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29 Jul

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Virtual personal assistants: Fancyhands and AskGeoffrey compared

July 29, 2013 | By |

Fancyhands and AskGeoffrey are both services have similar value propositions: They serve as a virtual personal assistant, taking tasks off your shoulders.

 

Fancyhands Image: Fancyhands screenshot

 

Both are also similar in that they say their people (what’s their lingo? assistants? taskers? problem solvers?) are based in the US (Fancyhands) or Berlin (AskGeoffrey). Which implies, of course, cultural familiarity of sorts and jobs not outsourced. Fancyhands’ assistants speak English, AskGeoffrey’s speak German and English. Fancyhands is live (plans range from 5 tasks for USD 25 per month to 25 tasks for USD 65 per month), AskGeoffrey is in semi-private beta (but about to open up to the public, for very similar prices). To get an idea of the kind of tasks both services accept, both published a list of example tasks (Fancyhands, AskGeoffrey.)

 

Ask Geoffrey Image: Ask Geoffrey screenshot

 

I was curious, so I tested both. I did so while traveling, so the tasks are somewhat travel-related. I imagine this was as good a test as any.

Without spoiling much, let me say this: I was impressed by both. But the point of a test is to give you a better impression of what to expect. Here are my results.

Please note that the quoted emails aren’t formatted properly here; that’s my fault, not the services’.

Task #1: Find me the best connection from Rijeka, Croatia to Belgrade, Serbia

More exactly, here’s my briefing sent to both services:

I’m looking for the best connection from Rijeka, Croatia to Belgrade, Serbia. I’d like to leave in the afternoon or evening of Sunday, 21 July, no matter if by train, bus, mini bus or any other means, as long as I can get to downtown Belgrade by 10pm at the latest. Could you find me a good connection?

I don’t have the exact time stamps at hand, but AskGeoffrey replied quicker, roughly within an hour or so, and here’s what they found:

Greetings, There is a direct bus line from Rijeka to Belgrade. This would be 9:25 hours journey. Journey starts at 11:30am and arrives in Belgrade at 20:55 You would need to buy the ticket in Rijeka from : Autotrans d.o.o. Rijeka Prodaja i rezervacija karata Trg Žabica 1 51000 Rijeka Telefon: 060 30 20 10 E-mail: info@autotrans.hr The ticket would cost you: 342 Croatian Kuna, (44,45 euro) There are no direct train lines, and it would take you way longer, about day and a half with a train, and long waiting hours in Zagreb. If you need any assistance with buying the ticket, or aren’t yet in Rijeka, let us know and we could assist you. We hope this was helpful and wishing you a pleasant journey.

Fancyhands took a few hours longer. To be fair, due to time zones it was early (weekday) morning in the US. Their reply:

By Rail Europe: http://fncy.it/XphGoO (raileurope.co.uk) From To Changes Via Price (All Passengers) Departing RIJEKA.: 20/07/13 20:40 Arriving BEOGRAD: 21/07/13 17:32 Duration20h 52m Changes: 2 Via Ljubljana, Zagreb £80.00 ~~ ~~ By Bus: http://fncy.it/12SWBB8 (fils.hr) Depart: RIJEKA 21.07.2013. 07:45 Arrive: Belgrade 16:00 Price: 342.00 Bus Line: Pula – Beograd

I have to admit I didn’t like either answer much as I had hoped for a quicker connection, but there simply is none, so I can’t blame the virtual assistants. In fact, Askgeoffrey picked the best connection by far, and the one we ended up taking. It also confirmed the information we got locally from the hotel staff just to confirm. (Yes, I really got into this.)

Clear winner in round 1: AskGeoffrey.

Task #2: Recommend coffee shops and vegetarian restaurants in Belgrade

Finding good vegetarian restaurants isn’t particularly easy anywhere, and always high on the agenda as M. is vegetarian. I’m always on the lookout for some delicious espresso, and willing to take significant detours to try out a promising new place. Combined, I’d easily sink 15-20 minutes on researching places. (Yes, I easily get side-tracked on this kind of mission.) So here’s the briefing I sent:

I’m traveling in Belgrade, Serbia with my wife for a few days. Could you recommend a few great coffee shops and vegetarian restaurants for us?

This time, Fancyhands was really fast, it took them just about a half hour to come up with this list:

Coffee Shops: 1. Enoteka Premier Strahinjica Bana no.13a, Belgrade 11000, Serbia Tel:+381638638206 http://fncy.it/1bFCcJ3 (tripadvisor.com) 2. Coffee Dream Makedonska 30, Belgrade, Serbia http://fncy.it/12HbpE8 (tripadvisor.com) 3. Cafe Biblioteka Terazjie 27, Belgrade, Serbia http://fncy.it/13xq8oe (tripadvisor.com) 4. Cafe Hotel Moskva Terazije 20, Belgrade, Serbia http://fncy.it/15ZpoJo (hotelmoskva.rs) Vegetarian Restaurants: 1. Radost Fina Kuhinjica Pariska 3 | Pariska 3, Belgrade 11000, Serbia Tel: 0616044445 http://fncy.it/16UGkxT (facebook.com) http://fncy.it/13xpcAn (tripadvisor.com) 2. Priroda Batutova 11 SE of City Centre Tel: 011 241 1890 Read more: http://fncy.it/16UFX6j (lonelyplanet.com) Have a great time!

Friendly and comprehensive.

AskGeoffrey took a bit longer, they clocked in at about 1,5 hours. Here’s the result:

Greetings/ Dobar dan; Here is list of few veggy restaurant : Radost fina kuhinjica – Price: Low (up to 20 EUR for two) JazzaYoga – – Price: Low (up to 20 EUR for two) Mumbai – – Price: Low (up to 20 EUR for two) These are just a few. More listed restaurant you can find here. More about Belgrade and life there, follow this link . And even more tips, here. Coffee shops: Costa Coffee Serbia – Address: Bulevar kralja Aleksandra No. 80 | Phone: +381 (0)11 38 63 687 | Opening Hours: 10:00-01:00 Greenet Belgrade – Address: Bulevar kralja Aleksandra No. 72-74 | Phone: +381 (0)11 34 40 106 | Opening Hours: 10:00-01:00 Speak Easy – Address: Republic Square No. 5, 11000 Belgrade | Opening Hours: 09:00-01:00 More caffees: here We wish you a pleasant stay in Beograd, and don’t forget to take a stroll down the Donau and have a swimm at infamous Ada Ciganlija.

Again, quite comprehensive, and the pointer to the island for some swimming is a nice touch.

I haven’t had a chance to check out any of the places recommended by either, but a superficial cross-check with Foursquare seems to indicate to me that Fancyhands has had a luckier hand at picking vegetarian places and coffeeshops. (To be fair, Belgrade isn’t exactly famous for either, so both had to make due with what they could.) Both services added links to further information, Fancyhands a little more extensively than AskGeoffrey. The time effort on my side? Less than a minute. Fantastic!

At first glance, Fancyhands’ results look a bit more convincing, but it’s too close to call. It’s a tie!

Task #3: Find me impressive examples of 3D printing for a presentation

On to a more work-related scenario: A talk is coming up and I still have to prepare my slides. (This scenario has the advantage of being a real-life case. The results might go straight into a conference presentation.) It’s a field I know, so I can judge the results pretty well, but there’s so much happening that the chances are very good that I’ll learn something new. So here’s my verbatim briefing:

I’m preparing a presentation and am looking for some impressive examples: Could you find me 10 examples of cool stuff that 3D printing is used for from a variety of fields? (like technology, architecture, medicine, toys, etc.)

Both services replied after roughly 2.5 hours and within a few minutes of each other.

Fancyhands was a tad faster:

3D printing has opened so many possibilities that it’s almost hard to narrow down to a non-infinite list. But here’s my personal top 10, in no particular order: 1. Food. NASA has been looking into printing food for astronauts. Here’s a link to that: http://fncy.it/12IR8Oy (nasa.gov) and here’s a link to a TED talk where some 3D printed food is eaten onstage: http://fncy.it/12IR41h (youtube.com) 2. Art. Joshua Harker creates some gorgeous 3D art pieces. He’s on of many artists using this as a new medium: http://fncy.it/1bbuy9W (joshharker.com) 3. The face and skull of King Richard III: http://fncy.it/163CqUb (livescience.com) 4. Breathable, comfortable casts for broken limbs: http://fncy.it/19faeTE (mashable.com) 5. Prosthetics. Limbs, faces, jaws. Nothing seems to be off limits. Here’s a link about a man who got half of his face back: http://fncy.it/12IRUuF (gizmodo.com) This one is about a child who can use his hand again thanks to this technology: http://fncy.it/18wXzJ1 (venturebeat.com) And even ducks profit from 3D printing: http://fncy.it/1dRUPpP (livescience.com) 6. Clothes, such as a dress for Dita Von Teese: http://fncy.it/19faIZR (gizmodo.com) Here’s an article about a company making dresses, shoes, even bras: http://fncy.it/17AwKT5 (mashable.com) 7. A working gun that doesn’t fall apart: http://fncy.it/1bbwqj2 (youtube.com) 8. A camera lens: http://fncy.it/131bF4j (thingiverse.com) 9. Body parts. Liver tissue: http://fncy.it/131bPsp (organovo.com) They can even make working ears: http://fncy.it/131bSV7 (cornell.edu) 10: Musical instruments, like this working guitar: http://fncy.it/13WOYtG (cubify.com) Bonus: You can print a 3D printer from your 3D printer: http://fncy.it/1bbxFPn (reprap.org) I hope these have helped! I enjoyed researching this for you.

This list is fantastic – a nice, solid overview of what’s going on. Most of the must-see items are included, plus a couple I hadn’t been aware of. Pulling these together out of my personal archives would have taken me much, much longer. I’m loving this!

AskGeoffrey sent this, just a few moments later:

you can find many impressive 3D-examples, divided into categories like art, architekture, industrial design etc. on this page: http://www.3dz.at/assets/s2dmain.html?http://www.3dz.at/50065297641381708/index.html plus you can find examples on this blog, dealing with videos on the subject 3D-printing: http://3dprintblog.de/8-unglaubliche-videos-um-deine-freunde-vom-3d-druck-zu-uberzeugen/ I hope, you will find there inspiration for your upcoming presentation! Otherwise get back to us for further assistance, please.

Two links to collections? Here, AskGeoffrey might have taken the easy way out. To be fair, the collections here are pretty decent.

Still, this round has a clear winner: Fancyhands.

Task #4: Does VAT apply to conference ticket sales?

Feeling euphorically from the prior results, while banging my head against a seemingly simple (but potentially quite tricky) problem, I decided to go all in and put my new friends at Fancyhands and AskGeoffrey to a hard test: Tax research!

Here’s the context: As someone who organizes events on a fairly regular basis, ticketing and, more concretely, taxes are always a bit of a headache. When does German VAT apply, when are there exceptions? I vaguely remember there being some exceptions depending on where the ticket buyers are based. But was it the US, the UK, or some other country that caused the trouble during the invoicing process? Or did we unnecessarily complicate the process every time in the past?

Here’s what I wrote:

I’m preparing to organize a conference, and there’s a question you might be able to dig up an answer to: Does German VAT/MwSt apply to all ticket sales, no matter where the buyer is from, or do we have to differentiate between different buyer countries (maybe US or OK)? The conference itself takes place in Berlin, where the organizing company is also based and registered. Thanks so much!

Let me say this: It’s super tricky. It’s a question that even experienced event people puzzle over regularly – usually with a slightly pained expression on their face.

And to be fair, a similar email went out to my tax advisor, too. So let’s see how everybody fared.

Clearly, this is a highly advanced request, and frankly almost a bit unfair – it could have been an easy answer, but it was likely to be at least somewhat complex (with a certain potential for high complexity). And sure enough, it was a tough nut to crack.

Fancyhands replied first – after about 9.5 hours:

I conducted research for you on German VAT for an international event’s ticket sales. While I am not a tax expert, and my information is not meant to be more than research due to my lack of license in this area, I have found the following resource which I believe answers your questions: http://fncy.it/138fB3t (squiresanders.com) “In contrast to personal taxes, German Value Added Tax (VAT) is a tax on transactions. VAT is a sales tax which is levied at all levels of taxable supplies of goods and services made by a taxable person in the course of any business activity carried on in Germany and on the importation of goods from other states. The German VAT Act (VATA) is harmonised under the EC-wide VAT system. Therefore, decisions of the European Court of Justice have an important impact on the interpretation of the VATA. Due to the possibility for entrepreneurs to deduct VAT (input tax) paid for received services or goods if these are related to taxable output transaction or certain VAT-exempt transactions, the tax payment is generally neutral for the business of the entrepreneur. This means that VAT is not an expense item but it is only a pass-through item. Only for private individuals or certain tax-exempt entrepreneurs, VAT paid to customers is a final expense.” It appears you need to collect the 19% VAT on all tickets, and those who are exempt from VAT can request a refund. I hope this answers your questions.

This seems like a correct answer, and more importantly, the doesn’t pretend to be certain where she cannot be. It’s a careful interpretation of a complex subject. What it doesn’t touch on is the special regulations for conferences – it’s hard to tell if that’s the case because it’s not relevant here, or if it didn’t come up in the research. I’d say: Solid, appropriately careful.

So, what about AskGeoffrey? I was planning to mark them as FAIL if they didn’t reply within 24h. But lo and behold, just half an hour before the cut off point they did get back to me:

First, apologies for the delayed response, our service has become rather popular lately and we’re doing our best to keep up with demand! In response to your query, we did some research and our preliminary results indicate that VAT on service is only applicable to EU states, and not to non-EU states. Please see the following link: http://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/taxation/vat/how_vat_works/vat_on_services/#supply_services B2C services like advertising services, services of consultants and lawyers, financial services,telecommunications services, broadcasting services and electronically supplied services are taxed at the place where the customer is established provided the customer is established in a non-EU country [Article 59 of the VAT Directive]. Example 47: When a Hungarian company sells an anti-virus programme to be downloaded through its website to private individuals residing in Australia, there will be no VAT due in Hungary. Example 48: Services rendered by a Belgian lawyer to a US professor will not be subject to VAT in Belgium. Nonetheless, we have contacted Event Brite support with this precise question and will get back to you once they respond. A few information links we found below (although they are rather complex!): http://www.retailresearch.org/eurovat.php http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/vat/managing/international/exports/goods.htm#6 http://help.eventbrite.com/customer/portal/articles/430169-charge-tax-on-tickets-limited-availability-

So, this reply is interesting in a number of ways. First of all, congratulations for becoming more popular. Given the service is still in beta mode and free to use for the beta users, I don’t think I have a right to super prompt replies, so let’s not factor the timing in – after all, I did get a reply.

Looking at the reply, first I thought: Hey, that’s just a quickly googled list, largely un-parsed. Not quite true, as it turns out. There are a couple of links in there that quite clearly are of the more generic sort, applicable to exported goods, etc. A conference is, as far as I can tell using a mix of common sense, experience and deduction, not an exported good: It is organized in one place, and as such the location of where the service is provided is easily determined. The first link does, however, contain information that seems to be very spot on. It’s part of a fairly long list of other information and it would have been really cool to just point me to the two bullet points that seem relevant, but ok. The link is valid, it’s just a little hard to tell if it was top research and just didn’t include the pointer to the concrete thing, or if it was a bit of a lucky guess. The next two links are a bit off topic, as is the focus on exporting goods and services (like legal services and software sales). This is helpful for anyone who has ever sold services to clients abroad – it’s just not what inquired about.

Then there’s the last sentence – that they actually got in touch with Eventbrite to get more information about event taxes. That’s good thinking. Eventbrite should be able to answer that kind of question. If they do, we’ll see.

While I’ll wait for a professional assessment for this topic from my tax advisor before deciding on how to best handle taxation and invoicing of my conference tickets, let’s call a winner for this task.

Alas, I can’t compare the replies with my tax advisor’s just yet – vacation time means I’ll have to wait for another week to hear back from them.

Leaving aside the slower response times given that AskGeoffrey isn’t officially live yet, it’s a tough one. Fancyhands gave carefully considered advice, but may or may not have looked into the specifics for conferences. They did recognize the conference focus, and interpreted the findings. AskGeoffrey stumbled over some very relevant information, but it seems like it might have happened accidentally. They didn’t seem to focus on the conferences, but then did follow up with an external expert of sorts.

It’s to close to call – this one is a tie.

Result: It’s a tie.

With one task with a clear winner each, and two tasks with a tie, there’s no clear winner. A result I’m quite happy with: Both services are great.

So it boils down to personal preference. If you’re based in the US, you might prefer Fancyhands for better understanding context on the ground, and to work around time zones. If you’re in Germany, AskGeoffrey is great as they start with a bi-lingual setup right away and can help you navigate the German context, and the rest of Europe at least as well as Fancyhands (at least in theory).

As a side note, I noticed that this kind of service takes some getting used to. After the first couple of emails, finding the right scope and briefing gets easier, which should lead to more time savings and better results over time.

As for now, I can say I’ll certainly sign up with at least one of the services for a while to keep testing – maybe I’ll just alternate until I’ve figured out which suits me best. After this first initial test I know I’ll be well served at either one of them.

Do go check them out: AskGeoffrey, Fancyhands.

15 Dec

By

The last of the Zivis

December 15, 2011 | By |

Today, the last of the Zivis finished their last day at work. Calling this The End of an Era wouldn’t be overstated: From 1973 to 2011 (today, actually), more than 2.7 million young men served in Germany. (More stats and history in German on Wikipedia.) Only instead of serving in the military, they worked at mostly social institutions like hospital, elder care homes and the like.

1999

I was just about 19 when I put in my year of Zivildienst, roughly from mid-1999 to mid-2000. It was certainly one the most transformative years of my life, potentially also one of the worst, and I’m sure I’d be a very different person today had I not learned what I learned there.

Memories of details are a bit blurry by now, but there are a few things I remember very clearly.

Zivildienst in the Black Forest

My Zivildienst was in a small Black Forest town at the local branch of a large social institution, and the Zivis were used in a variety of context. Shifts in an retirement home, driving both elder people around and disabled kids to school, helping people in need with their chores, as well as elder home care were all part of the tasks we had.

My role was largely as a driver, at least that was my initial assignment. That was good. Often, home care for old or disabled people was part of that deal. Not as fun, but I got to learn a lot, empathy not the least bit of it. Whenever there was trouble back at the HQ, I was placed on some nightshift or another in the retirement home, which I hated.

There was a lot of trouble.

First day

When you were drafted, some of your basic civic rights are revoked. No more freedom of movement (if you went on vacation, you had to let your superiors know), no more civil police (in case of job-related trouble like, say, you not showing up, it was the military police that would come get you). None of that goes down particularly well with a 19-year old. But it’s part of the deal, and I didn’t think much about it. If I did, I grumbled, but shrugged.

Alas, the moment I started my service I know there was trouble on the horizon. On my very first day – I had hardly been briefed on what my job would be – the phone in the common room rang. The same common room where I and the other 15 or so Zivis would hang out for a good deal of the rest of the year. I picked up the phone, because I was the only one around, not having a job yet and all. It was the boss, telling me to come see her at her office.

I went upstairs, expecting my first task or something. Instead, she was clearly in a bad mood and started talking to me, then yelling at me. It became clear that she was pissed off at some other Zivi, or all her Zivis in general, for not showing up at work, or screwing up in other ways.

Even today I remember that conversation quite clearly. I replied quietly, that it was my first day, and that I could not take responsibility for the actions of the others. That I hadn’t yet met them, even. She kept yelling. I distinctly remember replying, still quietly, another three or four times that I don’t see how I could help, but that I also didn’t see myself as the person to blame. After all, it was my first day.

Then, after another five minutes of being yelled at, I snapped. I still remember being very clear that moment, thinking that this is probably not a good idea and that I’d regret it. But I snapped anyway, and started yelling back.

That was the first day of my service, and it didn’t get much better than that.

Vodka, painkillers and a Playstation

I was lucky. I was a home sleeper since I lived nearby, so I had natural breaks where I got out of the context of this work, or rather that office. Others had to stay there, a year at a time. And I remember what it did to a number of my colleagues. People from all walks of life, and everybody coped differently. Some didn’t cope at all. One guy had resorted to painkillers and vodka as his daily routine. Most stuck to a slightly healthier mix of beer and long nights at the Playstation.

During the day, we’d all be in our social role: Taking care of people in need. It’s sometimes hard, often times even gross, where too many bodily fluids are involved. But it’s an enriching, maturing experience that I’m thankful to have made.

But once back the HQ, the mood was different. Morale was often low with a mix of tristesse, anger and desperation. Tristesse because of the routine. Anger about the boss, the unfair and intransparent treatment. And desperation about the lack of power to defend against the mobbing.

And it was mobbing, I see that even more clearly today than I did back then. Vacations were cancelled the day before they’d start on implausible pretexts, certain jobs used as sticks, others as carrots. Legal threats were nothing unusual, which in this context means the same as for soldiers: Jail time is comparatively easy to come by. When you’re hardly 20, you don’t want to take chances and bank on the real probabilities. It scares the shit out of you.

Just as an example, I remember one time where I had cleared a long weekend to go to an IT fair in another city. I was half-way through my service, and hadn’t managed to line up a spot at university, so I wanted to go look for a job. It was 1999, and IT jobs were incredibly attractive. All papers had been signed months in advance. The night before I was supposed to leave, I get a phone call.

I couldn’t go, the boss said. Why?, I asked. Too many people might be sick the next day to keep the service running, she told me. Had anyone called in sick, I asked, suddenly worried. No, not a single person had, she continued. Yet, you’re grounded. Your vacation’s done.

I remember going a few rounds with her, explaining to her how that was an important career thing for me, and pleaded for a while, but to no avail.

The next day, and I’m not proud of this, I called in sick. That didn’t help me though. It didn’t take long and she threatened me with the military police if I didn’t show up – either healthy, to work. Or sick, in which case I’d be forced to move into the HQ until I was back on my feet. She had called my bluff and made me face legal prosecution. I guess you could call it heavy handed management.

This was the kind of atmosphere that marked my service.

On the other hand, so did the camaraderie that sounds like a bit like a cliché, but is a strong bonding force. Throw 15 young guys into an intense shared experience and you get yourselfs some strong bonds, no matter if they last beyond the service or no.

Torn

So you’ll understand why I feel a bit torn about my personal Zivildienst experience.

And yet, I’ve always felt like a service of some sort to your country is a good thing that can strengthen democracy.

People should be able to choose between military and social service. It should be gender-balanced, and include 100% of the people of the respective age bracket. And you should probably get credits for school, or tax incentives, or something. But I think a service year can be a rich experience, and it can give young people a year to get their head straigth about what they want to do afterwards, while doing something societally useful, instead of internships in ad agencies.

As things stand, I’m not going to romanticize or miss the old service. However, if the government introduced a service like that, as a smarter, more balanced follow-up to the service that ended today, I think I’d approve of that. It’s not a bad thing at all. And social institutions across the country would benefit quite a bit.