Sunday, May 30, 2010

Vietnam Noodle House: the last supper

Tonight at our weekly dinner, the Human Powered Vehicle Operators of Ottawa (HPVOoO), the local gang of people who ride crazy, fun, kustom, and otherwise interesting bikes, were informed that the Vietnam Noodle House was closing after tonight.

We've been coming here since it opened in 2004, every Sunday, plus Mondays on long weekends, making it over 300 dinners there.

It's located at Humphrey Plaza (the name of which I only discovered last December), at Somerset and Arthur, in the lower level. For reference, that's the same block as the Yangtze.

One of the things we liked about it was it was spacious. We had previously alternated between Istanbouli shawarma place (on Richmond Road near Island Park Drive, which has since moved to Holland Avenue) and Pho Thu Do on Somerset, which was far too small, didn't have vegetarian options, and aside from that had very little variety. (Some say they preferred the pho there, though.)

Another thing I enjoy about the weekly HPVOoO dinners is that they're very anarchistic. Whoever shows up, shows up. Some people show up late, some early. Some weeks there are lots of people, some weeks there are only a handful. I've been there nearly every week, though I don't take photos every week. On this night in early June 2006, there were about two dozen people, including some leaving and others taking their spot. We could build various permutations of tables to suit the attendance.

There was also ample bike parking, both inside and outside.

More recently (and I have no idea if that is months or years), they'd turn the tables down the middle for us every Sunday, and we'd extend it as long as necessary. We regularly get 8-12 people. The guy with the blue collared shirt is one of the servers.

Grant and Mike Watson also come out. Mike built the bike I ride, and often brings new creations of his to showcase. Grant is... let's say he's taught me a few things about how to successfully annoy people (randomly telling someone "you don't know that!" in a conversation, for example). Our weekly dinners, and by extension the VNH, is also a prime distribution hub for Momentum magazine in Ottawa.

Tonight, this was the Last Supper. While they gave us free spring rolls and shakes, it was still a very sad and depressing end to an otherwise very fun weekend.

Goodbye, Vietnam Noodle House. We'll miss you!

The hunt is on for a new affordable, family-friendly, vegetarian-optional, spacious, central, bike-friendly weekly hangout.

- RG>

Thursday, May 27, 2010

RG's Workshop: How can you mend a broken Swap Box?

A month or so ago, I was talking to one of the folks at the Bytown Museum, who was telling me about their upcoming exhibit, Evocative Objects. It's loosely tied to the Capital Neighbourhoods project, and involves everyday-type objects that have a lot of story in them.

I immediately thought that a swap box would fit right in to this concept, and I knew exactly where to get my hands on one. The museum folks were interested.

For those who prefer to read books or text while walking blindly around the city, a swap box is a form of interactive public art, a box placed in a public location just below eye level, from which you are encouraged to take something from it, and leave something in return. Not only are they fun, but they save lives, too.

Anyway, this one was broken. After getting it from Woodsy, I needed to fix it. Wouldn't be my first time fixing one.

Here's the patient. Found torn from its roost, broken in half, with only one nail holding its front on.

It would need to be glued together, which means it would need to be held together while the glue sets. I don't have any clamps big enough for that, so I'd better figure that out first. Right up there with Swiss Army knives, duct tape, and binder clips in terms of utility are used inner tubes. I tied one around the box:

Looked pretty good. Closed the seam up pretty well, without completely hiding it (satisfying Woodsy's primary condition of letting me fix it)

Unfortunately, it didn't hold the back side together too well; the crack was being pulled open on the backside. Time for more troubleshooting.

My next attempt was definitely a longer shot. These pegs are from my mitre box, and I had drilled holes in a piece of two-by-three to peg them into. Unfortunately, I also didn't have the right diameter drill bit, and the holes were too big and the pegs didn't stick out straight. I then tried holding the top ends of the pegs together with the piece of innertube, also unsuccessfully.

Perturbed but not defeated, I tried again, and realized I could drill the holes all the way through the wood and thread the innertube through it.

A bit of a two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach, but it worked. Both the front and back were straight and tight when I tied off the innertube behind the block. The tapered edges of the swap box allowed me to tighten or loosen the makeshift clamp by moving it up or down the box.

I then applied glue, nailed the box part of it together, and re-clamped it.

The wood block held the back side straight.

The next morning, it was nice and sturdy, especially with the box nailed back together. I sent it off to the museum with some goodies to 'seed' the swap box with. The binder clips were just obligatory. Shit, I should have taken a second look at that golf pencil before tossing it in; it was from a hotel I stayed at in Beijing.

Mounting it was difficult because the upper screw holes were broken off. At the same time, you can't just loosely hang a swap box on a wall, because people are going to be poking around in it. The museum staff did an excellent job of mounting it, right across from the Evocative Objects exhibition on the second floor. And in true Swap Box form, it was mounted without any identifying plaque--people have to discover it for themselves.

The Bytown Museum is funded mostly by the City of Ottawa, yet a significant majority of its patrons are from out of town. More locals need to visit; it's a great trove of Ottawa's history.

This means you!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lansdowne Consultation Fail

My calendar today listed the Lansdowne Park open house at City Hall from 10am to 8pm.

So when I got there around 1pm and saw an empty display area, I was confused. As I walked back to my office, I called 3-1-1 to find out when the open house was to be. After a couple minutes of waiting on hold while he searched various e-mails and websites in vain, I gave up and decided I'd have better luck calling my councillor's office (no answer, I didn't bother leaving a message).

As I got back to my office, my boss, who actually listens to the radio, said that there was a press conference at 3pm, so presumably the consultation would be from 3pm to 8pm. Back I went to City hall, a couple minutes before 5pm.

The boards were on display, sure, but there were no City Staff there to helpfully explain what the hell we were supposed to be doing there as part of this alleged consultation. In a move that would make Douglas Adams say "I told you so", the display was behind curtains, and you had to go through another group's event to get to it. (The curtains in the photo below are located where the entrance to the hall is usually placed. On the other side is the main corridor.)

I complained to the only person who looked like she worked there, who said that the event people were to be coming by soon to remove the boards. Meanwhile, I checked out the table of photocopied take-home materials, of which the English copies were all gone, but for some small pads of paper on which was written a website address where you can go to submit comments (great if you have internet access, which many people still do not).

Someone I know arrived around 5pm, which was apparently the time they were telling people on the radio to come on down to check it out. Poor choice of timing, because that's when they were taking the displays out of Jean Piggott Hall. People were astonished when they finished reading one display that the next one was no longer there.

I happened back a couple hours later and the displays were in the rotunda. This time, I didn't see any paperwork for people to take. It looks like the only way to provide input is through a form on the City's website. Learn from my error: save a copy of your comments and make sure cookies are enabled in your browser before you click "submit". If you don't have Internet access and you want to submit comments to this consultation process, go sit on your thumb (not quite the City's words, but it seems to be in line with their message).

On a related note, Designing Ottawa, the blog of Ottawa Citizen writer Maria Cook, hasn't published in over two weeks. She's traditionally followed the Lansdowne Park issue very closely, and it's surprising she hasn't posted anything on this latest leg.

I e-mailed her about the silence and she gave me the one-line reply, "The Citizen is in the process of reviewing our blog strategy and I'm concentrating on in-paper content in the meantime," which I don't for a minute believe is a complete answer. Gray and Gardner are both still blogging daily. David Reevely is even blogging about Lansdowne Park. But none of them gave as much coverage to the anti-Lansdowne Live people as Maria Cook did, and it's hard to believe that there isn't a connection.

Greenberg and his crew keep saying that they want what's best for this city. I guess they figure ownership leads to stewardship.

- RG>

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thought of the [undefined period of time] #10

I haven't done a Thought of the [undefined period of time] for quite a long time. So much so that when I started using labels I completely misapplied the Thoughts label (fixed). Most of them were from before Blogger even had labels.

I also hadn't posted them because I had typed out a few and lost track of them. I wanted to put them in chronological order and calculate the undefined period of time. Screw that. Here's a scanned one from 2005:

I sit on a lot of committees, and this rings true in every one.

Previous undefined period of time:
Time of thought since #8: 2 months, 5 days, 6h56.
Time of posting since #9: 4 years, 11 months, 16 days, 14h23

- RG>

Monday, May 10, 2010

Advancing to 2003

So I did it. The Bell guy on the phone confirmed that my daytime usage is under the 200 minutes/month, so I can safely drop the $10/month for free incoming minutes (except for one month, where I'll have to reinstate it or pay $50 extra if my usage is the same as last year).

Then I added a $5/month texting plan, which includes unlimited incoming texts and 250 outgoing texts/month. So the bunch of fucks will be getting five dollars less per month of my money, and they won't be charging me fifteen cents every time somebody sends me a hundred and sixty-odd characters of information I'd care less about.

Since the people who complain about not being able to text me are the same people who tell me they read this blog, I figured I'd might as well mention it here, and sod the rest of 'em.

That is to say, I will now receive your newfangled text communications, but don't get the impression that I'll actually read them, much less acknowledge or respond. E-mail is still the best way to contact me. If you want to reach me, just remind yourself that grouches like to be distant.

- RG>

Of Black Berries and Poison Apples

Seeing as Bell and Blackberry are a bunch of fucks, as recently established, I figured I'd might as well find a way to wean myself off of them.

Considering I paid $109.95+tax for the extended warranty and they wanted to charge me $92.66 before they even look at what's wrong with it, and considering they're selling new ones of the same model for $199 without a contract, and considering I had the same problems with the (presumably not broken) loaner phone... well, there's no real conclusion, other than that they're a bunch of fucks. I just hoped saying it again in a slightly different way would help me feel better.

The problem with Bell is an easy one to treat. The goal is to give them as little of my money as possible, without wasting any. The problem is that I'm in a contract, and the monthly cost of breaking the contract ($20) exceeds the savings from going elsewhere ($14).

To ease the pain, I recently got an e-mail from them telling me that they wanted to charge me $2/month to continue to receive bills by e-mail. Either they're bluffing (wouldn't be the first time), or I need to call them up and get them to find four dollars more to charge me per month so that I can justify breaking up.

Also, I realized that if I drop the $10/month free incoming minutes charge, I have ten dollars' worth of leeway to spend on a texting plan, while still giving them less money than I am now.*

As for the Blackberry, that was a tougher nut to crack.

I use it for four things, all of which would have to find new homes if I switched away from it:
- Phone/addressbook
- Music player
- Calendar/to-do list
- Audio recording

The audio recorder was the first one I wanted to replace, since it is no longer working on the Blackberry at all. I went around to a couple stores and found that they're all crap. But then a twinkle under the counter gave me a thought: if a smartphone can make a good voice recorder, so would a sleek new mp3 player, designed in California.

Now, if Microsoft, and Rogers and Bell and Blackberry all disgust me, Apple makes me sick. Their devices--and I do mean their devices: you just buy the right to look hip with one--are designed to be controlled entirely by Apple unless you break into them. You can't even change the damn battery on one without sending it out for repair. They can remotely shut off iPhones, and you can only load music onto the iPod that Apple software lets you put onto it. (By contrast, I just load music onto a microSD card and the Blackberry scans and reads it. The Blackberry even acts as a reader for my microSD cards when I plug it in with the cable.)

But I have to admit the guy at the Apple store knew his shit. When I said I'd go to research the audio recording quality on the web before deciding to purchase, he recited the bitrate and format from memory. He also told me that the cables are included in the $40 AppleCare warranty, whereas the headset that no longer works with my Blackberry--yet surprisingly works perfectly well with the iPod--isn't covered by jack shit, which is why I have to buy a new one every three months or so. The AppleCare is also transferable if I sell the iPod or upgrade to a different model, which, at the very least, gives the impression of decency.

He also told me that the AppleCare also covers a free battery replacement, which is usually such-and-such amount of money, and that a user might need to replace it in every few months or years, depending on usage.

I bought the shiny dark purple iPod Nano, with the knowledge that I'd have to pay a 10% restocking fee if I returned it within the allotted 14 days. My boss is an Apple fanboi, so to speak, and I've heard her make use of the AppleCare, so I opted for that too.

So far, it's pretty neat. It's got FM radio that uses the headphones as antennae (I haven't listened to radio in years, and discovered I haven't missed anything), and it's got a pretty decent audio recorder. I've only put music on it from my work computer, because I don't yet have the heart to infect my Dell laptop with the iTunes software I downloaded (nor the Songbird setup file on my hard disk waiting to be clicked).

And I realized that I missed the Blackberry.

More specifically, the music playing isn't what's wrong with the Blackberry (well, with the latest firmware it is wrong, but otherwise the intended functionality satisfies my needs). I suppose it could be the headset or the headset jack, but the primary irritant is with the calendar and to-do list reminders that keep freezing. And the iPod can't replace that (yes, it has a calendar feature, but no keypad to add entries!). If anything, I'd be better off getting a PDA calendar and keeping the Blackberry for everything else.

Furthermore, the iPod doesn't fit my wardrobe. I stick it in my shirt pocket so it doesn't get scratched or crushed in my pants, but that won't work when I wear a t-shirt--or a sweater.

The input on the Blackberry is better, too. I can use it when I've got my cycling gloves on, and I can even push the volume up/down buttons when it's in its holster and my winter jacket is covering it. If I'm traveling with my iPod in my ear and suddenly the music gets a bit too loud, I've got to unzip my jacket, dig under the scarf, fish the iPod out of my pocket, remove my glove and do the click-wheel thingy to turn it down. Unless it's in radio mode and I accidentally pressed one of the buttons, in which case I just changed the station, or rewound the station (it does a tivo-like thing for radio, which is also cool when it's not getting in the way).

More importantly, the reason I wanted an audio recorder was to be able to quickly turn on the record mode. With the Blackberry, I've programmed one of the side buttons to switch to audio record mode, then I just click the button on the headset when I want to start or stop recording. With the iPod, I've got to do a whole lot of clicking and scrolling to get to the audio record mode, and that's not the least bit discreet (in the event that discretion is necessary).

Splitting the phone and audio modes to different devices also means I can't use one set of wires for both functions (wireless headset isn't an option either: the wireless sound quality is shit and the wires help to tether the device if I drop it, which has saved me on many occasions). And if I had to choose, I'd put the headset on the phone, and I did with all of my pre-Blackberry, non-music-playing cellphones.

Oh, and just one more complaint before I move on: the iPod charges with USB, whereas the Blackberry comes with an AC adapter that I plug into at night. During the day, I'm at work and I want to listen to the damn thing, so I can't plug it in. At night, my laptop is off to save power (he says, using an LCD projector to type a blog post). At other times, my laptop is packed away in my bag or it's on my lap, where I don't want white wires hanging about.

All of this is sounding like an argument in favour of Blackberries, which is troubling considering my thesis is that they're a bunch of fucks. But don't be worried: it's an argument in favour of what the Blackberry promises, not what it delivers. I'd much rather put all this time and energy into finding the cause of this problem, so that a Blackberry programmer could fix it. Which I could do, but it would be pointless, because Blackberry's repair people want me to pay $92.66 to get them to replace the faceplate and tell me there's nothing else wrong with my phone. Therefore... (wait for it) fucks.

So after less than a week, I'm breaking up with the iPod. But I'm not bitter, not even about the 10% restocking fee.

Okay, I am bitter, but the bitterness is toward Bell and Blackberry. This little Apple affair helped to reinforce my resolve to, well, resolve the situation.

I may not win with Bell and Blackberry, and it may not even be a zero-sum situation, but if I can at least come out neutral, I can at least do my best to make the sum negative.

- RG>

*Alas, when I checked my bill to confirm that my usage is under my limit, I discovered that nowhere in my bill or my contract does it say how many minutes are included in the motherfucking "Preferred All In 35" plan, nor can I find it on their website. This is leading me to write a complaint to the ministry of consumer affairs for not having a clear contract. I also might complain about the warranty thing, if I can figure out the tangle of legalese surrounding that too. Unfortunately, that requires me to contact Bell in writing, and I'd rather not spend an all-nighter writing an essay. It'd probably take less of my time to pay the fuckers to break my contract and work some more hours to earn the money for the difference, but that's probably just what Bell's lawyers and actuaries bank on. I'm too stubborn to roll over.