blarg?

One of my americanski friends recently noticed that there’s no such thing as an unlimited data plan in Canada, and observed that this is insane. He’s right, it is, but he might not be aware of just how insane it is. So I made a chart.

There have been a couple of data plans described as “unlimited” sold here at various times, sure, and you’d think that when a telco sells you an “unlimited” service that would means that they will not limit your use of that service. But what it actually means is “there are lines, a bunch of them, and if you cross any of them you’re going to get raped.” Must be one of those funny little idiosyncracies of Canadian English.

This is a chart of data technologies versus available plans in Canada. The question is: if you run your connection full-out, as fast as it can theoretically run, how long does it take to blow through your allotment of prix-fixe megabytes and what does it cost you to keep going?

It turns out the answers are “not very long” and “holy crap”, respectively. All the data comes from the company’s websites, and those are per second prices, in the highlit areas.

(Note: the numbers for Rogers’ roaming presume that you’re roaming outside of North America.)

I’ve just spent an absurd amount of money on a vacuum, but with a little bit of luck it will be the last time I’ll need to do that for the next fifteen or twenty years. The crappy Dirt Devil thing we bought two years ago finally decided to die, at the end of a long road of sucking a bit more by sucking in a bit less every time we tried to use it. I suppose this cruel paradox finally filled its motor with fine particles irony, causing it to seize with angst, or something. Or, less anthropormorphically, it just wasn’t particularly well-designed. Which has convinced my wife that the practice I follow for buying tools should now be extended to most other areas of the house, I think, so good for that, I guess.

The idea is pretty straightforward, and seems to work well for me:

  1. Buy a tool only when you have a specific thing you need to do with that tool.
  2. When you do, buy the cheapest thing you can find that will finish the job.
  3. Run it into the ground. When you have to replace it, replace it with the best one you can afford.

There’s no way that this is an original idea, but my googles do nothing, so let’s pretend that I’ve stumbled across some previously unknown nugget of wisdom and magnanimously decided to share it with you. The idea of extending this practice from tools to “every device in the house” certainly appeals.

The only thing worth mentioning here are that the “will finish the job” caveat is important. I avoid “Jobmate” and “Workforce” crap made out of pig iron, sheet metal and cheap plastic whenever possible, and so should you; I’m just not confident that they won’t fall apart in my hands before I make it to done. (Names may vary regionally, but you know exactly what I’m talking about.) And after you’ve run a decent entry-level tool into the ground you’ll have a much better idea what your real needs are; what “best” means will be that much clearer.

Canadian Tire sees a lot of love from me in that second step. They’re not the best in the world, but their Mastercraft line are by far the best tools that entry-level-money can buy. At that price point (plus their long warranties, plus their odd habit of selling tools at a 75% discount as a loss leader now and then) nothing else on the market even comes close. Crappy Tire gets a lot of flack and rightly so – clean up your stores, Canadian Tire people! Grimy and claustrophobic is not a winning strategy! – but if you’re looking for that one thing to do that one thing they’re the place to start, no question.

So, remember how a tree fell on my garage?

Yeah, about that:

Councillor Davis,

We are writing to you today to express our disappointment and frustration with an ongoing permit issue we have had, and our interactions with City Hall.

We are new home owners in the East York area; we have lived here for just over a year. Late in September of 2007, a neighbor’s tree fell over, landing on our detached garage. The garage was effectively destroyed, and we have been trying since October of last year to obtain permits to demolish and re-build the garage exactly as it was.

In our initial visits to City Hall we were informed by the permit-issuing department that we needed to supply plans, so we hired a contractor who supplied us with plans to use.On subsequent visits, we were then told that we needed detailed information on the materials and existing foundation.After several attempts to provide this information to the satisfaction of city officials, our original contractor withdrew stating that he did not expect to be able to find his way through the permit process in a reasonable amount of time.

We found a new contractor in November who advised us to wait until Spring of 2008 to rebuild as he would not be able to work once it began to snow.

In April 2008 our contractor went to the Building Permits Department of City Hall with extensive plans and building material details but was told he needed a site map and survey. We provided him with the survey of our property from 1976. He was told that the City had no record of our garage and that it was built illegally, despite the fact that the garage appears on the 1976 survey taken by the City of Toronto. We were then informed that there now exists a by-law prohibiting more than thirty-five percent of our property to be roofed – if we are to rebuild the garage on the existing undamaged foundation then we would be exceeding this amount. A building permit was not issued and we were told to contact the Building Inspectors to deem our garage unsafe so that we could then demolish and rebuild it.

Our initial contact with the Building Inspectors resulted in no action; they referred us back to the Permits Department, insisting that this was not their area, and that being issued a permit in these instances was entirely routine. After contacting the Permits Department again we were informed that the tree falling on our garage was classified as an “Act of God” and it was the responsibilities of the Building Inspectors. So after contacting the Building Inspectors again and referring to it specifically as an act of god, the inspection was performed.

After the garage was inspected we did not receive any information for two weeks. We were then informed that because we had the side of the garage propped up to keep it from falling over it was not considered an imminent danger. Therefore the Building Inspectors could not issue a demolition order, and that in order for such a thing to be issued, we would need to hire an engineer (at a cost, we were told, of approximately $500) to certify that our our garage is unsafe.

Our garage is currently 20 degrees from true and being propped up to keep it from falling over. We have once again been informed to return to the Permit Division and request a building permit, though it has now been suggested that we do so with a stern voice. No joke, that is the latest suggestion we’ve been given; that the next thing we should try is to yell at City of Toronto desk staff, in the hope that they will relent and give us permission to tear down our crushed one-car garage.

The bureaucracy, the run-around we have been dealing with trying to rebuild a garage that is obviously unsafe is astounding, and the City has made it essentially impossible for us to do things their way. While we appreciate that permits are in place to ensure that buildings are safely constructed to code, we have spent dozens of hours over the course of nine months in repeated attempts to comply with the requests of the Building Division, to do this entirely above-board, and in a few weeks it will be an entire calendar year since we started this process, when our garage was destroyed by a tree that the City of Toronto, ironically, would not allow our neighbors to remove some years ago.

The City of Toronto has, despite ostensible ownership of the tree that caused the damage and the authority to determine the legal status of our garage, taken no responsibility for the cleanup, or for providing us with the least hint of how to proceed. For the last nine months, we’ve looked out our rear window at a destroyed garage that the City has not permitted us to demolish and replace; it gives us no confidence that our tax dollars are being well-spent, or that following the rules and processes we have followed assiduously thus far is the right approach.

We would like, I think reasonably, to be able to tear down and rebuild our garage before the next snowfall. Our circumstances cannot possibly be unique, and we would like to know what next steps we can take to make sure this happens.

Pictures of the tree before it was removed, and the state of the garage now, are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mhoye/sets/72157605804868343/

We look forward to your reply,

Michael Hoye and Arlene Chan,
134 Woodmount Avenue, Toronto
(posted and e-mailed)

Just to be clear, I’ve got no problem paying taxes; bridges, roads, sewers, fire trucks, clean-running-water, network effects and not dying in substandard-building cave-ins, I like those things just fine. But this is absurd.

So, I’m sure that a billion other people (or whatever the total population of the Indian subcontinent is these days) have already figured this one out, but I just made it up last night, and “discovered independently” sounds so much more dashing and adventurous than “reinvented the wheel”, doesn’t it?

Tally ho!

  1. Cut an eggplant into one inch cubes and put them in a big bowl.
  2. Take about a third of a cup of good curry powder, put a tablespoon of salt into it and top it up to a half-cup with garam masala.
  3. Stir up the dry spices, pour the lot of it over your bowl of eggplant and stir that up until the eggplant is basically breaded in the spices.
  4. Cook in a frying pan over low to medium heat with half a cup of olive oil until soft. Stir gently, periodically, and serve over rice.
  5. Declare victory.

It’s simple and reasonably quick. I discovered unfiltered olive oil recently, which if you like the taste of olives is great. I think it helps this dish a little. Needs something on the side, though, to round it out a little? I tried a thing with portobello mushrooms that turned out a little to dark and heavy to match up well with the curry. Something a little more citrus-y, maybe? I solicit your suggestions.

I still haven’t sorted out my next Hong Kong set, but as a token apology here’s my walk home from the subway at night. These aren’t HDR-treated or even retouched; one of the many reasons I love this camera is that this is what comes out of it from the default settings.

Walking Home #1

Walking Home #2

Walking Home #3

Walking Home #4

Walking Home #5

Walking Home #6

Walking Home #7

I’m told I get more like my Dad all the time, so let me tell you this story in the traditional manner of my family – through a bizarre, protracted, narrative spiral that, at length, slowly and anecdotally converges on the point. We have long understood in my family that ideas are dangerous, especially when they’re cornered; that they must be approached with caution, so they don’t panic and bolt. So this is actually about a recent video game, but I’m going to start off by telling you a funny story about a classic movie I saw in grade eight. Wait for it.

So let’s start with the love interest, a girl I have forgotten in every specific but name but who I still remember fondly for a few words she uttered twenty years ago. (Tara Ukrintz, if Google brings you to me: this actually happened, I swear.) I think, maybe, somehow, we were the only two people in our class who didn’t go on the year-end trip, wherever that went, for whatever reason. But our teacher at the time, Ken Blogg (same disclaimer as above, if you’re out there, though I remember you as looking like an oboeist, strangely) decided that we could, should, whatever, watch a movie instead of just sitting around.

The movie he picked for us was Casablanca. And oddly, until I sat down to write this, I never once wondered about that choice, any reasons he might have picked that film or how seeing it right at that moment might have influenced my life. I’m so far removed now it’s impossible to say, but if I think too long about it I can feel the unnamed things shackled in the dark corners of my mind stirring and rattling their chains. Lucky for all of you, I’m not some emo dishrag with a leather wristband and a myspace page, so we can just ignore that and go about the business of me telling you what happened at the end of the movie.

So it wraps up, hill of beans in this crazy world, round up the usual suspects, start of a beautiful friendship and so forth, and the teacher asks us what we thought of it, and Tara said, I swear, that it was a pretty good movie, “except that it was full of cliches.”

Even at that age and somehow right at that moment, even before I had any real idea what “things working out” meant, I knew things weren’t going to work out between me and Tara. It’s the earliest I can remember doing a double-take, though. “Yeah… wait, what?”. But what other response could there be, really, from kids that age? I was clever enough to recognize it as the root of the tree, sure. But once you’ve seen those tropes so thoroughly abused in so many other settings, it’s hard to recognize that the reason they’re everywhere now is because that one time, in that one now-classic work, they were so definitively great that everything that came afterwards owed a debt.

And watching it now, after I’ve lived a bit, travelled a bit and been in some relationships that got complicated, some that worked and some that didn’t, it’s a whole different movie, even though not a frame of it’s changed.

So, yeah, video games. And another thing where, as usual, I’m late to the party, but since one of the first links in the google search for “twilight princess homage” includes the phrase “i’m a pimp with the sword and shield”, it seems likely that what I have to say hasn’t been mentioned before. And, yes, I am here to day to tell you about The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

First of all, I’m an unabashed Legend of Zelda fan and something of a dork so, yes, I will tell you that Twilight Princess is a fantastic game. But the thing that I haven’t seen discussed at any length is the fact that it is also an homage to a lot of other fantastic games, probably more than I even realized playing it. There are times that the game switches gears completely and all of a sudden for a couple of minutes you’re playing a faithful rendition of a completely different game. There are hints of lost worlds in the scenery, echoes in the music that bring back the cavernous spaces or threatening claustrophobia of other games, whispering threats and hinting at glories that aren’t even real in the context of this particular fiction.

Very meta that at times the deja vu almost unbearable, a nonexistent world echoing with the memories of other nonexistent worlds. It is fantastically well done.

I thought that I’d take a moment to list the ones that jumped out at me; some of them are obvious, some of them might not be, but here you go. If I’ve missed any, you need to tell me in the comments.

  • Okami because, obviously.
  • Shadow Of The Colossus, hinted at in some of the washed out color schemes and decaying bridges and masonry in wide-open spaces (Look up at the bridge across Lake Hylia from the Tower, for example) and the way Link hangs with one hand, swaying before getting his grip, in a motion you will find immediately familiar.
  • The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past, obviously in the light and dark worlds, but much more quietly in a lot of other ways. The soldiers are dressed the same, for one example among many.
  • The Ocarina Of Time perhaps also obviously, but in too many ways to mention. Windwaker, too – the summit of Hyrule Castle is a smaller model of a castle that looks, in the final moments of the game, a lot like it did in the final moments of Windwaker.
  • The terrific Metroid Prime, in a couple of distressing ways. One is that you fight a boss very similar to Ridley late in the game, but possibly worse is the fact that a lot of the music (particularly in the desert) sounds like half of it was ripped straight from the Metroid Prime soundtrack. In the arena where you reassemble the twilight mirror it’s particularly severe. It wasn’t obvious for a long time why the claustrophobic, ancient-magic mood that saturated Metroid Prime was crawling up my spine until I realized that the background music sounded like a crossover of the Gerudo Desert music from Ocarina and the Electric-Monk-sounding mood music from Prime. I kept thinking, Jeebus, if Link and his boomerang get jumped by a bunch of Space Pirates, he’s going to get abused.
  • God, the minigames. It only occurred to me when I was two-thirds of the way through this that I should start writing these down, but just as an example at one point after you fight your way to the top of an icy mountain, you have to slide down it on a plank. And just like that, all of a sudden you’re playing a totally serviceable version of SSX for five minutes. And the game is full of stuff like this.

So that’s what brings us circling slowly in on our point here; I have no idea how a younger gamer might view this game – drop all that baggage, and what’s left over is a pretty good game with a bunch of wierd little sidequest things and some OK graphics, maybe? Some pretty good writing scattered around a lot of fetch-seven-of-these and recover-three-of-those, but the state of that art has moved on a bit, you know? Does it get a little long near the end? Maybe. But, God, pack all those memories, all that emotional investment back in, all those faint (and not-so-faint) echoes of great games you’ve played before, and the result is just about transcendent. It’s not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s definitely the best of the Legend Of Zelda series and, particularly I would think for veteran gamers, it’s… hard to describe? It’s not the greatest video game of all time, but it might be the best video-game-playing experience of all time. And it only gets better, the more classic games you’ve played; I’ve never seen a game like it, and as far as I know, no other game has even attempted the sprawling, protracted homage to the field as a whole that has been so beautifully accomplished here.

I’m just lucky I’m old enough to appreciate it.

This is in response to a question sent to me on the Facebook, by somebody who accidentally put a boot through their Macbook’s screen and now has Best Buy trying to extort them for repairs to the tune of about nine hundred dollars. My friend thinks that this is ridiculous, which is true, and that they should buy a new laptop, which may or may not be true, instead of dealing with Best Buy, which is a false dichotomy. Facebook insists that my response is about three thousand characters too long, so forget that, and my friend’s initial question was should I buy one of a Dell, a Dell, a Sony Vaio or another Macbook, with the understanding that her faith in Apple has been somewhat shaken.

I’ll flesh it out with some links a little later, but for now feel free to fill your tubes with the googles.

While I sympathize with your situation, anonymous friend, going to Best Buy for service is a rookie mistake and $900 to replace an LCD is clearly criminal. Those nine bills will get you a three hundred dollar part and some monkey in a blue shirt spending twenty minutes installing it; you should be able to find and price out the part number with a little investigation, and if you’re not comfortable with the repairs (possible!) or don’t own a bunch of tiny torx wrenches (likely!), I can certainly do that for you. You might also price out the repairs at some local small Mac dealerships, and find much more satisfying results.

Don’t buy a VAIO, are you insane? Sony sells glossy lifestyle products, and unless everything else you own comes from Sony the interoperability problems are a nightmare. You’ll be buying that pretty champagne color at significant expense. VAIO’s don’t age well at all, and you can be sure that repairs and upgrades will cost you a fortune, and if you buy it for the colour you sure as hell won’t be buying it for longevity, durability or ease of use.

If you expect to have this laptop until you finish your M.A, don’t buy a Dell. Their consumer-grade products are flimsy, and do not wear well at all; the ones that last tend to do so because they are being used mostly as substitute desktops, and aren’t subjected to the routine abuses of mobility. You can expect them to be basically disposable after their first year of hard use. I’ve been quite happy with their business line, the Latitudes, but they’re bought-by-companies-only pricy, and the Inspiron line they sell to consumers just aren’t worth it.

So, before I go over the rest of what I have to say, let me get my core argument out of the way: If your time has value, get a Mac.

That’s it. You will pay less for other machines, but over the course of their lifetime that is guaranteed to be a false savings; you are paying four hundred dollars more up front, true! But over the course of that laptop’s life (two to four years, more if you treat it well?) that will amount to approximately two to four dollars a week, and in return you get the best hardware integration, the best power management and the best build quality that money can buy in a consumer laptop. No other manufacturer pays as much attention to the experience of using their product as Apple does.

Having said that, you have a lot more good options now than you did three years ago. The claim made in your Facebook thread, that “the problem with pricing of some laptops is that you’ll never find one that is medium ground” is nowhere near right – until recently, unless you were willing to spend an absurd amount of money or carry around a laptop the size of a small suitcase, all laptops had pretty similar specifications – hard drives in a small range of relatively similar sizes, screens in a small range of similar sizes, universally shitty speakers, and so forth. Your big differentiators were build and screen quality, and unless you were willing to spend a bunch more money for an business or executive-grade laptop (light! tiny! superexpensive!) or lug around one of those Toshiba Qosmio monsters (Harman Kardon Speakers! HDTV! Weighs 20 pounds!) then your options were pretty limited.

Then Asus came along about a year ago now and released a machine called the “Eee”, a cheap, tiny little machine with a smallish screen, a smallish keyboard and a smallish hard drive, but with an entire suite of not-Windows-but-totally-functional applications (word processing, web browsing, etc) built in, and sold approximately a trillion of them.

Have you seen these things? They’re really small, about the size and weight of a middling hardcover book, and they’re responsible for a whole new market segment of cheap subnotebooks. The current (as far as I can tell) winning bids in that area are the EeePC 900 and the MSI Wind – they don’t look like much, but for your day-to-day thesis-writin’, web-browserin’, instant-messagin’ needs, they’re simple, cheap, and all solid-state (no spinning hard drive!) so it’s hard to feel bad about abusing them a little. And they cost a third what your more expensive, mainstream laptops cost. Not perfect, by any means, and try before you buy to see how you feel about things like tactile feel and responsiveness, for sure. But if you’ve got a desktop at home and all you want from a laptop is a screen with a keyboard attached that you can carry around without dislocating your shoulder, this might be the way to go. Or, if you just want something really light and really cheap; these things make great “second car” laptops.

So, there you go. To sum up, in your situation I would:

  1. Try to get somebody who isn’t Best Buy to fix your current machine because, you know, holy crap.
  2. Shop around a little bit for these mini subnotebooks, to see what you think. They key here is to do a little bit of shopping-in-stores, to see how they look and feel, and then to go home and shop online for price.
  3. Consider buying a Mac, as compared to buying any of those. If you intend the laptop you buy to be your primary or only computer I would lean heavily towards the Macbook, but if it’s not, I would have to think pretty hard.

Following a path trod by Wired Magazine and many before and since, BoingBoing used to be worth reading and now is not. In the spirit of the long tail its collective authorship have been jumping an exponentially increasing number of ever-tinier sharks for some time now, I know. But as a longtime reader I would like to put a stake in the ground, as it were, to mark the moment I made the decision that nothing that comes afterwards could possibly atone for what has come before.

That moment was Cory Doctorow’s post entitled HOWTO make a portable sandbox out of a wheeled under-bed storage tub and referencing a site called “parenthacks”. In case you’re curious, or just extraordinarily thick, the how part is indeed “obtain a wheeled under-bed storage tub and fill it with sand”.

Pouring sand into a plastic bin is now clever enough to be called a hack. I’ve mentioned this cultural cargo-culting before, and I’m totally prepared to hold Doctorow and his crowd personally responsible for setting that bar too low to trip a midget, but it’s really adding insult to injury that they’ll pimp out every dumb idea they come across, so long as the site has the word “hack” in its URL.

I know that there are a number of filter-by-author tools out there for dealing with BoingBoing, and I’m wondering what would happen if I chained them all together. Would I be left with nothing but the idea of boingboing, hovering there on my screen, unsullied by the increasingly vapid articles, the relentless mutual adoration and self-promotion? Would I see nothing but a blank screen? It’s all very meta, but I’d put that in my feed reader, for sure.

A one-off from Hong Kong, as I sort through the rest.

It’s impressive, to see a building wrapped entirely in heavy tarp and lashed bamboo for repairs (bamboo and ties being all that they use, as far as I can tell, for scaffolding of any kind) but the signage is not always what it could be.

Shaver, this one is for you.

Caution