Santa, Please Bring Canada Tech Stuff

Before go any fur­ther I want to first say that I do appre­ci­ate that there’s a lot that’s got­ten bet­ter in our tech lives since our move to Cana­da. That includes over­all faster Inter­net con­nec­tion speeds,  a great fea­ture from our ISP that for­wards a copy of any tele­phone voice­mail to my email as an attach­ment (and which I can actu­al­ly open and lis­ten to on my iPhone — FTW!), and a fair amount of free Inter­net Wi-fi in cafés near­by.  I also appre­ci­ate that our online bank­ing works very well (with the excep­tion of not being able to pay US cred­it card bal­ances from our US dol­lar account, but inter­na­tion­al rules are rules, I sup­pose), and that pay­ing for pur­chas­es at your aver­age store or even fast-food chain can almost always be done with your ATM card — some­thing that we could nev­er expect with any reg­u­lar­i­ty in the US (Is this still the case, US read­ers? I haven’t checked late­ly.) Now, even the El Gato Eye­TV soft­ware on my Mac final­ly gets list­ings for Cana­di­an TV chan­nels (it only took them 4 years with me bug­ging them at every Mac­world Expo for this). Translink has 2 mobile apps for the iPhone (if you count Google as one of them), and buy­ing movie and con­cert tick­ets online is almost some­thing we now take for grant­ed.

How­ev­er, there are a few things in the tech realm that just plain suck in Cana­da. I’ve already writ­ten ad nau­se­um about cell phone rates being out­ra­geous, but I had got­ten used to that, except for the fact that it keeps mak­ing itself known in all sorts of places, when you least expect it. Like, for instance, Twit­ter, the microblog­ging ser­vice that I some­times post to or use to fol­low the sta­tus of oth­ers. If you live in the US, you’ve prob­a­bly nev­er seen this annoy­ing lit­tle mes­sage in your Twit­ter page:
Twitter Message Gripe

If there were only some way to have that mes­sage go away already… We know, we know, Twit­ter, Cana­di­an data rates are pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive for you to send us mes­sages from Twit­ter. At least you could stop adding insult to injury by con­stant­ly remind­ing us of this fact, and let us turn the stu­pid, ugly thing off.

Oth­er tech things I wish we’d get in Cana­da? Hey, how about being able to see TV reruns online, via the ser­vice called ‘Hulu’. When­ev­er I bring up their screen from a Cana­di­an Inter­net con­nec­tion I see this:

Hulu.com Message

And of course, our Amazon.ca is only a pale shad­ow of Amazon.com, with a frac­tion of the selec­tion, and we can’t use Net­flix, Zap­pos, or Mint. Our non-HD TiVo is all but laughed at in Cana­da (despite the supe­ri­or inter­face) because the HD TiVo will nev­er be sold here. The rea­son is that it requires Cable­Card, the tech­nol­o­gy par­tial­ly adopt­ed in the US that allows you to use a sim­ple mag­net­ic card to con­nect to HD cable rather than the big, ugly box­es they have here (often bun­dled with ugly, hard-to-use PVRs). I’ve heard that the cur­rent ver­sion of Cable­Card, v. 1.0, is imper­fect because it doesn’t sup­port 2-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion or on-screen guides.

C’mon, San­ta. You final­ly got us the iPhone and an hon­est-to-good­ness Apple store. What about some­thing this year? And Black­ber­ries don’t count, since they come from here (Besides, most folks already know that the Black­ber­ry Storm is an Epic FAIL.) So Mr. Claus, could you see fit to get us v. 2.0 Cable­Card (which fix­es the whole 2-way com­mu­ni­ca­tions prob­lem) accept­ed here in Cana­da, and that even­tu­al­ly we once again catch-up to the States? Fail­ing that, Zap­pos, Net­flix or Mint work­ing here wouldn’t be bad, either. Whad­dayasay, San­ta?

A Boyhood Friend, Now a TV Star (and in a commercial)

Like many peo­ple, I’ll bet you, dear read­er, grew up with a few peo­ple who end­ed up being in the pub­lic eye, either as a celebri­ty or just some­one who got their ’15 min­utes of fame’. As for me, one of my clos­est friends when I was about 16 was Lance Red­dick, who shared my love of music — he was a fel­low com­po­si­tion stu­dent, and just as a pal through many of the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of being a teenag­er. Lance and I also end­ed up as fel­low stu­dents years lat­er at the East­man School of Music in Rochester, New York, a place that both of us left before grad­u­at­ing back in the 80s. After that he went into act­ing, and I went into com­put­ers. His act­ing paid off big time; He starred as a reg­u­lar char­ac­ter, Lt. Cedric Daniels, in one of the most crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed shows of all time, The Wire, which Pam and I watched reg­u­lar­ly before we moved here (it was on HBO, and we didn’t get that after the move). Lance’s height, strik­ing looks, and nat­ur­al but intense act­ing style all made for a great fol­low­ing, and besides his roles in some movies (The Siege, Don’t Say a Word, I Dreamed of Africa) as well as either small parts or or reg­u­lar roles on oth­er TV shows (West Wing, Law and Order: SVU, CSI: Mia­mi, Oz, Fringe and Lost), he’s now attained the sta­tus of an iden­ti­fi­able star. No red car­pet appear­ances at the Emmies or Oscars that I’ve seen yet, but I’ll bet there are some.

So last week, on CNN, his face shows up in a Cadil­lac com­mer­cial:

I asked him (via Face­book) if they gave him one, and nope, they didn’t. I hope he gets a chance to shoot a movie or TV show up here, as it would be great to see him again (we got caught up at a friend’s wed­ding about 4 or 5 years ago). I’d say it’s only a mat­ter of time.

What a Month!

Is it real­ly Hal­loween again? The month, like Scar­bo the ‘half gob­lin, half ghost’ char­ac­ter from Gas­pard de la Nuit, a poem and the third in a set of 3 extra­or­di­nary piano pieces by Mau­rice Rav­el, has twitched, jerked and reared up and dropped down, pirou­et­ting like a threat­en­ing demon (at least in terms of my nail-bit­ing regard­ing the Stock Mar­ket and the US Pres­i­den­tial Cam­paign)  and now is about to van­ish:

Mais bien­tôt son corps bleuis­sait, diaphane comme la cire d’une bougie, son vis­age blémis­sait comme la cire d’un lumignon,—et soudain il s’éteignait.

But then, his body would change, became as blue and diaphanous as the wax of a can­dle, his face as pale as can­dle grease – and sud­den­ly he would be extin­guished.

– The orig­i­nal poem by Louis Bertrand

(The first few mea­sures and an excerpt that goes on a lit­tle longer are below. It’s tru­ly some of the most men­ac­ing and spooky music that Rav­el ever wrote, I think, and appro­pri­ate for this dark evening):

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Play­er (ver­sion 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Down­load the lat­est ver­sion here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your brows­er.

He he he, creepy enough for you?

Earlier in the Month

I guess the piano music excerpt is part­ly because piano music is part­ly on my mind. Last week I got to a con­cert at the Chan Cen­tre by Piotr Ander­szews­ki, a very inter­est­ing pianist who was mak­ing his return engage­ment to the Van­cou­ver Recital Soci­ety. He played Bach, Mozart and Schu­mann, and I’d have to say that it was the Mozart that I real­ly liked best. Mozart Sonatas, like the Sonata in C minor, K 457 that he played are often played (bad­ly) by chil­dren. Teach­ers give them to their stu­dents fair­ly ear­ly in their devel­op­ment, part­ly because the music seems sim­ple and ‘easy’ to play. The fact is, when a real­ly good pianist plays them, the music reveals how com­plex and real­ly dif­fi­cult it is. I didn’t always love what Ander­szews­ki did; some­times, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Schu­mann Humoresques (op. 20), he would take long float­ing paus­es, and play some pas­sages so soft­ly and weak­ly that it was almost as if they were being whis­pered. Even if his read­ings seemed to lose the thread of con­ti­nu­ity at times, I have to admit that he made me think — a lot, and that’s some­thing that not every per­former can do for you. I think we’ll be hear­ing more of him in the future on the inter­na­tion­al con­cert cir­cuit. In some ways, he remind­ed me of Radu Lupu, a Roman­ian pianist who was par­tic­u­lar­ly active in the 70s and 80s, and who won an Edi­son award for his Schu­mann (includ­ing the Humoresques as well!).

Last Night

Pam and I got an invi­ta­tion to attend anoth­er live film­ing of a tele­vi­sion sit­com pilot, this time in the South Burn­a­by area in a stu­dio right by the River­way Golf Course. The pilot, called Mem­o­ry Lanes and was pro­duced and cre­at­ed for the CBC by one of the actors in it, Ryan Stiles, of The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line is it Any­way? fame. While it is fun to see, it is also a real edu­ca­tion, because near­ly every scene is filmed a few times, and it was a real plea­sure to see Janet Wright, who plays Brent Butt’s moth­er Emma Leroy on the series Cor­ner Gas prac­tice her craft in per­son. Ms. Wright was a per­fec­tion­ist, sculpt­ing her deliv­ery and ges­tures with each take, and always mak­ing it bet­ter (and fun­nier). For me, she stole every scene she was in. I found out from her bio that she’s direct­ed over 40 pro­duc­tions at the Van­cou­ver Arts Club the­atre (in addi­tion to work all over Cana­da, includ­ing the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val). It shows. I hope I’ll get to see more of her; I real­ly gained new respect for just how much a great actor can add to a sit­com char­ac­ter.

Oh right, the sit­com? Mem­o­ry Lanes may make it to the CBC line up next year. I’d say it was a bet­ter than aver­age script, and the char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tion show some promise. In some ways, it remind­ed me of Wings, anoth­er sit­com that revolves around a pair of odd-cou­ple broth­ers who end up run­ning a fam­i­ly busi­ness. In the end, it will be the writ­ing that makes or breaks it. Lets hope it gets a chance, some­thing that nev­er hap­pened to the pilot of All the Com­forts that we saw near­ly a year ago.

Flawlessly Logical

A warn­ing right off the bat: I’m going to get nerdy here.

It had occurred to me ear­li­er in the week and I twit­tered it, but it hit me again, full-force, dur­ing the final Pres­i­den­tial Debate:

Oba­ma = Spock.

There are the obvi­ous par­al­lels: The off­spring of two races (white and black vs. Human and Vul­can), the odd look­ing ears, strange name and most of all, the cool, calm log­ic. It’s true that Barack Oba­ma does show emo­tion, which no self-respect­ing Vul­can would do, but his demeanor, elo­cu­tion and sheer unflap­pa­bil­i­ty sug­gest the same, dis­pas­sion­ate (and hence, very sexy and admirable) role mod­el that so many of us kids of the 70’s had.

Like many oth­er gawky high-school­ers, I want­ed to be Spock. Even though Star Trek was already in syn­di­ca­tion, I knew most of the episodes by heart, and hence, was inti­mate­ly famil­iar with the Vul­can half-breed out­sider char­ac­ter. Fast-for­ward to this evening; as I watched John McCain get angri­er and grumpi­er, throw­ing every­thing he could at Oba­ma in this final debate, the oth­er man remained cool and calm, as he always does. I half expect­ed him to say some­thing like ‘Excuse me Sen­a­tor, but you are let­ting your emo­tions get the bet­ter of you.’ and per­haps even (a real quote from the series): ‘After a time, you may find that hav­ing is not so pleas­ing a thing, after all, as want­i­ng. It is not log­i­cal, but it is often true’

I’m not alone in mak­ing this obser­va­tion. A Google search for Obama=Spock hit pay dirt instant­ly. I was pleased to see that the New York Observ­er had an arti­cle on this very sub­ject a lit­tle over a week ago: Be Log­i­cal, Cap­tain! and two pro­fes­sors, Mitchell Aboulafia, who teach­es at the Jul­liard School, and Hen­ry Jenk­ins, who is at MIT also made the con­nec­tion. In fact, Jenk­ins made a speech at Future of Civic Media con­fer­ence host­ed at MIT this past sum­mer that dwelt deeply upon the par­al­lels between Spock and Oba­ma, and came to this inevitable (I think) con­clu­sion, and then some.:

In its own small way, Star Trek and Spock may have helped to pre­pare the way for Obama’s vic­to­ry in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries, help­ing us to imag­ine a dif­fer­ent set of rela­tion­ships between the races. Nowhere was this social utopi­an vision more ful­ly expressed than the “great friend­ship” between Kirk and Spock and so we can see some lega­cy of this theme of accep­tance across racial bound­aries emerg­ing through the slash fan fic­tion which became one of the major lega­cies of ear­ly Star Trek fan cul­ture. The oth­er “non-white” char­ac­ters may have been more sug­ges­tions than ful­ly devel­oped fig­ures — at least on the orig­i­nal series — but Spock was some­one we got to know and care about because, not despite, his dif­fer­ences. This is one rea­son why so many fans of my gen­er­a­tion were upset when Kirk prais­es Spock for being “the most human” per­son he has ever known dur­ing his funer­al eulo­gy in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Can you imag­ine the uproar if some­one praised Obana’s “white­ness”?

I’ve includ­ed a cou­ple of pho­tos from Jenk­ins that point out the star­tling sim­i­lar­i­ty between the can­di­date and the char­ac­ter:

Obama on Rolling Stone Magazine Mr. Spock

At any rate, if ever there were a need for a calm, log­i­cal Vul­can at the helm of the USS Amer­i­ca, it would be now. Let’s hope he can get the warp dri­ve work­ing before the ship drops out of orbit and burns up in the atmos­phere. Or some­thing like that.

Rogers About to Get Something they Didn't Want: Competition

I got a news-flash email from the CBC today (I’m no one spe­cial; I’ve signed up for alerts like this):

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is $4.2 bil­lion rich­er with the con­clu­sion of the cell­phone spec­trum auc­tion on Mon­day, while cus­tomers stand to win as five new com­pa­nies are now well posi­tioned to launch ser­vices over the next few years. The wind­fall is con­sid­er­ably larg­er than the orig­i­nal $1.5 bil­lion many indus­try ana­lysts had pre­dict­ed before the auc­tion began on May 27.

I linked to the relat­ed sto­ry on the CBC web site, and 3 pas­sages caught my eye. (in all cas­es, bold and ital­ics are mine) First:

The big win­ner — and biggest spender — among poten­tial new entrants was Toron­to-based Glob­alive Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Inc., which cur­rent­ly sells home phone and inter­net ser­vice under the Yak brand. The com­pa­ny has emerged from the auc­tion posi­tioned to launch a nation­al cell­phone ser­vice with 30 licens­es broad­ly dis­trib­uted across the coun­try.

Sec­ond:

The new entrants are wide­ly expect­ed to build third-gen­er­a­tion net­works based on glob­al sys­tem for mobile com­mu­ni­ca­tions (GSM) tech­nol­o­gy, which is what Rogers and its Fido sub­sidiary use, or its new­er fourth-gen­er­a­tion off­shoot, long-term evo­lu­tion (LTE).

and Third:

Iain Grant, pres­i­dent of the Seaboard Group telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tan­cy, said a nation­al car­ri­er could be up and run­ning by East­er at a cost of $500 mil­lion, although oth­er esti­mates say a launch could take a year or two. The trick­i­est part of start­ing up will be nego­ti­at­ing rights for trans­mis­sion sites, many of which will either be on top of tall build­ings or on tow­ers owned by Rogers, Bell and Telus.

So here we are, look­ing at a Spring of 2009 roll-out for at least one com­peti­tor to Rogers/Fido Wire­less, and did Rogers posi­tion them­selves well for such a sit­u­a­tion? In my hum­ble opin­ion, absolute­ly not. Any­one in Cana­da has seen this com­ing (any­one who was not in Rogers man­age­ment, that is). In the past years, months and weeks, Rogers has made so many Cana­di­an con­sumers so angry that they can count on no cus­tomer loy­al­ty what­so­ev­er. Their brand may very well be dam­aged beyond repair. Any new cell­phone ven­dor who sup­ports a GSM 3G net­work will be able to grab a large pool of cus­tomers ready to switch imme­di­ate­ly, or when their con­tract with Rogers is up (and you can bet that they’ll put that date on their cal­en­dar!)

How did Rogers screw this up so bad­ly? The recent his­to­ry of Rogers, par­tic­u­lar­ly with respect to pric­ing and mar­ket­ing tells some of the sto­ry. If you live in Cana­da and have had any deal­ings with Rogers, you’ll know much of this, so feel free to skip to the end…

First, over the past 3 or 4 years, Rogers charged some of the high­est data and call rates in the world. Then, in 2007, con­sumers and tech watch­ers crit­i­cized them for being slow to bring the iPhone to Cana­da after it was avail­able in the U.S. for a year.  In April of 2008, Rogers chief exec­u­tive Ted Rogers told investors the iPhone would arrive in Cana­da some time lat­er in the year. In June, Rogers set the iPhone’s debut for July 11 (along with sev­er­al oth­er coun­tries through­out the world), but were quick­ly met with harsh crit­i­cism about the data pric­ing plan, which was per­haps the sec­ond high­est in the world (with Swe­den being the high­est) . Some high-pro­file tech per­son­al­i­ties in Cana­da went on tele­vi­sion to announce that they were going to jump ship (in some cas­es pay­ing a siz­able penal­ty). Only after thou­sands of cur­rent and prospec­tive cus­tomers signed online peti­tions protest­ing these rates,  encour­ag­ing Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs to put pres­sure on the com­pa­ny, did Rogers relent with a drop of the high­est rate to a rea­son­able lev­el ($30 per month with a usage lim­it of up to 6 GB per month), but this rate is avail­able only until the end of August. On the day of the roll-out, Rogers’ reg­istry net­works crashed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with Apple’s iTunes reg­is­ter­ing sys­tem after the new iPhone was unveiled. The Out­age last­ed into the after­noon at some loca­tions and it wasn’t until the next week before some cus­tomers could acti­vate their phones. Rogers rep­re­sen­ta­tives said they expect­ed record first-day sales, but declined to dis­close how many phones were shipped to stores or how many they had expect­ed to sell. As I write this, Rogers (through­out Van­cou­ver, at least) is still sold out of the iPhone.

All in all it was a high­ly vis­i­ble fias­co. Rogers utter­ly botched the iPhone roll-out in just about every way it could be botched. They could have final­ly made many cur­rent cus­tomers hap­py with a new device and would be seen today as the sole provider of one of the most sought-after tech gad­gets. Instead, they gen­er­at­ed sev­er­al days of bad PR, dis­played poor plan­ning, and missed immea­sur­able mar­ket­ing and sales oppor­tu­ni­ties. There have been numer­ous spec­u­la­tions that the rea­son they ran out stock is that Apple was so peev­ed at the high data rates that they actu­al­ly divert­ed iPhone ship­ments from Cana­da to more rea­son­able Euro­pean car­ri­ers. Whether or not this was true, Rogers’ lack of can­dor regard­ing avail­abil­i­ty, lack of under­stand­ing of the prod­uct, and com­plete screw-up of logis­tics and net­work vol­ume on the day of the roll-out is some­thing that will not fade quick­ly from the mem­o­ry of most Cana­di­ans (and prob­a­bly not by this com­ing East­er).

It will be inter­est­ing to see if the mass exo­dus from Rogers to what­ev­er new car­ri­er Glob­alive will fund will be as swift and mas­sive as I expect it will be. Rogers has run their busi­ness ‘like there’s no tomor­row’, but in the Spring of 2009, ‘tomor­row’ will arrive.