Cultureguru's Weblog

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


Costs and benefits of reading Wired magazine

Wired magazine itself isn’t premium priced. Plus, they post most of their articles on their website for free. They get a little antsy about ad blockers, but that’s fair.

I started following Wired on Twitter during the last Canadian election. I thought that a little more science and tech news would be a nice break from all the politics in my feed. And I was right; it was welcome content. With the far worse US election on now, I can hardly give up on it.

But I hadn’t realized to what extent I was personally susceptible to constant promotion of the latest and greatest tech. I should have suspected, given that a single Wired article led me to spend I don’t know how much on a three-room Sonos system. I do love it, admittedly, but maybe there are other, cheaper wireless speakers that would have satisfied?


Mmm, shiny new tech. (Image: Shutterstock)

Now I’m constantly drooling over new cell phones. Not iPhones, mind—I am simply not of the Apple world, and not even Wired can convince me to join it. (Possibly because I take such perverse amusement in reading about iWorld troubles; to wit the hilarious Don’t update your f-ing iphone!

nsoonaecxhen0kibllqmEnd of digression.)

But in “my” world of unlocked Android phones, look what they said about the Nexus 6P (the later iteration of my current phone):

There is absolutely no reason not to buy this phone. None. Zero. The Nexus 6P is the closest thing there’s ever been to a perfect Android device.

The perfect Android device! Why wouldn’t I want that? There’s no reason!

Except that, you know, it is a $700 (Can.) phone. Wired’s answer to that  point (in US dollars) [bolding mine]:

The Nexus 6P is absolutely the best Nexus phone ever. Hell, it’s the best Android phone ever. And at $499 unlocked, it’s even cheaper than nearly all its competitors. Everything Google could do, it did. It proved how good Android can be—that an Android phone can be better than the iPhone.

So it’s a deal! $700 is a deal, because it’s the best phone ever!

Only while I was pondering that, it basically went out of production, because there are new Nexus’s (Nexi?) coming out soon, and Wired hasn’t reviewed those yet.

But they did review the Huawei Honor 8!

Huawei’s new device, the Honor 8 (there have been many other Honors before), is every bit the spec monster smartphone. Glassy, colorful design; 12-megapixel camera, plus a second sensor just for good measure; ultra-fast processor and four gigs of RAM; fingerprint sensor that doubles as a clickable shortcut key; latest version of Android; lots of storage, with room to add more. In most practical ways, it’s not that far off from Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 7, or other Android phones like the new Moto Z. The only thing the Honor 8 is missing is the absurdly high (and VR-friendly) screen resolution, but you know what else it’s missing? $400 on the price tag.

Which translates to $520 Canadian. So look, by dawdling I’ve just saved $180! And, the Nexus is clearly too big (plus, out of production). I was about ready to order my new Huawei.

…Ignoring the fact that’s nothing really that wrong with my current phone, and the the little detail I don’t really use my phone that much, anyway. I’m much more the tablet girl, and Wired is kind of down on tablets these days (particularly of the Android variety).

I was also feeling some e-waste guilt. I started to ponder what could I do with the old phone, should I in fact get a new one. There are articles about that (you can guess where). It seemed it might serve as a sort of tablet extension for cases where the small screen isn’t so much an issue—for Chromecasting, Twitter reading, playlist display, and such. And yes, I can do that with the phone now, only that always risks me leaving the house without it—which doesn’t happen if I just keep the phone safely in my purse.

As I was justifying all that in my head, I won a 10″ tablet in a draw.


The prize

Now, this is not the sort device Wired would rave about. It’s a bit slow and clunky. It has only 8 GB storage and limited ability to use the SD storage. The screen looks acceptable only from direct angles. It’s not sporting the very latest version of Android.

But as an extension to my “good” Samsung Pro tablet, it’s fine! There are even a few things it does better.

It’s proven enough of a distraction that I’m willing to put off the phone purchase again.

Well, that, and the fact that I’m also… Awaiting shipment my new Kobo Aura One ereader!

The new Kobo Aura One is literally big, a 7.8-inch behemoth in a world of standard 6-inch displays. But its features are also outsized, whether it’s robust waterproofing, a clever new nighttime lighting system, or a way to help you read as many top-shelf books as you please without paying a cent. More importantly, they’re all enhancements you won’t find on an Amazon Kindle.

It was a mere $250 Canadian, and Jean thinks he will use my old Kobo. (Which is good, cause it’s still perfectly fine.)

Umm, how long now til the election?

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Sonos your kitchen

Although the best music setup in the house is the surround sound system in the TV room, the room in which I listen to music most often is the kitchen. I do so while cooking, while cleaning, and even occasionally while eating.


The music setup in the kitchen was as follows: an audio receiver, a CD player, and iPod dock / headphone jack (for my tablet) connected to two small speakers. All wired; no remote control access. Sound quality was OK, and I was sufficiently accustomed to docking my iPod (classic; no bluetooth, no wifi) or connecting my tablet via headphone jack that it didn’t seem especially inconvenient.

But the whole system was at the back at the kitchen, and I mostly worked at the front. Apart from the fact that it was a bit annoying to have to stop cooking and walk over to change the volume or song selection, I often just couldn’t hear the music properly once the fans and frying got going.

A first-world problem for sure. Nevertheless, for Christmas I requested some way to get my music playing closer to where I was cooking.

Much research ensued, and wireless seemed the way to go. But wireless meant somehow still playing my iTunes library despite my not owning any “modern” iDevices. And that certainly suggested Sonos as one option.

What is Sonos?

Sonos TV commercial

Essentially, Sonos is a family of wireless speakers and components that are all controlled by an app that runs on Android, iOs, and Windows. The key marketing features are:

  1. Easy setup. “It just works.”
  2. Access to “all the music in the world”: your owned music, streamed music, online radio—all available through one interface, combined in whatever way you choose.
  3. Full-house control; that is, ability to play different (or the exact same) queues of music in any room in the house that has a Sonos-connected speaker.

The main downside? Price. But, we figured that we could start with just one speaker—the new Play 5—for the kitchen. Then if we liked the Sonos app, expand from there.

The setup

The Sonos Play:5 just sat around in its box for about 2 weeks before we got the courage to try to set it up. (Yes, I opened my Christmas present early. Not like it was a surprise.)

And it started out well. Getting the Play 5 onto our wifi network was simple. Downloading the app on tablet and PCs—no problem. Linking in my Google Play, SoundCloud, LastFM, Spotify accounts (note that you need a paid account)—also a breeze.

The problem was the iTunes playlist, because I had a somewhat non-standard setup: music files on a NAS (network attached storage), iTunes music library (playlist data) on PC.

To get the thing working, Sonos needed two connection points: one to the music directory on the NAS, another to then PC iTunes library location. Retrospectively, that seems obvious, and in fact it wasn’t hard to do.


But figuring out that’s all we had to do required a lot of experimentation, caused a few tears, and took the better part of an afternoon. (And yes, I did read the documentation!)

Using Sonos: The things I fretted about vs. the reality

Ahead of time, I was a little concerned (and obviously only in between bigger worries about climate change and world peace and such) about the following regarding use of this system.

Fret: Would I have to start my PC, and maybe even iTunes, just to play my music in the kitchen?

Reality: No, not with my music setup. Sonos copies in the iTunes playlist data, so neither iTunes nor the PC have to be running. It’s just the NAS that has to be on for the music files to be accessible. And the NAS  was already programmed to start when we got home from work and to be on all day on weekends. (It’s handy to be married to a handy husband.)

Fret: How can my Android tablet possibly control my iTunes playlist on a NAS it doesn’t even know about?

Reality: If you’re using Sonos, that “just works”. (The non-Sonos’ed can try the Retune app. Pretty cool! But iTunes does have to be running for that one.)

Fret: Would I still be able to use the Musixmatch lyrics app? (Because I kind of love that app.)

Reality: Yes. While Musicxmatch isn’t fully integrated into the Sonos app, it does work quite well in “Listening” mode.

Spotify Lyrics display

The rather esoteric lyrics to Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke”

Fret: Can I continue playing a music list where I last left off? (This matters to me. Don’t judge.)

Reality: Sonos absolutely, by default, picks up where you left off.

Fret: Will it play our local CBC radio station? Can you program it to start and stop automatically at a certain time? (Otherwise, we won’t be able to expand Sonos to our bedroom. CBC is our alarm clock.)

Reality: Yes, local CBC radio is one of the ba-jillion radio stations included. And yes, Sonos has timer functionality.

Fret: When you change your iTunes playlists, how much of a pain is it to get the update into Sonos?

Reality: Haven’t actually done that yet, but appears to be a single-click process you can perform on PC or tablet (allowing time for it to re-scan the files).

Fret: Does it keep track of play counts and dates?

Reality: No, it does not. This is the one disappointing item.

In iTunes I created “smart” playlists with criteria such as “High-rated songs I haven’t played in the last six months” and “Songs I’ve played fewer than two times each”. And I use those playlists a lot to avoid “I’m sick of this song!” syndrome.

But Sonos has nothing like that built in. However, it does integrate with, which does keep track of what I’ve played, on both iTunes / iPod and Sonos. And research indicates there might be some geeky, scripty ways to make use of that data. I will be looking into that more later.

Sonos playlist data for the week, courtesy (I’m sure you’re all shocked about Top artist.)

Features I didn’t even realize I wanted, but turns out I do

10kindsoflonely_art-500x500This one seems dumb, but I’m a bit obsessive about album art, and I loved seeing some of that blown up in size on my 12.2 inch tablet when I’d previously only viewed it as a thumbnail.

More significantly, the much more dynamic (compared with iPod) song queue is fun! For example, I can:

  • Start with an iTunes playlist and add songs from Spotify or Soundcloud (or whatever)
  • Combine various playlists into one queue
  • See what songs are coming up, and edit the list if I want—without affecting the original playlists
  • Decide I want to, say, switch to a podcast now, listen to that, then automatically return to my same spot in the music queue
  • Save my current queue as a Sonos playlist for later reuse

But it’s a speaker. How does it sound?

Kids, this speaker sounds so good, I’d like to marry it and have its babies. 🙂


Requiem for my Windows 7 PC

Sunday night, when I returned to the computer I’d been working on just fine all day, nothing was displaying on either monitor, beyond a brief Analog / Digital message. The usual step of just rebooting produced no better effect, and checking all the plugs found nothing loose, nothing amiss.

The next morning, the computer didn’t entirely seem to even be booting anymore (though it’s quite hard to tell what’s going on, with no display).

It was actually the first time a computer had just up and died on me. Of course, I was not pleased. But really, thank goodness it happened in 2013 and not in, say, 2003. Or 1993.

Was a time when losing a PC meant potentially losing an awful lot of data, stored on that hard local drive, not necessarily all backed up.

Now, we store pretty much all the files we care about—songs, documents, spreadsheets, photos, videos, sheet music–on a network drive, with backup . And  like everyone else, we’ve moved to keeping some stuff “in the cloud”–email, agenda, blog posts, Evernote lists that organize my life—making them accessible on any tablet, smart phone, or computer. I may not have a computer right now, but I still have basically all my content.

So, this is really more of a bother than a trauma. Despite the above, there are a few things on the old hard drive that I’d like to retrieve if I can, so we’re going to bring the old computer in to get the hard drive taken out and stored into an USB-connected external drive case, which I’ll be able to attach to a new computer.

Did you catch that? Despite this being just a bother (for heaven’s, we have another computer! And two tablets!), I have already ordered a new computer.

I guess the greater speed and power will be nice. Just too bad it’s Windows 8. I swear, the biggest issue these days in having to upgrade hardware, is in then having to relearn software.

I know Windows 8 has its fans. The problem is, Windows 7 is hardly leaving my life. All day, every day, of my work life, I am on a Windows 7 computer, and that won’t be changing soon. And our other computer? Also Windows 7. So it’s not as if I can really move on and switch over to the Windows 8 way of doing things. I fear being in permanent, irritated “learner” mode on my own PC.

Windows 7 desktops are still available, by the way. (Yes, desktop, not laptop. I don’t see the point of a laptop when I have a tablet.) Jean kindly (or, more likely, fearing he’d otherwise have to go back to sharing a computer with me) did the online research and found one decent Windows 7 option, and one Windows 8. I was trying to decide which to get–the Windows 8 one was more powerful, but the Windows 7 one was Windows 7!–when I thought to dig into the question of HDMI ports. The Windows 7 PC didn’t come with one.

“That’s it, then,” I said. “Because HDMI is an absolute necessity!”

And then we both looked at each other laughed at my having put high-definition signals on the same level of importance as food, shelter, and oxygen.

But I still bought the Windows 8 one. Because I do really love being able to connect the PC to the big-screen TV and watching online video super-sized, with great sound, from the comfort of my couch.

And I have found an article called How to make Windows 8 look and feel like Windows 7 , which I’m hoping will be of some help in the transition. And at least iTunes 10 is still available, so I can avoid the transition to iTunes 11 (shudder) a little longer.

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Pandora radio is this website / app that is, apparently, amazingly good at finding new music you will like, based on algorithmic analysis of music you already like. However, it’s never been legally available to Canadians.

Nevertheless, I have found my way through to it a few times. But I’ve never had the patience to stick with it long enough to see its amazing-ness in action. Because, of course, you have to “seed” it with information about your current tastes. This requires you rating songs it throws at you, or trying out shortcuts like naming a band you like.

I don’t have the patience to stick with the ratings thing for too long, and naming, for example, The Who, as band I like, results in a fairly unsophisticated playlist of bands like The Rolling Stones, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, none of whom I’m that bowled over by. (So whatever it is I love about The Who, it’s not whatever musical commonality they have with those bands.)

But, then rediscovered Legally available to Canadians—albeit not on our smart phones!

I had actually signed up for a free trial with a little over a year ago, but didn’t end up motivated enough at the time to switch to pay mode. However, I did allow them to continue to “scrobble” on my computer, even though I didn’t quite know what that meant. I just knew that after running iTunes to sync my iPod, it would ask if it could “scrobble” certain tracks, and I’d say sure, and it would apparently do that.

But I checked them out again recently and discovered that it has been essentially building up a profile of my musical tastes. It has lists of the artists and songs I’ve listened to most in the past year, 6 months, 3 months, or ever… Most of which are not a surprise, although the vagaries of the iPod shuffle do result in some weirdness, such as the fact I that I apparently listened to Abba’s “Thank You for the Music” more than any other song last year! (Geez, it’s not even my favorite Abba song…)


Abba, of whose music I am apparently very grateful

And then, if you pay (a big $3 for a month), you get access to various “radio” stations based on your stats. You can use them to just listen to stuff you already own (to which I say, don’t I already have an iPod / iTunes for that?), or to a mix of your songs plus other songs they think you’ll like, or to entirely new music they suggest.

You can also build stations based on theme (like 80s music, classic rock, or dance), or other artists, which will also take into account your listening history.

I don’t believe has the sophisticated algorithm that Pandora does. So, results are a bit uneven. For example sometimes my mix has just too frequent repetitions of weak-link offerings such Keith Moon solo songs or Queen without Freddie Mercury, or gets too heavily weighted toward female singers (maybe that’s the Abba effect?), leaving me with a testosterone craving.


A girl can only take so much Bjork…

Roger Daltrey

… before she needs a little Daltrey

Although The Who playlist (sigh) has too much Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Rolling Stones.

Fortunately, though, you can always switch to another “station” if the current one is letting you down. I had great luck with “The Police” radio, for example, which seemed to result in playlist of all the 80s music that didn’t suck! And that magically seemed to improve my “Mix” when I went back to it after.

All in all, is helping me find new (or old) music that I like, or had forgotten I like, even though I though I do have to skip forward through some tracks on the way. (I now know, for example, that Elvis Costello did a quite decent version of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”) For the impatient Canadian, it’s not a bad option.

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Too much of a good thing?

Much as I like So You Think You Can Dance Canada, having episodes daily, many two hours long, has been a bit onerous. Of course, it’s just the auditions; it’s not really essential viewing. But they just have such a great ratio of actual dancing vs. blah-blah about dance that they’re a bit hard to resist.

Anyway, I’ve finally caught up. Of course, I’m behind on all other TV viewing, but this time of year, that isn’t so much anyway. Sunday they announce “our” Top 20. Let’s just hope CTV doesn’t start making these kids dance (and us vote) twice a week, in order to fit this all in before all the Fall shows come back with new episodes.


Apart from sitting on the couch watching gorgeous young people sweat through dance numbers, I’ve acquired four new CDs in the last week (and one’s a double CD). Even for me, that’s rather a lot, but when shopping for used stuff, you got to grab it when it comes up.

The one I got totally new, though, and in digital download format only, is Arcade Fire’s Suburbia. Given that the album is number 1 in Canada, US, and Great Britain, guess I’m none too original on that front. But this is my first Arcade Fire album (or song or anything). I just grew intrigued from reading the reviews.

I love that it’s a concept album. I love that the concept is the suburbs, as representing emptiness and loss and waste. I love people barely 30 being nostalgic for the past: “I used to write letters. But by the time we met things had already changed. We used to wait.” (Very Ray Davies and Village Green Preservation Society, that way.) The songs are smart and sound gorgeous. I don’t mind pretentious when it’s backed by talent.

Oh, and a tip: Don’t buy the albums on iTunes. It’s $12 there. Get it directly from Arcade Fire’s website — $8.

My remaining purchases are all of old favorites. With the acquisition of Flash Gordon, I now, finally, own every Queen album. Course, this one is the weirdo, as it really is a movie soundtrack in the old sense of the term: Not a bunch of pop songs that play over montages in the movie, but the actual score that sets the tone and mood of the scenes. So it’s mostly instrumentals, along with bits of movie dialog (and the insanely catchy theme song).

So obviously, not the one to get if you’re only going to buy one Queen album. Or even 10. But within the movie score genre, it’s actually quite good.

And, I finally completed my Lowest of the Low collection by getting their final album, Sordid Fiction. I need to give all these more listens, but so far it appears to be just as good as their first three: same catchy pop with an alternative edge, smart lyrics with plenty of Canadian references.

And den I got The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight. I actually don’t own all of their albums yet—haven’t quite convinced myself I need their first two albums. And not sure how I convinced myself I needed this double CD, given that it already have this on DVD, not to mention that it contains yet another version of Tommy. So I think I have 8 versions of that particular opera, at this point.

And, you know, The Who really were great that night, at 4 in the morning or whatever, performing at the Isle of Wight. The only problem is that this is a very similar set to Live at Leeds. And Live at Leeds is just better, in both performance and sound quality. But at least Wight features the entire concert, in the proper order. That’s something.


Oh, and one more set of CDs that came into my possession this week is the unabridged (9 CD) audio version of the novel The Wife’s Tale by Lori Lansens. This is courtesy of the author herself, who read my earlier blog post lamenting my difficulty in acquiring the audio version of this book. Isn’t that cool? And the timing is perfect for our upcoming driving trip to Quebec.


Stupid, immoral, or just weird?

So I’m pleased with myself because I’ve figured out how record music as it plays on my computer.

Now, I’d be more pleased if I could have figured out how to configure Windows to do this, for free, as is supposed to be possible. But after the simple instructions failed, and then I tried more complicated instructions which also failed, and eventually ended up in the Windows Registry and it was 1:00 in the morning and I still wasn’t recording…

I realized this was insane. So before I blew up the computer, I bought some inexpensive software to do this. Very simple; works great. Anything I play on the computer, I can now convert to MP3 (and other formats).

I wanted this for things like:

This, my husband informed, makes me a thief. Even though I pointed out that none of these things seemed to be available for sale. He said that the artists should still paid for their work, and I said, well, I’m sure they were paid for their original work and now their stuff is sitting on the Internet for free listening and what difference does it make if I listen on my computer or my iPod? (And actually the argument went on much longer and grew progressively ridiculous, so I’ll spare you.)

But it did make me think that, however I get my music now—and I use many means—someone seems to thinks it’s either stupid, or immoral, or just plain weird.

You buy music? [stupid]

Most commonly expressed by those under 30, who like to point out that everything is available for free on the Internet. I don’t know how immoral it is to never pay for music, but it’s at least kind of tacky.

You buy music from iTunes? [stupid]

Boy do, some people have issues with iTunes! That it’s too expensive, that everything is DRM, that it chains you to your iPod. But expensive is relative, the DRM thing is now history, and as for chaining you to your iPod; well, I’ve never figured that was so hard to get around. For example, I can just play whatever in iTunes on my computer, and make an MP3 copy of it using my handy new software! Voila, no more ties to Apple.

You still buy CDs? [weird. and possibly stupid]

Amazement that I still acquire some music little plastic disks, which clutter up your life. Especially since the first thing you do is convert it for the iPod anyway.

Now, I used to say all those CDS were my iTunes backup; but now started backing up my library to DVD. Or, that I liked the packaging—but I don’t really refer to the CD case, within its tiny print and sad little cover picture, all that often. Because I still buy CDs because of:

  • Price (since I often get them used).
  • Better sound quality. Compressing things for your iPod means dropping notes from your songs. I’m no audiophile, but CDs do sound richer.
  • Convenience—at least in my car, where the CD player is better integrated than the iPod.

As for clutter, my neatly organized CDs, all stashed away in cabinets in alphabetical order by artist, then by release date, are really the least of my problems there. But it brings me to…

You still buy albums? [weird]

This is, as opposed to just songs. Of course, it’s wonderful to now be able to just get songs so easily, but yes, I still get albums too. Because…

  • Classic albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Who Sell Out, which have a whole thematic that builds, can only be experienced by listening to the entire album. In order.
  • Some artists are so great in concert, I just assume I’ll like the whole album too. With a band like Swing, I was completely right—with both their albums. Which I’ve since bought more of, to give to other people.
  • Soundtracks, which may not count, since they are just a random collection of songs. Though something like the Trainspotting or Shortbus soundtracks have overarching sound to them that make them a great playlist in themselves.
  • Reliable artists like Ray Davies, Alanis Morisette (Flavors of Entanglement is great), Bob Geldof… They put out a new album, I’m probably going to get it.

And more ways…

  • [immoral?] Extracting it from music DVDs—I have software for that, too. And I’m pretty sure it’s just another copy for personal use. I’m just thrilled that the mostly useless online help (“the filter pass setting sets the filter pass”) actually contained the one precise piece of information I needed to make the extracted songs stop “crackling”. Was driving me nuts.
  • [immoral?] Borrowing it from friends or family—Yet everyone seems to think this is just a nice thing to do, not immoral at all. Most will gladly make a copy for you.
  • [stupid?] Downloading it, not from a bittorrent, but from a “file sharing” location posted by someone on a Kinks mailing list. Which, I’m sure, is somewhat stupid. But I do have virus software, and all seems well since I did it, and it is a truly fantastic collections of Kinks songs. “The Fan Box Set” Anyone want to borrow it? 🙂