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Important Post

When was the last time your home workspace or study station inspired you? For most people, the answer is, “Not recently.”

Whether you’re prepping an area for your work-from-home days or setting up a spot for young scholars to study , you can kick inspiration into high gear with home office solutions that will get your creative juices flowing again.

Window wonder

It’s no secret that sunshine does the body good. Fix up a space near the window so you can soak up plenty of vitamin D while pumping out price lists or writing that term paper.

Greenery looks great near a bright area, so a potted plant or two might help naturally bring your space to life.

Arts and crafts

The age of DIY is upon us. Embrace the casual-cool vibes and create your very own home desk area.

Need a semipermanent to-do list? Try using chalkboard paint to make yourself a giant notepad on a nearby cabinet or a framed chalkboard. Tired of the overdone corkboard for your sticky notes? Framed chicken wire with clothespins makes a more shabby-chic memo board.

The possibilities really are endless for this type of style. Just don’t let your DIYing get in the way of the tasks you originally sat down to do!

Photo from Zillow listing.

Collaboration is key

For those less focus-intensive projects, investigate a collaborative workstation with several small spaces or a giant community table. This type of work environment has been popular among small companies and creative agencies for the purpose of bouncing around ideas.

If you still want your own personal space, put a divider between you and the other desks for some extra privacy, and take it down when it’s time to meet and discuss. You know what they say: Teamwork makes the dream work.

collab sm
Photo from Zillow listing.

A clear mind

While many of us would like to think we have complete control of our habit of logging onto Facebook or checking what else our calendar has in store for us, most of us really don’t. And the greatest enabler of this sidetracked behavior is a cluttered workspace.

Set the stage for a clean slate with a bright white desk and matching chair, a simple light fixture and an inspiring element. Keeping your workstation simple and clutter-free ensures you have a productive day – even if your homework is less than exhilarating.

Whether you’re up all night cramming for exams or prepping for a work presentation due first thing in the morning, you’ll feel more focused and productive by incorporating any of these tips into your workstation.


Originally published September 7, 2016.

Important Info

The supply of homes for sale is finally rising, but fewer buyers are able to afford these homes, and that could result in a much slower spring market.

The Harry and Pauline Williams House, designed by John Lautner in 1952.

The midcentury modern has been restored “with the guidance” of Lautner associate Helena Arahuete

Now available for lease in bucolic Beachwood Canyon is the Harry and Pauline Williams Residence, designed by the formidable John Lautner in 1952. The Williamses also enlisted the architect’s services for the 1954 expansion of the Beachwood Market, located just down the road.

Per its listing, the three-bedroom, two-bath home has “recently been restored with the guidance of Helena Arahuete who has worked with Mr. Lautner since 1971 and keeps his architectural firm active.”

Measuring 1,647 square feet, it’s got such trademark Lautner features as dramatically angled wood-beamed ceilings, walls of glass, an open plan, built-in furniture, and polished concrete floors with radiant heating.

Updates include an energy efficient roof, a mini-split air conditioning system, and new appliances.

On a 7,871-square-foot lot with a two-car carport, the property is being offered for the first time at a monthly rent of $7,500.

The 1,647-square-foot home has three bedrooms and two baths.

Signature Lautner features include dramatic wood-beamed ceilings, walls of glass, and polished concrete floors.

The kitchen and baths have been updated.

The home also features built-in furniture and shelving.

Copious glass provides connection to nature.

The property sits on a 7,871-square-foot lot below the Hollywood sign.

At one point today, there were three apparently important events dominating the newswires simultaneously.  These included the Fed Chair’s congressional testimony, the Cohen congressional testimony, and–you guessed it–congressional testimony from Lighthizer on US/China trade policy.  Mortgage rates are determined by the bond market, and the bond market could make a case for caring about any of these three events.  Interestingly enough, almost all of the day’s bond market movement arrived BEFORE any of the testimonies.

Unfortunately, the movement in question was bad for rates, but the damage was fairly minimal.  The average lender is still able to quote the same rates as yesterday, but the upfront costs would be slightly higher.

…(read more)

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Important Post

A signal on the fixed-block system, at right, which is in use throughout much of the subway system.

Understanding the subway’s signals helps you understand how the subway system functions

Of all the stock excuses given to explain a stalled train or a delay in service on the New York City subway, “signal problems” can be the most infuriating. It’s a vague excuse, offering neither the human element implied by a “police investigation” or a “sick passenger,” nor the mystery that comes along with a lack of acknowledgement of the delay.

But those signals are a vital piece of the subway’s infrastructure, and they’re a crucial element of the larger issues that have contributed to the deterioration of the transit system. Understanding the signals and how they work goes a long way toward understanding the subway itself—and how it’s become so messed up in recent years.

It’s a complex topic, so read on for an overview of how signals work, and what the MTA is doing to get them to work better.

Signals 101

In a nutshell, the signal system regulates the amount of space physically allowed between trains. This is a safety protocol that impacts each train’s speeds and times. Trains operating at the established speed limit can, in theory, cruise along without issue; trains that travel above the limit will have their emergency brakes automatically triggered when passing a signal.

You’ve likely seen a subway signal on your commute: They look like traffic lights, and use the same color pattern—red: stop, green: go, yellow: proceed with caution—to let train operators know if it’s okay to move in and out of a station.

Some of the signals that are currently in use throughout the subway system are extremely outdated—this MTA video shows the signal system at the West 4th Street station, which dates back to the 1930s. “It works, but it’s an antiquated way to run a subway,” Wynton Habersham, the former MTA head of subways, says in the video.

Signal systems in use: Block vs. CBTC

The subway uses two kinds of signal systems: Automatic Block Signaling and Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC).

Block signaling—the kind seen in the MTA video above—is a manually operated method that has been in use since the subway’s inception. It has two schemes: A Division and B Division, which were put in place when the subway was privately owned and operated by three separate companies (before the MTA was even a thing).

Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

An interlocking signal mechanism at the New York Transit Museum, located in a decommissioned subway station.

As with streets, subways have blocks, each typically some 1,000 feet long. Fixed-block signals are visible from subway platforms, and the information they provide to train operators are based on the location of the most recent train to have passed—this is known as a moving block system. But this method is imprecise, and because of the age of the signals, subway personnel do not actually know the exact location of the subway cars using block signaling. Much of the current system was installed from the 1930s to the 1960s, and requires custom replacement parts to be made in-house because the machinery is so outdated.

While block signaling relies on manual operation, CBTC uses automatic, computer-based signaling. The equipment involved in CBTC is less visible and far more durable, making it less vulnerable. It’s also far more precise than its manually operated counterpart: It’s currently in use on the L line, which “consistently operates with an on-time performance higher than 90 percent, roughly 30 percentage points better than the system as a whole,” as Aaron Gordon recently reported. CBTC was recently rolled out along the 7 line, but the implementation didn’t go quite as smoothly as anticipated.

Key dates in subway signal history

1904: Block signaling is used on the city’s first subway line, the IRT Lexington Avenue line.

1962: An experimental automated train is destroyed in a fire at Grand Central, delaying the installation of a modern signal system in NYC, despite the technology being adopted for transit systems elsewhere.

1970: The practice of keying-by—“slowly moving past a red light if the track ahead was clear,” as the New York Times put it in 1973—is made illegal, making red signals mandatory with no exceptions and increasing the amount of delays caused by signal problems.

1991: In 1991, a drunk motorman speeds through a signal, causing a subway to derail near the Union Square subway station, killing five. This catastrophe finally leads NYCTA to consider automating trains.

1993: The safety of the L line’s signal system is questioned following a crash where one train rear-ended another, sending 45 people to the hospital.

1995: Following a crash on the Williamsburg Bridge in which a J train hurtled past an ancient red light and into the back of an M train, killing the driver and injuring 54 straphangers, maximum train speeds were reduced and “grade-time” signals were installed to further limit train’s speeds in the name of safety. These precautions, however, have significantly added to many of the chronic delays straphangers experience today.

2009: The L line becomes the first in the system to be fully outfitted and operational with CBTC.

Scott Lynch

An accident at the Union Square subway station, pictured here, led the MTA to consider implementing CBTC in the transit system.

2018: The rollout of CBTC on the 7 line is completed. In the latter half of the year, NYCT’s SPEED unit—which is tasked with getting subway trains to move faster—begins to study signal timers throughout the system to ID ones that are malfunctioning, and thus causing trains to go slower.

The future of the signal system

Back to that “signal problems” issue: As we’ve noted, many of the subway’s signals are antiquated, so if one breaks—which happens regularly, given the age of the system—it can take forever to fix. Some signals are misconfigured—trains initiate automatic braking even if they’re going at or below the proper speed. And subway operators are penalized for tripping signals, which incentivizes them to run trains extra slowly and avoid castigation, according the New York Times. (That piece also illustrates the impact on the greater system when a single subway car is delayed.)

NYCT president Andy Byford has vowed to overhaul the old signal system as part of his Fast Forward plan, which calls for replacing block signaling with CBTC on 10 subway lines within 10 years. It sounds good in theory, but there’s a cash flow problem: The full Fast Forward plan is expected to cost up to $40 billion to implement, and as of right now, a dedicated funding stream does not exist. (Congestion pricing and a weed-for-rails tax may help with that.)

There has been some progress as far as signal maintenance goes: Thanks to NYCT’s Save Safe Seconds campaign and its SPEED unit, a chunk of the more than 320 improperly calibrated signal timers have been fixed, allowing trains in those blocks to move more quickly.

And then there’s ultra-wideband radio technology, which is not yet in use in any transit system, but has nevertheless been touted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a way to help the ailing subway. It uses a wireless radio system to transmit data, and would, in theory, help communicate information more quickly between signals. It was among the winning proposals in the MTA’s Genius Challenge earlier this year, but it’s unclear how well it would actually work.

Signal types and terms

Automatic Train Supervision: This technology enables train dispatchers to know more or less where trains using block signaling are in the system from Operations Control Centers, as well as what enables countdown clocks to be generally accurate.

Automatic Block Signaling: This is the formal name for the fixed block signal system, in which wayside signals are fixed and unmoving, and automatic train stops are in place as a safety precaution to prevent trains from speeding, derailing, or otherwise malfunctioning.

Block: The precise unit used to measure where a train is between signals. Blocks are bookended by track circuits, which conduct electric current, and insulated joints (also known as block boundaries). When a train is in a block, it’s said to be “occupied” until the train leaves; then, it becomes “vacant.”

Chaining: A bit of a wonky term that essentially boils down to how fixed block subway trains are located within the system. It’s a form of measurement by which a train’s distance is measured feet from a fixed point on each line—what is referred to as “chaining zero.”

Interlocking: When multiple tracks intersect—imagine large junctions like DeKalb Avenue or Times Square—they are connected by railroad switches and “interlockings,” which are more complex than the ones at non-intersecting track points. These are controlled by NYCTA employees from signal towers. When they break (and they often do), multiple lines are impacted, as straphangers are intimately familiar with.

Moving block system: Unlike fixed block signaling, CBTC is a moving block system, where speed and capacity are increased by a train’s superior ability to communicate and lack of dependence on fixed infrastructure. Moving block systems thus require less equipment and are capable of more transmissions.

Relays: Part of fixed block signaling’s communication infrastructure, allowing off-site personnel and machines to understand what’s going on with any given train.

Transponders: Installed between track rails, transponders communicate with interrogator antennas in CBTC-equipped cars, which then communicate with transit personnel via radio.

Wheel detectors: These use car axle movement to sense train speed.

Important Info

It’s hard to manage your finances, let alone in two countries – ask any snowbird or Canadian who regularly crosses the border for shopping sprees down south. You need two of almost everything, from chequing accounts to credit cards.

Opening an account at a US bank is an option, but you might not be able to get a US credit card because you don’t have a US credit history. It’s also a hassle to get cash into those accounts because you either need a money order or have to cross the border, find a bank branch and deposit the cash.

If you’re a Canadian snowbird, your credit card choices come down to the following options:

  • Canadian-issued credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees;
  • US dollar credit card issued by a Canadian bank; or
  • a US dollar credit card issued by a US bank.

No foreign transaction fee credit cards

Trips to the US and abroad also means dealing with foreign currency. You might think your credit card provider is doing you a favour by converting your foreign purchases back into Canadian dollars, but think again. Foreign currency conversion fees are often hidden within your credit card statement – blended in with the exchange rate so you don’t even notice you’re paying extra on your purchases.

Every major Canadian financial institution charges around a 2.5% fee for foreign currency conversions on credit card transactions, a stiff penalty that cancels out any rewards you might have earned for using your credit card for purchases while travelling.

So, what’s a traveller to do? Luckily, there are a few no foreign transaction fee credit cards for Canadians looking to save money on foreign travel as well as on items purchased online through foreign retailers.

Home Trust – a subsidiary of Home Capital Group Inc., which is known for its line of secured credit cards – charges no foreign transaction fee on its Home Trust Preferred Visa Card. That means customers using this card will save the 2.5% foreign transaction fee when making purchases in a non-Canadian currency.

The Home Trust Preferred Visa also offers 1% cash back per dollar on all purchases (include those made abroad), charges no annual fee and includes a built-in roadside assistance membership – a major perk for cardholders who also own a car. It’s worth noting that for all the card’s benefits, you are limited to a maximum of ten transactions per day. If you plan on using a mix of cash and credit or don’t intend on using plastic frequently while abroad, this card is an ideal choice.

Home Trust Preferred Visa

  • No annual fee
  • No foreign transaction fee charged on purchases abroad
  • Earn 1% cash back on all purchases, with no limit on the amount you can earn
  • Not available to residents of Quebec

A premium alternative to the Home Trust Preferred Visa, the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite is a no foreign transaction fee credit card that is catered to frequent travellers and comes with a lucrative 25,000 point bonus, free airport lounge access through Priority Pass and a $139 annual fee. Plus, this card offers 2X the points on restaurants, groceries and daily commuting expenses such as taxis and public transit. Points can be redeemed for flights and other travel-oriented rewards.

Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite

  • Annual fee: $139
  • Welcome offer: Earn 25,000 bonus points (value: $250) when you make $1,000 in everyday purchases in the first 3 months
  • No foreign transaction fee charged on purchases abroad
  • Earn 2 Scotia Rewards points per dollar on groceries, restaurants, entertainment, and travel
  • Earn 1 point per dollar on all other eligible purchases
  • Enjoy complimentary Priority Pass membership, plus 6 free visits per year from the date of enrolment.

There are a handful of other credit card choices that allow Canadians to save on foreign transaction fees. The Rogers Platinum and Rogers World Elite MasterCards offset foreign transaction fees by offering a higher cash back return of 3% and 4% per dollar on foreign purchases respectively, while Brim Financial waives foreign transaction fees on their portfolio of credit cards.

Best suited for: Frequent travellers to the US and abroad who want to avoid the 2.5% foreign transaction fee that most major credit card issuers charge and who pay off their balance in Canadian dollars.

US Dollar credit cards issued by Canadian banks

Most Canadian banks and credit unions offer some form of US dollar accounts. Some offer US dollar credit cards as well, which allow you to sidestep conversion rates and currency exchange service charges.

A US dollar credit card is suitable for frequent travellers, cross-border shoppers, snowbirds, and online shoppers – basically, anyone who makes purchases in US dollars on a regular basis. Any Canadian resident can apply, as the requirements for obtaining a US dollar credit card are the same as for any other Canadian credit product. Customers avoid the foreign transaction fee (the extra 2.5% tacked onto regular exchange rates) as well since they can pay off their card in USD or CAD.

It’s important to note that if you choose to pay off the balance on your US dollar credit card with Canadian dollars, you’ll first have to convert your money to US dollars – which comes at a cost. That means this option may not be ideal for Canadians who don’t earn any income in US dollars or don’t regularly have US cash in a bank account.

U.S Dollar Credit Card Annual Fee
BMO U.S. Dollar Mastercard $35 USD (waived if $1,000 is spent on the card annually)
Scotiabank US Dollar Visa Card $35
Meridian VISA US Dollar Card $65 (waived for 1st year)
CIBC U.S. Dollar Aventura Gold Visa Card $35 (waived for 1st year)
RBC U.S. Dollar Visa Gold $65
TD U.S. Dollar Visa Card $39

Best suited for: Individuals or small business owners who want to keep US purchases and statements separate from their day-to-day banking in Canada or who carry US dollars.

US credit cards issued by US banks

A US credit card issued by a US bank is a great way to ensure you can make purchases, pay bills, and get access to your money when you need it most. You can also avoid foreign transaction fees in the US when you make spend and pay bills in the same currency.

In order to apply for a US domicile card, Canadian residents must have an American address. These credit cards are issued based on the applicant’s credit history in the US.

Both RBC and TD Canada Trust now offer accounts that overcome these hurdles, pairing them with a U.S. dollar credit card. They let you pay U.S. bills online, use American ATMs without access fees (PNC Bank ATMs in the case of RBC and 1,300 ATM locations in the East Coast for TD) and make it easy to transfer money among the accounts. Dealing with banks with operations on both sides of the border is an advantage because they’ll help you leverage your Canadian credit history to obtain a credit card, mortgage loan, or line of credit in the US.

If you plan on moving south for the long term, having a US credit card issued by a US bank is an excellent way to begin building your US credit history.

Best suited for: Snowbirds, or those with broader ties to the US, who want to build and maintain a US credit history.

Also read:

Flickr: GotCredit