Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Camel camel camel

I’m probably late to this whole thing, but in case anyone else is too…

Earlier this year I’d written about the baffling and frequent ways that pricing on Amazon varies. My example was a blu-ray of a Queen+Adam Lambert concert. I’d described a price range of $145 to $48. And wondered if I should have waited even longer for a cheaper price.

Among all the Black Friday / Cyber Monday coverage this week, I read about the very handy camelcamelcamel.com website (this link will bring you to the Canadian site, but you can pick another country from there). Here you can paste in a URL of an Amazon item, and see just how much that item’s price has ranged in the last six months. Here’s what I got for that QAL blu-ray:

qal-super-sonic-pricing.png

Showing that not only had it at times been more than $145, I had indeed purchased it at a historic low price.

Clearly a handy tool if you’re wondering just how good a current Amazon sale price is. (Turns out I should have bought that toaster oven at $203 Friday; that’s just $4 above its historic low and now it’s at $230. Meh.)


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Gilt-y dining

Cork is a restaurant in Elora, Ontario that we enjoy going to. Elora is a bit of a hike, though, so we were happy to hear that the owners were opening a second restaurant in Kitchener: Gilt.

Gilt opened in late September, and we tried it out on November 1. It’s relatively small and has a contemporary look, with a bar area along with its tables. It was a little loud but not to the point of not being able to hear each other. Service was good–attentive and wel- informed about the menu items.

And that menu is all tasting plates; that is, tapas-style, appetizer-size dishes. The regular menu items are supplemented by three varying specials: from the sea, from land, and raw feature. The waiter recommended that we order two to four items per person.

So we got a variety. We liked that their oyster menu detailed exactly which were available, and let you select as many of each type as you want. (They do similarly with their cheese plate, though we didn’t try that.) We went three East Coast options, six oysters in total. Still on the seafood theme, we tried their raw ceviche tun special, and some cooked scallops.

To that we added brie and pear flatbreads (an item we’d enjoyed at Cork), duck confit steam buns, BC wild mushrooms, and peanut butter & jam foie gras! Except for the mushrooms, which seemed a bit underseasoned, we were happy with all items. Jean was impressed with their take on foie gras, the only issue being perhaps a bit too much salt topping.

They have a pretty good wine list, offering many by the large or small glass, 1/2 half liter, or full bottle. Given the variety of food, we got 1/2 liter of Sauvignon and a glass of Malbec to share.

We were reasonably full after that, and ready to skip dessert, until they described the house specialty, nitro ice cream. For this, you get to go back to the kitchen and watch them make the ice cream with liquid nitrogen. It’s kind of fun. And the results are very delicious!

We took no photos during dinner, but afterward we went to check out the Kitchener Nightshift, a sort of nuit blanche event with outdoor installations and many stores and restaurants open until 2:00 AM. It was unfortunately a somewhat chilly night for it, though many participants had hot beverages on offer. We found this Gloss installation interesting, though feared the models might be chilly:

Gloss installation at Kitchener Nightshift

We later went into the Gloss store for the first time, and I emerged with a nifty new lace top.


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Shopping spree in Orillia!

Last week’s vacation was mostly about visiting family and friends up north. But instead of just barreling our way straight through, we stopped in various Ontario towns on the way and back. Like in Orillia.

“Why Orillia?” That has been a common question.

First visited on a rock concert pilgrimage (Roger Daltrey performed at the Casino there in 2009), we just found we liked the town. Nice beaches, decent restaurants, good shopping.

Shopping?”

OK, maybe we are the only people in the world who go to downtown Orillia for shopping. But let me tell you, we did a fine job boosting that town’s economy on our two days there.

First stop was this discount clothing store which sometimes has interesting items, for men and women. Jean didn’t have much luck for himself, this time. fortunately, he’s able—in limited doses!—to amuse himself finding things for me to try on.

I tried on more than I bought. But one Jean find that I came home with was this brown crochet sweater, as I’m forever looking for something to wear over sleeveless dresses and such that don’t ruin the whole line of the outfit.

brown-sweater

This should do the trick

We had gorgeous, hot weather in Orillia, but the rest of the vacation became rather cool, especially for August, so this sweater got some use  on this trip. And some compliments.

Also acquired was this blue top, which looked a little odd on the hanger (my pick; Jean was dubious), but quite nice on a person.

blue-top

Nice blurry photo by me. 🙂

Jean did better at the Walking on a Cloud shoe store (he likes shoes almost as much as socks. No, seriously.). And although I didn’t feel I really needed more shoes, apparently I can’t resist a Rieker. I had just bought these really cute navy blue Rieker sandals before vacation (with heels!); they are now joined by these little sparkly runners:

Red purse and shoes

These are photographed with a red purse I also got at the first clothing store. I haven’t used it yet, though, because I’m still sporting this one (a local purchase) for the time being:

Colorful purse

Cute, huh?

Another stop was our favorite kitchen store. Yes, we have a favorite Orillia kitchen store, as we told the confused clerk: “We come here every two years to replenish our pots!”

No photos, because, well, pots and pans, but we literally did buy a pot and a pan (both high-end; not your Canadian Tire job-y), plus sundry kitchen gadgets.

We then popped into a big warehouse-style discount store—of the sort we never go to in our own home town—because we were looking for cables that would help our tablets talk to the hotel TV. We bought that, but while there, we thought, hey, why not get that rug we’ve been meaning to get for ages, for the front of the fireplace?

So right, not an expensive rug. But it’s frankly mostly for the cats to sleep on (and potentially sharpen their nails on), and definitely better-looking than the towels we previously put there for them, so that’s OK. Zoë gave the new addition her stamp of approval almost as soon as we put it down at home:

Zoe the cat and fireplace

And by the way, we finally got our fireplace brick and frame finished.

And we also acquired various prosaic mats that we hope will help keep the litter residue in better check.

Worst thing? After dropping all this cash downtown, Orillia had the nerve  to give us a parking ticket! Even after getting it, I was like, “Parking meter? Where is there is a parking meter?” But there was one… It was just well back from the sidewalk, very easy to miss.

But Orillia, we still like you. We were able to get to the beach and swim both days, for the first time this summer. We also found some nice walking trails. The restaurants were somewhat disappointing this time, though not to the extent that any of the meals were actually bad. Just unimaginative.

Just make your parking meters more visible, already. 🙂


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On sitting less

So back in June were another spat of articles, like this one at CNN.com, saying that sitting for many hours a day was bad for you. Even if you exercise.

It is somewhat amazing how non-helpful these articles are.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends mixing noncomputer-related tasks into the workday…

The article says. As if that was actually possible in every job.

Like mine, for instance. What’s a break from my computer work? Well, meetings. The vast majority of which are, in fact, sit-down and not stand-up meetings. Also, I do like to sometimes be retro and work with pen and paper instead of monitor and keyboard. But you can’t write on paper while walking around, either. It pretty much also requires sitting at a desk.

Basically, if I’m not working at a computer, attending a meeting, or writing on paper, I’m not doing my job.

So 2 or 3 years ago now, I implemented the only solution I could see other than changing careers: I bought equipment to raise both my monitors and my keyboard off my desk, so I can work at the computer, standing up.

It was completely weird at first, but I’m used to it now, as is everyone I work with—none of whom have followed my lead, mind you. I did get a lot of queries about in the first few months. But my company won’t pay for it unless you have a doctor’s note that you need it, and I’m not sure doctors write those based on CNN articles stating that sitting 6+ hours a day reduces your life span by 20%.

And it wasn’t cheap. I needed three pieces of equipment, all of which I acquired from http://www.ergocanada.com: An LCD arm to hold two monitors (yes, I get two 21″ monitors at work), an arm extender to make the monitors high enough, and another arm to raise the keyboard tray. All together, that cost around $750—more than people typically want to spend on equipment for their work desks.

(Also, though, I think a lot of people really enjoy sitting down.)

So, I was no trendsetter.

But once I had invested in sufficient pairs of comfy (yet cute) shoes to avoid foot pain, I did find some health benefits that I didn’t have to wait decades for: reduced hip pain, reduced lower back pain, and a slight loosening of my clothes, which might be due to the fact that you burn more calories standing than sitting.

Woman at stand-up desk

Completely impractical shoes for working at a stand-up desk. Also, I think her monitor is too low.

In fact, I liked it enough that I decided to go for the same with the home computer. Well, not exactly the same. I wasn’t about to spend another $750. But my husband found this Visidec dual-monitor arm for more like $120. Like my one at work, this monitor arm was also too short on its own, but he was handy enough to just mount it in a solid piece of wood sitting on my desk, raising the monitors to standing height.

For the keyboard and mouse? Raised via a cardboard box, with a board on it that allows the mouse to slide easily. Hey, it’s home. Doesn’t have to look “professional”.

Another advantage my fancy work monitor arm has—besides looking good—is that it is extremely easy to lower and raise (as is the keyboard tray). So I can, in fact, still sit down to work at the computer, which I do for a bit each day. (I aim for 6.5 hours standing of the 8-hour work day.)

The home Visidec is possible to lower and raise, but not nearly as easily. It takes two people. So instead I intend to just leave that one in the standing position. I have replaced my desk chair with a bar stool, so I can sit on that should I weary of standing.

So, guess I’m OK now, til they come out with the unhelpful articles about the health hazards of standing for too long each day…


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RIP Collage Video

I’m so old that my first exercise video was not even audio-visual: It was sound-only. An LP.

And it was ridiculous. Of course, the instructor (you may have heard of her—Jane Fonda?) tried to clearly explain what moves to do, but that just didn’t always work. What some of the moves were meant to be remain a mystery to me to this day. (But no, I don’t still have the album…)

So the advent of exercise classes on VHS home tapes were a clear improvement. Not all the moves were easy to do, but at least you could always tell what they were.

Exercise video coversAnd as is true in general, the exercise DVDs were an improvement over those. No more rewinding and fast-forwarding. More content could be put on each disk. Easier to pick and choose to do partial or combination workouts.

I love working out to videos. Nothing’s more convenient, you never have to worry about the weather, and unless you’re buying a crazy number of them, it’s way cheaper than a gym memberships. You get something of the illusion of working out with someone else, and even that illusion is more motivating than working out on your own. And the variety available—aerobics, strength, flexibility, or a combination of all. Short, long, or in between. Dancey or athletic. Easy-going, intermediate, or tough.

Whatever your mood today: There’s a home workout for that.

And so it really pains me to see Collage Video go out of business. They sold nothing but fitness videos (along with a few fitness accessories). And they did it better than anyone else.

They broke down each video by all the factors that home fitness die-hards care about: instructor, length, level, workout type, body part focus. They included video samples so you could assess whether a new instructor or style seemed appealing. They had fantastic forums and review comments. They rated the videos themselves, highlighting some as favorites.

But ultimately, they could not battle the price pressure from the likes of Amazon, nor the general decline in the DVD format.

So when I decided I could use some more workouts with a lower-body focus, I did what I always do: I picked up the latest Collage Video catalog and picked out about five that I thought would do.

Only now I cannot order them from the Collage Video website.

Amazon? It had exactly one of them in stock. OK, so I probably didn’t need all five, but I wanted at least one more. I went a-huntin’, and finally located a site that offered one of them as a download. I can burn that to DVD or play it from the computer (which is connected to my TV), so that’s fine. Only, I needed this rubber band thingie for that workout. Collage would have sent it to me with the DVD. With the download… Not so much. So more research for that, resulting in a trip to Walmart to purchase that.

Walmart!

I’m not sure this is progress. I know streaming is the thing now, but the best option there seems to be Gaiam TV, at $10 (US) a month. Not a crazy price, but then, I don’t think I was spending $120+ yearly on exercise videos before…


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Remember that great Fall weather we had?

… because a week later, it’s pretty easy to forget that, what with all the gray and cold and even snow.

Fortunately, we were on vacation the previous week. It did start in Timmins, for the previously blogged-about wedding and funeral.

Timmins had just glorious weather while we were there, with highs around 20. We went for two big walks during our visit, one on the Ski Runners property, another through the “tailings rehabilitation” area at the end of the road my parents live on. Interesting to see how far that went, in an area that was largely off-limits to me when I lived here as a kid. At one point we had “beautiful lake and fall colors” on the left, “ugly open mining pit” on the right. That’s the north for you.

On Tuesday we drove to Ottawa, our biggest day of driving for the trip, as we split up the Timmins trip by stopping in Barrie overnight on the way up. So besides driving, all we had time for of note was dinner with friends, which I’ll write about separately.

Wednesday morning, for the first time on the trip, it was a bit drizzly, so we visited the Museum of Nature. It was our first time there since the exhibits were fully open, and it was fun to see everything. They had a special exhibits on ants, and another one on frogs.

Dinosaur section of Museum of Nature

We stepped into another world

Blue frog at Museum of Nature

With strange creatures

The rain had mostly stopped by noon, so after a sushi lunch we just did some walking around and photo taking, and visited a Bernard Callebaut chocolate store I’d spotted the night before on Dalhousie. Very good.

Bytown, just below Ottawa

The nation’s capital can look grand

War statue in Ottawa

Very grand indeed.

The next day we drove to the Finger Lakes region of New York. (Did we drive too much on this trip? Probably.) Our B&B turned out to be this huge, gorgeous old house in Montour Falls — right beside those falls, in fact, and near a church that had become a private residence. (Would love to know how they converted the interior into living space.) The B&B included a great breakfast with all kinds of fruit, baked beans, eggs, bacon, and on on, and it was interesting talking to the other guests, who were mostly Americans, but there was a young German couple staying there as well.

Cook's Mansion, Montour Falls

Our humble abode for the trip

We didn’t do a whole lot the first day but walk around Montour Falls itself.

But on Friday, we decided to emphasize the hiking, as the forecast threatened possible rain on Saturday. We started with Watkins Glen State Park, which had really nice trails through a canyon going around and even behind waterfalls. It included a fair number of stairs but wasn’t really that arduous; nothing like our Italian walking trip! Things were wet after all that rain, so we were glad of waterproof boots and rain jackets, but the weather was nice.

Watkins Glen State Park hike

On the stairs, in the canyon

Watkins Glen State Park hike

Some of the falls

Our afternoon hike was to another set of falls in a canyon, but this trail was just flat and didn’t bring you quite as close to the falls as the other had. It was pretty, though.

Hike in Finger Lakes New York

Hike to the falls

Waterfalls in Finger Lakes New York

Overland view of falls

Our dinner reservations were near this set of falls, and we ended up with some time to kill. We visited a few little towns, including one with a chocolate shop, so I stocked up on more of those. (My favorite local chocolate shops seem to keep closing on me.)

Saturday ended up being not so rainy after all. We started with a visit to a big market in Penn Yan, which was fun and provided me with a new purse. We then hit some wineries. Did you know there are about 110 (!) in this region? We got to 3.

The first was the big complex of Bully Hill. It’s very busy, but they do their wine tastings “en masse” here, with two guys providing lively banter as they pour everyone their choice of two options for a total of five tastings. It was fun, and there were two wines we would have bought if we hadn’t been concerned about wine limits when going over the border.

Location of Bully Hill Vineyards

View from Bully Hill

Once we found it, our next stop was Rasta Ranch, which has a real hippie vibe to it, with tie-dyed clothes and Jim Morrison posters for sale. A long-haired dude gave us a free-flowing sample of various options that were unusual, though not necessarily fantastic. Still, Jean was taken with the name of the Ja’maca Me Blush! wine and wanted to buy that. I then noticed Bohemian Raspberry, which they let me taste. Actually pretty good–very raspberry, not too sweet. So we got a bottle of that, too.

Finger Lakes scenery

Driving in Finger Lakes wine country

The best winery, wine-wise, was Chateau LaFayette Renau. We would have bought a bottle of everything we tasted had we, again, not been concerned about wine limits at the border. These included a nice 2007 Pinot, a delicious 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, a semi-sweet red blend that didn’t come across as that sweet, a very pleasant semisweet Rieseling, and a dessert wine based on the Niagara grape, the same one used in Welch’s grape juice, but here turned into a surprisingly pleasant drink.