Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Wish I’d known sooner there was an app for that

I have a pretty basic Samsung smartphone that I thought I was happy with. So far, though, I’ve mostly been using it to make actual phone calls. I haven’t really taken to texting in a big way, and I don’t email from it much, because I hate typing on the damn thing. The keyboard seems too small and I keep making mistakes. It takes forever for even a short message. It’s just frustrating.

Or it was. Because thanks to Google+, of all things, I became aware that I can install an alternative on-screen keyboard on my phone. Specifically, the SwiftKey 3 keyboard. Between its very good auto-suggest and its touch-responsive design, I’m just so much faster and more accurate now. I can actually type on my phone without swearing.

I should have installed this months ago. Best $4 I’ve spent in a while (first month free).

(No compensation received for this endorsement. Sadly.)


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So many screens and not much to watch

We did all our Boxing Day shopping online. We wanted a new big-screen TV for the downstairs TV room; many were on sale for Boxing Day; and you can get the same prices online as at the store. And you can often put in your order even before December 26. And they’ll bring it to you! Talking about this, though, I learned:

  1. A number of people remain nervous about purchasing big-ticket items online.
  2. Said nervousness is now completely foreign to me, as “online” has become my main “store” of choice for so many things.

There is a downside to it, though, in the lack of complete instant gratification. Delivery is fast, but not instantaneous. And with the TV, there was some confusion over the credit card to use, and it took a little longer than usual to arrive. Meantime, the other pieces we realized we needed to make the new TV “go” showed up: The new receiver with its six HDMI ports (versus the zero HDMI on the old one); the HDMI cables themselves; the TV mounting rack. All sitting around rather useless without a TV to pull it all together.

But hey, now they’re one big happy family. And that HDMI thing really does simplify the connections: the receiver, TV, PVR, recordable DVD, international DVD, and computer, all linked to one another in pretty short order. Where the old way, it always seemed to turn into a full-day project. Now we just have to consolidate remotes, because we’re currently juggling six of them!

Our downstairs rooms is pretty big, so we went with a 55′ screen, and I think it looks gorgeous. I thought my old receiver was actually pretty good, lack of HDMI notwithstanding, but this new one is definitely bringing out the bass in a way I hadn’t heard before (from the exact same speakers). Both DVDs can now properly render DTS and other high-quality sound streams. (Neither is BluRay—we had to leave our BluRay upstairs, where it doubles as the receiver for that TV—but that’s minor.)

And finally, finally, it’s easy to project anything from the computer onto a TV screen.

So the only issue is—there just isn’t a lot of good stuff to watch, is there? Admittedly, on TV, there was the Christmas rerun break, and now things are starting again—Big Bang, Daily Show, The Mentalist, etc And I recently discovered I have FX Canada (when did Rogers give me that?), and Louis is a pretty good show. But I haven’t been passionate about a television program in quite some time. It seems like everything really good is on HBO, which I’m just not paying for. The only new network series we really got into, The Last Resort, has been cancelled (though does seem to have a new episode tonight, but not sure how many more).

And web viewing? It’s a bit of an exercise in frustration if you’re Canadian, isn’t it? The networks have stuff, but it’s pretty limited. The American and UK stuff is blocked in Canada, unless you do some VPN shenanigans. iTunes has stuff, but it’s kind of expensive. You can actually find a surprising amount of stuff on YouTube (whole movies and shows), but the picture quality is often not that great, and you get the period “freezing”. We will be trying Netflix, finally, but we all know the Canadian selection and picture quality is more limited.

And I also know I have some sort of data cap with Rogers. That hasn’t been issue up to now, but how much web content can I watch until it is?

I may just have to turn to my (if I do say so myself) excellent collection of personal DVDs. Buffy marathon, anyone?


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These are a few of my favorite tweets

I didn’t get Twitter for a long time. I’d go there and not really see the point. In practical terms, I didn’t really understand how anything of value could be provided in 140 characters. And there was all that talk of people just tweeting about what they had for breakfast.

Now, though, I’m addicted.

I initially signed on based on a friend’s advice to do so just to get a good Twitter-name, even if I didn’t do much with it right away. Turned out she had a point; most variations of my name and my most commonly used web pseudonyms were already in use by others. But I did find an available combination.

Twitter has a bit of learning curve to it. I started by just following a small number of people and trying to figure it out from there. I soon learned that a lot of power is in the link; sure, you can’t say that much in 140 characters, but you can link to those details. (And to photos. And to videos.)

But when I’m say addicted, it’s not to tweeting itself, which I remain a little gun-shy about. (Apparently I have tweeted 28 times in total.) In fact, I’m still not completely clear on who sees what when it comes replies, direct replies, direct messages, retweets, private message… ? All in all, it’s easier to just listen, most of the time.

Currently I follow 59 accounts, some of whom haven’t tweeted in two years, some of whom tweet so frequently, I don’t know how they stay employed.

Among my favorites are the following.

@Elizabeth May:  A lot of the politicians I follow tweet mostly dull platitudes, toeing the party line. Elizabeth May (federal leader of the Green Party, but you knew that) tweets more like a real person would. I particularly enjoy her tweets from Parliament Hill, which give insight into things that wouldn’t necessarily make the media:

I had planned to make a statement marking Remembrance Day. I am shocked the CPC has blocked my chance to speak.

They didn’t like the point I was making. 40 years 1913-1956 closure used 10x; in last 40 days, 7x

Conservatives keep limiting debate. They have the votes. Not sure why everything has to be forced thru.

Ban asbestos motion. First vote to keep asbestos trade, our PM.

John McCallum asked Tony Clement about an answer by tweet! Twitter seems to be Clement’s only forum 4 G8 $ Q’s. Baird takes all Qs in QP.

Though must say it’s not exactly improving my opinion of the Conservative Party of Canada.

@simont400000: He being Simon Townshend, the much younger brother of one Pete Townshend, and who also tours with Roger Daltrey. Been kind of fun “following” him on tour:

Great show in Vancouver. Smokin’ crowd! Two shows left on tour and the TCT charity gig in LA. Come along… 2.5k a ticket. Rock n’ Roll!

And his random tweets are also kind of funny:

@Kimmittable: I’m a real fan of your earlier work.” I said that to Joni Mitchell once and she told me to Fuck off. True!

And if you’re wondering what it’s like to not be famous yourself (though he is himself quite a talented composer and musician), but hanging with the very famous:

Getting home from tour is strange… no daily sheet, no room service, no living from suitcase or doing laundry – no gigs. Not being a pop star

@dizzyfeet: This being the moniker of Nigel Lithgow, producer of American Idol and judge on So You Think You Can Dance. It’s in the latter capacity that I’m interested, but I don’t follow anyone else connected with that show. Nigel’s feed is just hilarious as he so frequently engages in public battles with those who reply to this tweets. There’s a whole “Moron” meme running through his feed that you’d have to read back on to completely understand.

RT @Clamanity: @izzyfeet Emmy voters are morons. [I KNOW. I’VE BEEN HANDING OUT #MORON NUMBERS ALL NIGHT. HA, HA!]

He’s also satisfyingly blunt (not mean) in posting his opinion. He’s recently been listed on “Recommend people to follow on Twitter”, so I’m not the only one to notice the fun to be had here. His response:

Welcome to all my new followers. Thank you#NewYorkPost I felt truly proud. Bring on the#Morons.

Of course!

@karenscian: Who? Right! She makes Simon Townshend seem famous. She’s my city councillor. Who has actually gotten in trouble for tweeting during council meetings.

But her feed covers a great deal more than the goings-on at Waterloo City Hall. She comments on Waterloo news in general, federal and provincial politics, food, family… An eclectic mix that very often seems to jibe with my own interests.

And I’ll leave the last tweet to her.

Oh Twitter, you are such a procrastination-enabler.


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Xoom, xoom, xoom

I’ve been kind of wanting a tablet since, well, how long has the iPad been out now? Because it’s been about that long. Phones are too small and come with expensive data plans; laptops are too big and have pathetic battery life. Tablets seemed just right.

But, I hate to be an early adopter—otherwise known as suckers. Those tech-hungry folks who pay too much to essentially do beta-testing on versions 1.0 of whatever, thus paving the way for the rest of us to get the better, cheaper 2.0 version.

So when iPad 2 came out to mostly rave reviews, it seemed no longer necessary to wait. Except… Now there were all these competitors as well. And, I didn’t really like what I was hearing about how Apple was treating some of the apps providers. And, I wasn’t really that crazy about having to do everything through iTunes. And not having USB. Or Flash.

But many competitors seemed to have serious failings. Very short battery life. High price. Small screen size. Finally, the Motorola Xoom was released. On size, price, storage, battery life, it was about the same as Apple. Considered more clunky and harder to use, it wasn’t exactly getting rave reviews. But it didn’t tie you to a particular application to load files. And it had Google behind it, and I do use many things Google. So it seemed worth consideration.

Motorola XoomHowever, the Xoom is very, very much at version 1.0. The list of features it supposedly has but that don’t quite work yet (updates someday, we promise) is almost comical: SD card, full USB support, full Flash support, Android 3.1 (created but not yet available in Canada). And the number of apps, particularly those designed for tablets in particular, is way behind what is available in the iTunes.

So that was the dilemma. Get the mature product that would leave me tied to the whims of Steve Jobs, or pay the same amount for a product with the potential—but not the actuality, yet—of being better.

Uncharacteristically, I voted Xoom.

For the record, it does have flaws. Most of which I was aware of before purchase:

  • The screen is an unbelievable fingerprint magnet. You’d think someone would have realized that was a bad idea for a touch device. I’ve never Windex-ed anything so much.
  • The screen is also overly reflective. When viewing darker videos, you get a great reflection of your face back. I’m not narcissistic enough to really enjoy that.
  • It can’t handle that many video formats. Actually, I haven’t been able to load any formats it will view. Though maybe some app would help with that–haven’t checked.
  • It’s not as handy with PDFs as I’d like (though again, there may be an app for that). I can always view them; I can’t always seems to load or download them, and I’m not sure why.
  • Google Books doesn’t work in Canada.
  • The wild and crazy world of apps does take some getting used to.

On the other hand…

It really is great with most things Google. Unknowingly, I’ve been preparing for this tablet by using so many Google features on the computer. After the wireless connection (quick and easy), it asks you to log into Google. And based on that, it sets everything up: Your email, your calendar, your Picassa photos, your YouTube account, your Google docs. And they all work beautifully, with a great tablet interface. The Google maps are also nice. (And I hear Google Chat is very good, but I don’t use that one.) Google Reader is just OK–but I have found an app that improves that.

And the browser experience has been pretty decent so far as well. It’s just so much better, in fact, to view long web pages with embedded video and links and images on the tablet vs. on my desktop. And like on an iPad, you can zoom the font size, change orientation, smoothly scroll around.

It’s also very customizable, which, I’m told, the iPad is not. It comes with five different home pages you can set up how you want. I’m only using two so far, but I like the possibilities.

The on-screen keyboard has also been surprisingly easy to get used to, and much better than trying to type with your thumbs. Mind, functionality that is way basic on a computer takes a little work here—does this auto-save? (Nope. Save command in menu on the bottom bar.) How do I close this? (Can’t. Unless you get an app for that.) How do I copy and paste? (Select, hold, menu will pop up with these options.) But I suppose figuring all that out is good for my brain. (Though it’s actually making me wish for more online help as well.)

Anyway. It’s only day 3, so I still have 11 days to change my mind and return it. But so far, it definitely has more items in the Keep than Return column. Pass the Windex!


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If Canada Post strikes, will you notice?

It may seem strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive.
But what’s stranger still
Is how something so small could keep you alive.

“We Used to Wait” by Arcade Fire

Canada Post delivered my Victoria Secret order today, just ahead of their strike deadline. I thought that was great of them, considering I’d placed the order just on Saturday, and didn’t select the fast shipping options.

I get abnormally delight about having things delivered to my house. As a result, I have a bunch of stuff showing up here on a regular basis. A daily newspaper. A biweekly basket of local organic produce. A bimonthly order of organic fair-trade coffee. Several monthly or bimonthly magazine subscriptions. Music and movies on plastic discs, not just in digital bits! Books on dead trees! And the percentage of my wardrobe deriving from Victoria’s Secret is probably unusually high.

Of course, that doesn’t all get here by Canada Post. Having heard about the strike threat on Monday, I got to wondering what I’d actually miss.

The bulk of the mail I get, of course, is just advertising and requests for donations (with “free gifts”). That stuff just tends to sit around unopened for quite a while. So, I dare say I’m not going to miss that too much.

I used to get mountains of catalogs; the number is way down now. I’ll usually flip through the ones that still arrive: Vintages magazine, the discount books, exercises videos, Lee Valley. And naturally, Victoria’s Secret (once Jean’s done with it). But still, I don’t see missing that stuff too desperately, either.

Now, the disruption to my Rogers Video Direct DVD rentals will be a little annoying. Hey, I’ve just realized that the copy of Central Station that has apparently been shipped to me hasn’t arrived yet! OK, see, I am definitely somewhat annoyed about that. Especially since they’ve already received the copy of Good Hair that I returned. Plus, TV is mostly reruns now.

But, what else. I can still order from Amazon.ca, because they use UPS. Ditto Lee Valley. Ebay, Chapters, VSC are out but, hey, I think I can do without those for a bit. Magazine subscriptions will be disrupted, but I’m always behind on reading those anyway. A chance to catch up.

As for me actually mailing things, well, it has become a pretty rare event to mail personal letters and cards. I do have to send in a cheque for my high school reunion thingie by the end of the month, so if this drags on, I’ll have to use UPS or something for that. But my biggest use of stamps is for insurance companies. Because Jean and I are with different companies, we can’t submit everything electronically. To get the full refund, we have to send in paper forms and paper receipts.

It’s a huge pain that I won’t miss at all, but I do like getting the actual money back. Of course, the Sun Life office is local. I could probably just drop off the paperwork in person.

So wow. A postal strike is hardly the big deal it used to be, eh? Even for those of us still nostalgically tied to old media forms and the thrill of getting a package.

I’m not going to join in on the union bashing here (although, bankable sick days? Probably I’m just jealous, though, since I’d likely have accumulated a year or two off by now if I could do that…), but this could certainly be a tough fight for them. If due to strike, people keep finding other ways around Canada Post, that’s not good for either side.

Maybe I’ll just have to try them new-fangled online movies…

We used to wait for it. We used to wait for it.
Sometimes it never came.
Sometimes it never came.


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Bob Geldof (‘s people) tweeted about “my” video

I have a Twitter account now, but this is no request for followers, as I have yet to “tweet” a darn thing.

I have, however, been following a few people, like the recently launched @BobGeldofFans. It’s not Bob (who, I learned on Twitter, apparently doesn’t even email, let alone tweet), but it is sanctioned by him.

And 23 hours ago, they posted this:

BobGeldofFans Bob Geldof

MEMORY LANE Take a look at this video — Bob Geldof – Too Late God – Tribute to Freddie Mercury concert youtube.com/watch?v=h6zSlO… via @youtube

Which links to a video on my YouTube account! So that was sort of cool. (Though one has to say this was hardly Bob’s best live performance…)


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I’m not a charity case

Unsolicited free items I have received from registered national charities:

  • Christmas cards and envelopes (enough to open my own little Hallmark store)
  • Address labels (enough to last me the rest of my life, I think)
  • Notepads
  • Pens
  • Christmas CD
  • Money (generally in coin form)
  • Reusable shopping bags
  • Calendars (and to think I used to enjoy buying those for myself)
  • Gift bags
  • Wrapping paper and bows
  • Organic fair trade tea
  • Birthday, symphathy, and “any occasion” cards and envelopes (for my expanding Hallmark store, I guess)
  • Scarf
  • T-shirt

And that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head. And in most cases, not even from charities I donate to.

Whatever surprise or delight I might have once felt in getting something for nothing is now lost under the sheer quantity of stuff coming in. It’s tipping toward making me feel punished rather than rewarded for donating regularly.

It must work, or they wouldn’t do it. But damn. How much more good could be done if they didn’t have to bribe people into donating?

Charities see alarming trend as donors become older, fewer


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Is it just me, or does the redesigned Globe kind of suck?

The Globe and Mail has spent a fortune redesigning itself—again. And certainly, I have no problem with the smaller page size, the increased colour, the glossy pages. But the content…?

The rumor was that, in trying to attract a younger audience (or something), there would be more “fluff”. But really, I find it’s in the “fluff” — the arts, the life stuff — that have been downsized the most.

The 7-day TV listings on Friday I used to program the PVR to? Gone.

Rick Salutin’s always interesting Friday column? Gone.

Tabitha Southby’s often hilarious Saturday column? Gone.

Movie reviews? Greatly reduce. Book reviews? Ditto.

The Style section, which I used to generally love its seemingly being aimed primarily at rich Torontonians, is barely worth looking at anymore. Pictures of expensive clothes. Repeats of the Style emails I already get. Russell Smith’s column reduced to a paragraph. Wine reviews now in list format, with rating numbers. So easy to scan–I sometimes miss it completely!

I’m starting to feel like I should be getting a discount, I’m getting so much less that actually seems worth reading. For the first time in many years, I’m actually think of cancelling my subscription.


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Random Internet experiences. (Or are they?)

Jean’s been away camping at Algonquin this weekend. During our thunderstorm, followed by our crazy wind storm, I realized:

a) I have no idea where we keep flashlights in this house. (Perhaps Jean took them all camping?) In case of evening power outage, I would just be stumbling around in the dark. Or playing with matches. (Fortunately, no power outage occurred.)

b) That if it was also happening in Algonquin, that would make canoeing really difficult. Since I did have power, though, a web search seemed to indicate that Algonquin was not in the wind warning region. Snow was a definite possibility, but winds were moderate.

Yep, the Internet is certainly great for finding out stuff. And for getting stuff. Like, I wanted to get a new audiobook for an upcoming trip. I went to Audible.com to see what I could find.

An aside: I used to be a member of Audible.com, but in recent years I’d realized that everything they had seem to also be available on iTunes. And cost less. But the Audible.com website it still a far superior place to go when browsing. It has categories, it has reviews, it has recommended lists. By comparison, shopping for audiobooks on iTunes really sucks.

After poking around for a while on Audible, I settled on Lori Lansens The Wife’s Tale. I wanted to read it anyway; it had great reviews; I thought Jean would also like it; it had a bit of a travel theme…

I did find it a bit odd that it wasn’t available in iTunes, but figured I’d just get it direct from Audible. I filled in the form, credit card number and all, clicked Submit… And was told I couldn’t have it, because I live in Canada.

Lori Lansens, of course, is a Canadian author. But apparently her Canadian publisher, unlike her American one, doesn’t want to bother making an audible version of her novel available. Sucks for me. But also sucks for her, because after ranting and fuming for a while, web searching to see if there was any other obvious way to get the Lansens audiook (not that I could find, and was surprised to that library audiobooks are sometimes listed as not available? I guess it’s part of the deal of them being free that only so many people can access them at once?), I ended up purchasing the audiobook Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked instead.

Then today I got to wondering if software existed that could create sheet music from a song on a CD. Because there are some songs I’d like to play that I don’t have the sheet music for, and I’m really not good at playing by ear.

I wasn’t able to find software quite like that, but I was able to find software that would take a MIDI file and “notate” that. So I downloaded a trial version of that. And then, in two clicks, I was able to find a free MIDI file of exactly the song I was wanting to play, even though it was a fairly obscure album track.

The software will take a little figuring out, but it’s fairly cool. It reads in the file intelligently, then allows me to make some modifications (add lyrics, hide the drum score). Now I seem to now have a pretty decent score of this song. Assuming I continue to like it, I’ll buy it once the trial period ends, as apparently my being Canadian does not prohibit me from owning this particular piece of software.

Though I don’t think it’s directly connected to this issue—I don’t understand it all well enough to say—the apparent randomness of what digital files I am permitted to access (even when willing to pay) nevertheless reminded of this post I that also read this week:

Canadian Prime Minister promises to enact a Canadian DMCA in six weeks

What a goddamned disaster. The Tories have shown — yet again — their utter contempt for public opinion and Canadian culture and small business when these present an invonvenience to more windfall profits for offshore entertainment giants.Remember: thousands of us responded to the Tory inquiry on copyright law, and overwhelmingly, we said we did not want a US-style copyright disaster at home. Remember: hundreds of thousands of us wrote and called our MPs. Remember: Canadian artists’ coalitions fought against the imposition of a DMCA in Canada. Remember: America’s copyright war has been an absolute trainwreck, with tens of thousands facing lawsuits, competition and innovation eroded by DRM, free speech challenged by copyright takedowns, and no improvements for creators or creativity.

There’s only one thing stupider than being the first country to enact the DMCA, in spite of its obvious shortcomings: enacting the DMCA after the first country has spent a decade showing how rotten and backwards this approach to copyright is.


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Unequal access to information

I’ve been noticing this trend…

On the one hand, it seems, corporations feel they can use our personal information for whatever purpose. For example, Facebook declares that privacy is so passé, and why should anything stand in the way of them selling us stuff? And insurance company decide they can run credit checks on their clients, and raise their house insurance rates accordingly—without any prior consent.

On the other hand, governments and related agencies have to be fought tooth and nail to release information in the public interest:

  • The Conservatives would not release files on Afghan detainees to members of Parliament, our representatives, until ordered to do so by the house speaker.
  • All media coverage of court appearances related to Victoria (Tori) Stafford’s murder trial has been banned. (Apparently, even commenting on stories about the ban has been banned. So don’t comment on the ban here, please. I guess.)
  • Though ordered to disclose the files on Ashley Smith, the young woman who killed herself as guards at the correctional institute watched, Corrections Canada has refused, saying they will appeal. In this case, note that Ashley Smith herself first requested her own files, and was supposed to get them within 30 days. Corrections gave themselves a 30-day extension from that, but didn’t meet that deadline, either. 123 days after the request, Ashley Smith died.

So corporations can use our personal information however they see fit, but we are not allowed to know what is being done in our name by our politicians, military, courts, and corrections.

Seems like someone should get upset about this, or something.