurs, Write What You Know (Now). The article is by Mark Llobrera and, as ever, is well worth the time to read through and absorb. It also happens to be highly pertinent, given my recent return to this here website.

Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t have enjoyed the article in December, but it definitely would not have had the same impact. In the run up to Christmas, an article arguing that I should spend more time writing about the “mundane and obvious”, because everything was worth capturing, would probably have elicited a sage nod of the head and a mental note to revisit at a later date. If it was lucky, I may have saved it to Evernote, then likely forgotten it (possibly indefinitely). However, reading it in early February, at the start of my lunch break, having just found the time to return to blogging resulted in, well, this post. It both sparked my desire to write and gave me fresh ammo, but crucially did so at a juncture when time was available. As a result, the article has had a tangible impact and will likely stick in my mind for many months to come (as well as getting added to Evernote).

It would have been pretty much impossible for Mark to have correctly judged that timing, and I’m not claiming he should have. But it definitely strikes me that thinking about content with regards to the when of its readers is probably worth considering a lot more than people currently do. I may also be stealing the “Technology’s Betrayal” blog category… but that’s largely unrelated!


* FYI this means that our hot water/heaters do all their “heating” over night, when electricity is cheapest. Not a perfect system, but another example of optimising timing.

** Mine certainly are!

Edge of Frustration

For about two years now I’ve become increasingly annoyed at my PC screen. The left-most edge has been “clipped”, missing about 2mm across all programs. I’m not sure when the issue first occurred, I just noticed it one day, so trouble shooting was a complete nightmare. Secretly, I theorised that a Windows Update screwed up some settings and resigned myself to live with it. It was annoying, but not massively problematic.

I hoped upgrading to Windows 10 would fix it, but lo!, the problem persisted. Frustrated, I re-installed graphics drivers, display drivers, nVidia’s programs; basically anything I could think of. I fiddled with resolution, changed all the settings on the monitors own control panel, rotated the screen, downloaded apps… no dice. Once again I gave up, defeated and bored.

Fast forward to two two days ago, when a friend introduced me to the browser based RTS/Risk analogue: Call of War. It’s a fun little game, running a freemium model with an active and friendly community (who are largely against using the “paid for” perks, which is nice) and a level of complexity I really wasn’t expecting*. Unfortunately, some of the menus are pretty thin and almost entirely disappear off the edge of my monitor!

As a result, this afternoon, I re-attempted a brute force attack to fix the display. I refreshed drivers, updated control panels, searched through dozens of Windows menus and eventually, thanks to a comment on this forum thread, I found my solution. Irritatingly, I’ve likely hit upon it before but not noticed, as it requires a specific combination of settings/refreshes. The culprit was not Windows, as it turns out, but nVidia, whose (normally very useful) Control Panel had scaled my screen based on their “Aspect ratio” setting. That, it turns out, was causing the issue. I hadn’t noticed it before because just turning the setting off doesn’t fix the issue, I also had to refresh my monitor directly. With that weird combo learned it took 30 seconds and snap! my screen popped back into it’s rightful place.

I guess there’s some moral here about not giving up, persevering or thinking outside the box, but you know what? I’m not bothered. My screen finally looks “right”, everything’s a little sharper, menus are no longer absent and I can’t help but feel the “call of war” (ahem). So, with technical issues defeated, I guess Central Africa is next on the list. Bring on the weekend!

* On that note, the provided tutorial and guides are fairly woeful, but the in game chat is a pretty good place to go if you have any questions.

Make Me Pulse

Screengrab of Make Me Pulse's 2016 Microsite with text reading "Make Me ..." followed by empty box and surrounded by geometric shapes

Occasionally, Stumbleupon delivers something totally unexpected and awesome. It’s why I still get the service’s weekly emails years after ever actively using the… app? Extension? Whatever, today it brought me Make Me Pulse, a fantastic design studio (well, at least a fantastic website for a design studio, though a brief review of their work means I’m relatively confident giving them the thumbs up as well) with some very clever interactivity on their site. I’d recommend checking out their homepage purely for the geometric, virtual “drum skin” you can play with, but tucked away in a semi-hidden corner is a very fun, quirky and captivating little ‘happy new year’ microsite. Definitely worth a check out.

Lightroom Resource List

Humurous graph outlining relative skill level of photographer compared to self worth
I’m definitely still in the first quartile…

My new PC is up and running and starting to be “just right” (we’ll get to further details later, I promise), so one of the big “new” things I’ve got for the new year is a subscription to Adobe CC – specifically the “Photographer” plan. I have previously mentioned worries regarding this plan; the insecurities of relying so much on software that you never truly own, but only “rent” for a given period. Ultimately though, I caved. Adobe still produces the best image editing software in the world, as far as I’m concerned, and although it’s been many years since I last truly used Lightroom I remain impressed by its suite of features.

That said, referring to myself as “rusty” is probably so overly-polite it’s borderline fictional when it comes to using both Lightroom and Photoshop. Not only have I taken a several-year absence, I haven’t had an “up-to-date” version of either program since CS3, so there are a lot of new features and “enhanced” (read: totally different) navigation options. As a result, I’m regarding myself as a total beginner and slowly compiling an Adobe 101. I’m also continuing my war against the easily forgotten, losable “bookmark”, so I figured I would just keep a rolling list going on here. With that said, here’s some links to tips/advice I’ve found useful so far:

7 Steps to Getting Organised in Lightroom ~ Layers Magazine
Understanding the Histogram (Basics) ~
JPEG Export Comparisons ~ Jeffrey Friedl
Virtual Copies ~ Laura Shoe
Focus Stacking ~ Phlearn
Noise Reduction ~ Daniel Laan (seriously awesome and includes other, non-LR tools for comparison)
Custom Metadata for Importing Photos ~ Digital Photography School
Local Adjustment Brush Settings ~ MCPactions
Colour Balancing Tips ~ Adobe Tutorials
Lightroom -> Photoshop -> Lightroom ~ Adobe Tutorials
10 Ways to Speed Up Lightroom ~ Lightroom Zen

And of course Adobe’s own tutorials page, which is really very impressive in both scope and detail: Official Lightroom Details (especially combined with their Coffee Break Tips series)

I’ve decided to add a couple of links for straight up photography as well:

Depth of Field Quick Guide ~ Aperture Tours
Composition Study ~
UK Image Copyright Laws ~
Photo metadata/IPTC explained ~ IPTC
Astrophotography Tutorials & Tips ~ sympathink

Gouty-Stem Trees For All

19th Century pencil illustration of an Australian Baobab tree, titled Gouty-Stem Tree

Ah, the good old “Gouty-Stem Tree” of Australia! Actually, I honestly had no idea that Baobab’s had reached the Great Land of Oz; I have (mistakenly) always assumed they were endemic to Africa, but apparently not. But, apologies tree-lovers, this is not a post about these wondrous, bulbous monsters of the savannah but rather how I came to learn about them in the first place and, importantly, why I can share the above image without any worries of reprisal.

The “Gouty-Stem Tree” (the image, not the plant) is an illustration taken from John Stoke’s book “Discoveries in Australia; with an account of the coasts and rivers explored and surveyed during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, in the years 1837-43“*. Not a book I’ve ever read (or actually seen), sadly, but one of hundreds that have been archived and “digitised” by the British Library to help preserve and catalogue their huge collection, which is all available to the public. Better still, this particular image, alongside hundreds of similar engravings, etchings, drawings, maps etc., has been released as part of a side project of copyright free pictures (due to the age of the books), all made accessible and shareable via Flickr. You can check out the full, ever expanding collection over here (its definitely worth it).

A friend pointed this out to me, largely for use in world-building, writing and LARPing exercises (more her forte, sadly) but personally I can also see a very valuable resource for designers, with some fantastic wildlife imagery that I’m itching to incorporate into some future projects. Happy hunting!

* I have no idea if this refers to the H.M.S. Beagle, of Darwinian fame.