Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Every purchase tells a story, don’t it

English mints

cofJean: Why are you buying those?

Me: (?) To eat.

Jean: But old people buy those.

Me: Why do you say that? Because my Dad buys them?

Jean: And my Grandmother. She always had a bowl of those out.

Me: Come to think of it, my Grandmother always had mints like these around, too.

Shit.

 

But would your Grandmother buy shoes like these?

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(Or allow shoes on the couch?)

So the mission here was to get another pair of comfy shoes that weren’t sandals (as it seemed, at the time, that Fall weather was coming). And I did succeed at that:cof

But then I saw these other shoes, and they were so cute.

The truth is, outside of ballroom dancing—which requires special dance shoes—I have few opportunities to wear heeled shoes. At work I do the stand-up desk thing, and you can’t do that in heels.

But still…. Pretty cute. And on sale!

I have managed to wear them to one party that was mostly a sit-down affair, and have worn them at work as well, for the sit-down parts of the day. For heeled shoes, they’re pretty comfortable: despite the point, they don’t squish the toes, and the back strap doesn’t dig in. And with so few occasions to actually wear them, they should last for years, right?

Anyone want to borrow a T-shirt?

t-shirts.jpg

It’s possible I have a T-shirt problem.

The above were all acquired this summer, in Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, and right here in Waterloo. And it’s not as though I didn’t have any T-shirts to start with.

A double shot

We came home from one vacation to find that the drip coffeemaker was no longer working. A fuse or something, I guess—you’d press the button and nothing would happen. That was a Delonghi dual espresso / regular coffee maker that I’d received as a work gift. Only, the espresso part broke down within weeks. It looked impressive, but for years had supplied only regular coffee, and now couldn’t even do that.

Still, when we put it out with the trash, someone took it away within minutes. Good luck to them in trying to make it useful again.

Meanwhile, we were doing Bodum coffee, which is very good, but presented a timing issue. Jean is more of a morning person that I am. He’d get up and make enough coffee for both of us, but by the time I was up and ready to drink it, it was often more lukewarm than hot.

So when the New York Times ran an article on the best available coffee makers, I was interested. Especially in this one:

We started by tasting a single-origin coffee to determine which cheap machine was most acceptable to discerning coffee drinkers, then ran the panel a second time with preground Dunkin’ Donuts house blend from the corner store. The Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Coffee Maker (46201) swept both rounds of testing. It placed second to the Oxo [9-cup coffee maker, a $200 US coffee maker] in Round 1 and actually beat the Oxo during the Dunkin’ round.

That Hamilton Beach unit was more widely available in the US than in Canada, but Amazon could ship it to us from an outfit called Moto Liquidation that warned would be “like new” but “show signs of handling/unpacking and usages, boxes have damage.”

That proved pretty accurate—box was somewhat battered but unit looked new. Only the first day we tried it, we found that we only got about half the amount of coffee requested—the rest of the water spilled out all over the counter.

We contacted Moto Liqidation who said that we could either get a refund, or they would send us another coffeemaker. Either way, they said, we could keep the one we had. And hence:

coffee-maker.jpg

Unit 2 has a slight wobble, but not one that interferes with coffee making. And if any of the parts ever break or fail, well, we can pillage them from unit 1.

It does make really good coffee.

TV in the kitchen

I believe it’s not so unusual now, but when we got our kitchen renovated 15 or so years ago, our designer considered it very odd that we wanted space for a TV in there. Still, she penciled one in, above the stove top, plenty big enough for TVs of the time.

Fast forward, and the space is just barely big enough for the smallest of today’s TVs. And there’s absolutely nowhere else in the kitchen a TV could go (short of doing another renovation).

Furthermore, at some point I decided I also wanted the option of listening to music in the kitchen, and I don’t mean over headphones. So we got a Sonos Play 5, with the idea that when we bought a small digital TV to replace the old tube one, we could hook it up as the TV speaker.

But the Sonos 5 is large, and trying to find a spot for it near the TV was a challenge. Not just in having enough room, but also in the fact that anything near the stove top gets totally coated in disgusting grease, and I didn’t want that to happen to my nice speaker.

Then Sonos came out with a new speaker that was exactly what we needed. The Playbase is a wide, flat TV (and music) speaker that the TV is meant to sit on. It’s sized to exactly fit in the limited space we have available. The sound quality, by all accounts, incredible. The only problem? It’s a pricey sucker.

[All Sonos Playbase reviews, summarized: Woah, that sounds awesome. … Wait, you want how much for it?]

So I kept dawdling on it til the the September long weekend, when I just decided to go for it.

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The only available TV spot in the kitchen is… not wide, and at risk of grease

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A better view of the Sonos playbase. The other little box is the Rogers digital adapter.

The new TV took two tries, as the first one had a cracked screen. Figuring out just how to get the cable through was trickier than expected (tip: even it’s a digital TV, you still need a digital adapter to decipher the channels).

But the Sonos was problem-free in hooking into our network of other Sonos units. And it does sound great. And having the Chromecast on the TV opens up new viewing and listening possibilities:  Netflix, YouTube, Spotify (even if not paying for Premium), SoundCloud app.

(The neighbourhood scavengers, by the way, had no interest in the tube TV beyond the power cord. But no worries, we properly e-cycled it.)

As for the grease, we’re trying to minimize its effects by using the back burners more. It’s making that back corner kind of gross, but so far so good on keeping the speaker clean.

So I was happy. Until the following Tuesday (i.e. the next business day) when Sonos decided it was time to offer me 15% off a new Playbase. As long as I hadn’t already bought one, of course…

Bah. Good thing I saved money with the on-sale shoes and the cheap coffee maker, eh?


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Of news, Netflix, Amazon, and chimunks

Just because I haven’t been blogging lately doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about stuff…

Not writing about news is good news

I’ve actually started a number of posts about current events, but it all gets so depressing. And it changes so fast.

Like after Charlottesville, I was going to write a thing about how Canadians could join the Sleeping Giant twitter campaign to discourage companies from advertising on the alt-right Rebel Media website. But within days, The Rebel seemed to be sort of falling apart anyway, and it no longer seemed, maybe, the best way to spend one’s limited amount of time for activism.

443527_m1494452946Then I went to see An Inconvenient Sequel, on climate change. That seemed a better target for activism. And then with Harvey’s severity clearly being an illustration of what climate change looks like… But me writing about that, seems like piling sanctimony on top of tragedy. Better to leave it to those who have studied it longer, and have more skin in the game like Eric Berger (This is probably the worst US flood storm ever, and I’ll never be the same) and Brian Merchant (Climate change denial should be a crime).

Whereas I will write more trivial stuff, like…

The chipmunk invader

“We have a chipmunk living behind our TV cabinets”, I wrote to our catsitter.

That was mid-July, and it had already been around for a couple weeks. Nearing September, the chipmunk was still with us.

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Yes, they’re cute. But they’re still rodents.

It seemed to have a developed a routine of leaving its hiding place mid-morning to drink water from the cats’ bowls (handily kept right near the TV cabinets) and scrounge for food—which it was clearly doing successfully, given its longevity.

[Something I just learned from “Interesting facts about chipmunks: “Chipmunks are diurnal. In other words, they only come out during the daytime. The reason is not because they are blind at night, but because everything is too dark for their main defense system—their eyes—to work to their advantage.” Would explain why I never saw it in the evening.]

The chipmunk became increasingly brazen, stopping to give me a look to determine that I still appeared unable to catch (it was right; there is no catching a chipmunk!) before scurrying up the stairs to see what treasures could be found on the main floor. The cats occasionally decided to give chase, but more often just watched it, bemused.

The chipmunk was too big to be caught in mouse traps, too small to set off the squirrel trap, which we’d find untripped, bait missing. (“Great,” I said. “Now we’re purposefully feeding it.”)

We’d leave windows open a crack, but it showed no interest in exiting.

Maybe we need a rat trap, Jean suggested.

Before going that lethal route, we tried one more live trap, this one apparently designed for chipmunks: The Havahart Model #1025.

It took three days, but it actually worked: Chipmunk out for its rounds, almost immediately entered the trap, and… Trap door shut!

Chipmunk not happy.

I was a little freaked out by the success, especially as the little thing was making a terrible ruckus trying to bang its way out. Then I got it together enough to throw a pillow case over the trap (that’s supposed to calm the animal), and cary it out and over to the park, where I released it into the woods.

Herein ends your unrequested lesson in how to get a chipmunk out of your house. Now if only we could locate its entry point, so it can’t find its way back in…

Beyond the Lights or under the radar?

It was nominated for an Oscar and won some BET and critic’s awards, but I’m not sure how many people have heard of the movie Beyond the Lights. I was sort of looking out for it when it was released in 2015, but if it came around, it didn’t stay long.

I saw it recently as a DVD loaner from the library (it’s also on US Netflix). It’s about a young black woman, Noni, whose latest single is a big hit and whose first album is hotly anticipated. But after an award-winning night, she goes off alone and stands on the balcony of her fancy hotel room, thinking about jumping. She’s rescued by the young black officer on duty to protect her. They really seem to connect…

So yes, this is a romance, but better-written than most. Their challenges as a couple—the paparazzi, parental disapproval on both sides, conflicting career aspirations (the police officer also has political ambitions)—seem believable, not just plot contrivances. That Noni has a stage mom is a bit of cliche, but the character isn’t just a cartoon villain. The movie also offers a critique of the highly sexualized way young women are marketed in the music industry. (The film was written and directed by a woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood.) The actors are good, and lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw does have a lovely voice.

So if this sounds like your kind of thing, I think you’ll enjoy it. (And if not, like Jean, you’ll likely still admit it’s a decent film.)

Also recommended—but I assume most people have heard of this movie—the “still in theatres” The Big Sick. Making comedy out of the unfunny matters of race and illness.

Amazon pricing: Maybe it’s a game?

queen_al_live_in_japanSo back in November, the first-ever official live Queen + Adam Lambert blu-ray was released, initially sold only from a Japanese website. I most definitely wanted this thing, but when I did the conversion from Yen, it was $120 Canadian for the single disc + CD, plus shipping from Japan, which seemed… pricey, given that your average blu-ray is about $20.

So I waited for it to be available from Amazon as an import, whereupon it was listed for… $145. This was not going in the right direction. I kept checking it periodically, but the price remained stubbornly high, and nowhere else (including ebay) seemed to offer anything better.

Then one day Amazon emailed me to inform me that the price had dropped. Which it had… To $101.

I was considering that, but wasn’t yet convinced.

Then a little over a week ago, I had a random look Friday at lunch time and… It was $48.

So, fine, I ordered it. (And despite them telling me that by not choosing Prime, I’d have to wait til Thursday to get it, it arrived on Monday, Prime time!)

But the thing is, when I looked at the price again later that very same day—when I happened to be logged in as Jean—it was $62.

And right now, for both of me and Jean, it’s $67.

I’ve heard that Amazon has these sophisticated pricing algorithms that causes pricing to vary at any given time based on your past purchasing habits.

Which makes me wonder: Did I cave too soon? If I had kept checking at random times and days, would I have eventually acquired this item at $25?

And does this mean that all Amazon items are cheaper for me at lunchtime? Or on Fridays? Or have I ruined both now by going through with a purchase at that time and day?

And what’s up with the wildly different prices on the same piece of clothing at different sizes?

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One dress, but each of its four sizes is a different price with a $140 range!

Anyway. The blu-ray is a gorgeous thing, with the best video and sound I’ve ever seen and heard on recorded Queen + Adam Lambert material. So I’m happy with it, even if the camera operator doesn’t always know when it’s important to focus on Adam (like, when he’s getting on his bike, and riding!).

 

Netflix: Giving us the sitcom revivals we didn’t know we needed

I don’t know that the world was clamoring for a remake of the Bonnie Franklin-starring 70s / 80s sitcom One Day at a Time, but Netflix has gifted it with one anyway. I was surprised to see how high it appeared on lists of best Netflix originals, so I decided to check it out.

What has it retained from the original? Well, there’s still a single Mom living in an apartment with her two teenage children, and a building supervisor named Schneider. Also, the same theme song, only re-recorded in a cooler version.

Other than that, not much. The family is Cuban-American; Mom Penelope is an army veteran; there is a daughter and son, not two girls; her mother lives with them, also; and Schneider is a wealthy Canadian ex-pat who never wears denim, carries a toolbox, or hits on Penelope. (See Why the New Schneider on One Day at a Time Is So Much Better Than the Old One.)

With its live studio audience and typical sitcom wisecracks flying, the series initially lulls you into thinking it will be super-light entertainment. But though it never gets too heavy, almost every episode touches on serious and often timely subjects: Dealing with PTSD. The challenges veterans have getting help from the VA. Figuring out your sexual identity. Raising boys in the age of online porn. Crackdowns on undocumented immigrants. Pay equity. Affirmative action.

(Hey, I somehow circled back to news, sort of.)

It wasn’t the sort of addictive thing that I had to keep watching, but I enjoyed every episode and grew quite fond of the characters. Despite that list of Serious Issues, it is a comedy, and a funny one. I was sad to see the end of Season 1. Fortunately, it has been renewed for a second season.


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Books!

Vacation means more time to read, and I did get through a few works that I found worthwhile.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

md19789526807Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables, and like many people, I expect, the Anne books are the only ones of hers I’d previously read.

The Blue Castle was first published in 1926, but I first heard about it in 2017 on Twitter. Kady O’Malley (@kady) was highly recommending it, saying it’s a book she returns to annually.

I got it as an epub and, being out of copyright, it was very cheap, but also not formatted properly. It wouldn’t load at all on one of my devices, and on others, wouldn’t paginate properly. No matter; the technical glitches did not take away from the pleasure of reading it.

It’s the story of a young woman of 29, Valancy Stirling. Unmarried and expecting that will never change, she lives with her domineering mother, obediently and quietly following all house rules, though they make her miserable. She escapes only in her imagination, to a blue castle and the company of the man who lives there.

One day, in an act of minor rebellion, she goes to a doctor who is not the family physician, to find out about some chest pains that have been troubling her. The news is the worst possible: she has a heart condition that gives her only a year or so to live.

This leads to some serious introspection about how to spend her remaining days. She concludes:

I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed. After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth!

Therein lies the fun. Her domineering family thinks she has gone insane, and are now somewhat afraid of this previously meek creature who now speaks her mind and does what she pleases. With time she moves out. She meets a man. He has a house on an island. Things have a way of working out, which is not a surprising in itself, but the way in which they do is. A delightful read.

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

28964412And now for something completely different…

This 400 or so page tome indeed tells the history of Jon Stewart’s time on The Daily Show, in the words of the various people who were there: correspondents, writers, directors, producers, publicists, and Jon himself. You’ll need to have some investment in this show to find this behind-the-scenes look at how it unfolded over 17 years of interest.

For myself, I was surprised at how much of that 17 years I had watched the show. I knew I wasn’t there from the very start, when Jon took over from Craig Killborn—but I got in there pretty early, with Indecision 2000, Chapter 2 of the book.

The other surprising thing was how much melodrama and personality conflict was occurring, at times, behind the scenes in a show whose contributors don’t really make the gossip columns. I had heard about a few, like the problems between Wyatt Cynac and Jon, but most… Who knew?

Also striking was the horror they felt at what was going on in the George Bush administration. Of course, he was not a great President. But still, you can’t help thinking… Dudes, you have no idea

13 Reasons Why

mv5bytfmnzrlnwytmmfmni00ztfilwjhodgtogm5odq5ntgxzwuwl2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_This one is not a book. Well, it is a book, but I haven’t read it. What I have done is watch the Netflix series based on the book, some months after most other people did.

Though definitely aimed at young audience, Jean and I got totally hooked on this thing. Whenever we had some lounging time at our hotel on our week off, we’d put another episode on. We finished up shortly after we got home.

Partly thanks to the performances of the two leads, it seemed important to find out what part Clay had played in Hannah’s suicide. In the book (I read afterwards), Clay listens to all the tapes  in one night. In the series, he gets through only about one per episode, allowing the series to progress in both real time and flashback, which is often handled rather deftly.

I’m not sure how a season 2 of this will work, but I’ll likely be checking it out to find out.

A Man Called Ove

18774964This was our vacation audiobook, because it had really high ratings on Audible.com. (Highest rated ever, by the way, is Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.) It’s a translation of a Swedish novel, and has also been made into a movie (that we haven’t seen yet).

Its central character, Ove, a 59-year-old recently (and unwillingly) retired man, is initially pretty unlikable—unfriendly, blunt, critical. But he’s unlikable in an entertaining, often hilarious, way, so we can stick with him.

As the novel progresses, we learn more about what led to this point in his life. How he was raised. The people he’s lost along the way. His innate nature.

This is set against the event of a young family moving in next door and insinuating themselves into Ove’s life whether he likes it or not. His interactions with them, along with the gradually unfolding story of his life, makes Ove an increasingly sympathetic character. Even though he never becomes a warm and carefree one.