Accessing the government via the Internet

If you know me, you know I like the Internet. I recall saying that I’d rather have my water cut off than lose access to the Internet. It’s just so convenient. The Internet, I mean.

With tax time coming, my mother’s been gathering all her paperwork. There’s some information regarding her property taxes that she couldn’t find so I went online and asked how I might get this information. The City of Niagara Falls web site offers the usual web forms that allow you to send questions to various city departments.

As I arrived at the form, I noticed that the city web site redirected me to a different top-level domain. I had left niagarafalls.ca and found myself at cityofniagarafalls.wufoo.com. This concerned me. The privacy policy states,

The City of Niagara Falls takes every precaution to protect your personal information on the internet. This privacy statement applies to interactions with the City of Niagara Falls web server. It does not apply to any other web site.

This is certainly fair. They can’t control how other sites use any information, but when the city redirects me to a different site without telling me, for the purpose of my writing to them, washing their hands of responsibility is recklessly irresponsible. I consider myself fairly Internet-savvy but how many others who wrote to the city noted the redirection to Wufoo? How many understand the privacy implications? Goodness, how many realize that they shouldn’t send any personal information via an unencrypted web site?

Further on in the privacy policy, they touch upon this without going nearly far enough.

Communications through this web site to the City are not deemed private and may be routed throughout the corporation.

It’s true that most internet communications should be treated as less than private, but Wufoo is a web form service located in Ireland. Telling me that what I write “may be routed through the corporation” gives me no indication that my information will leave the city, much less the country.

Canada has privacy laws, and I expect the city to safeguard my personal information pursuant to those laws. Sending me to a foreign site to communicate with them tosses those laws out the window, and they somehow fail to think it is important to mention any of this on the comment page itself.

The city’s IT staff should know that most people who will use the site may not have an understanding of all the issues involved in sending their information using the web. At an absolute minimum, the comments pages should be hosted locally. I feel strongly that those same pages should be SSL encrypted as well. Anything else is the equivalent, in this case, of sending your question to city hall on a postcard, via Europe and the United States.

Posted in consequences, consumer life, Internet, me, privacy | Leave a comment

Stalagmite icicle

20150222-182108 5D3 4M6C3237.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 36mm, 1/100, f/5.6, 400 ISOI was out in the yard yesterday, digging my way through the snow to the shed. I happened to look back along the side of the house and saw a very curious formation of ice that stopped me in my tracks.

What I saw simply didn’t compute. It was a pillar of ice just over 1 metre tall and nearly 10 centimetres wide, standing on its own, beside the house.

It was directly under the furnace exhaust, and surely that was no co-incidence. Once my mind started working again after being blown, I thought perhaps the furnace exhaust cooled as it exited the house, and the moisture in the warm air condensed onto the inside of the cold pipe. It finally dripped to the ground and gradually created the ice stalagmite you see here.

My nephew, who has forgotten more about HVAC systems than I’ll every know, confirmed my suspicion. He told me that he’s seen this kind of thing before and it was no doubt caused by the cold weather we’re having.

Before the last few years, I haven’t lived in a house in more than fifteen years, and for the decade before that, I lived in other people’s houses as a border, so I’ve never really needed to know things that homeowners know. This may be old-hat to you, but it’s new to me!

Posted in me, weather | Leave a comment

A tale of two water bottles

You may recall that I gave up Coke as 2008 started. I made it almost two months with no Coke, other than what I found in the odd Long Island Iced-Tea. I managed the prohibition for nearly two months before I found that my whole reason for doing it wasn’t working out.

I decided to give it another try, though for different reasons. Sometime in December, I heard on Quirks and Quarks that a study indicated a correlation between consuming sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages and shortened telomeres. The study is titled, Soda and Cell Aging: Associations Between Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Healthy Adults From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. How’s that for a mouth-full?

The conclusion as expressed in the study abstract sums up the reasons for my alarm:

Regular consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas might influence metabolic disease development through accelerated cell aging.

See? That’s alarming! I hadn’t considered metabolic disease, but accelerated cell aging is reason enough for action. Even if it isn’t as bad as it sounds, it is a good excuse to make some changes in my diet.

I unpacked my Brita and washed it. I didn’t install a filter because we’ve got a reverse-osmosis filter in the house. I filled the pitcher with filtered water and stored it in the refrigerator so I’d always have ready access to cold water. It worked well, except the water warms up quickly once removed from the refrigerator and warm water isn’t a lot of fun to drink. The result is that I didn’t drink as much. I tried filling the glass of water with ice, but this caused a mess because of the condensation on the outside of the glass. I know, it’s a first-world problem, but I needed to drink more, and I wanted the fluid to be water so I needed a solution.

My mother was having an unrelated problem with thirst during the night. She’d wake up during the night absolutely parched. She tried keeping a glass of water on the nightstand, but it didn’t work. The cat would get curious, stick her head into the glass, and often knock it over. In thinking about it, I figured a water bottle stop the cat. Having the water chilled would be even nicer so I tracked down durable insulated water bottles and bought her a nice stainless steel model from Amazon. It was just $20. After filling it with ice and water, it still has ice 12 hours later and although the ice is gone, it’s noticeably cool after 24 hours. It even has an ‘ice dam’ that prevents you from swallowing ice as you drink from the bottle. Problem solved!

0204_bottleIt occurred to me that a water bottle might solve my problem as well. Mom’s small 13 oz (385 ml) bottle wouldn’t do for me so I searched high and low, and the largest insulated stainless steel water bottle I could find was a 20 oz (591 ml) Klean Kanteen bottle from Amazon.ca. At the time it was only available in blue, though now they offer four options, including the brushed stainless finish I wanted!

Despite the colour, it’s perfect! I hadn’t planned to swear off Coke completely, but dramatically reduce my intake. With the water bottle, this has been simplicity itself. My goal was to limit myself to perhaps an average of one can of Coke per day. There has been the odd day during which I had two (and one day I had three), but there were also many days I forgot Coke entirely. That’s right, I forgot. If you know me, you might think I would have to sustain a head injury for this to happen.

As I found when I tried to quit Coke entirely, I replaced those calories by eating more. I do try to drink more water when I get hungry, but that’s of only limited success. Last time I tried to quit Coke to lose weight. This time I simply want to cut down. If you want to bring costs into it, the bottle wasn’t inexpensive at $30, but I’ve certainly saved more than that already. I’m nearing the point at which I gave up last time and I simply don’t see myself giving up again. Why would I when I don’t really miss the stuff? Allowing myself to have some, albeit a dramatically reduced amount, makes the reduction far easier to manage. I’d even dare say this could become my new normal.

I’ll report back in month or two.

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Image courtesy of Amazon.ca

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CBC News is a joke

On The Sunday Edition this morning, host Michael Enright sat down with Stéphane Dion, the Liberal critic for Canadian Heritage, to discuss the Liberal vision for the CBC. What struck me is Enright’s introduction to the story. He brought up the dilemma of how the CBC should report on itself.

This inspired me to write a comment on the Sunday Edition web site:

I’m surprised you’d even ask about the dilemma of how the CBC should cover itself. Having been a longtime CBC News watcher/listener, I’ve seen it first-hand. The answer is to cover the CBC only to distance itself from any problematic people (Jian Ghomeshi) or ignore the real stories entirely (Rex Murphy, Peter Mansbridge, and Amanda Lang). More than anything, the CBC’s reaction to the Lang affair is what ended my nearly thirty-year reliance on the CBC as my primary news source. CBC News, as an organization, has forgotten its purpose and cannot be trusted to uphold basic journalistic integrity.

A couple of years back, the CBC reported that the Royal Bank brought in foreign workers to do jobs that Canadians could have done. Canadaland reported that Amanda Lang unsuccessfully tried to get the story scuttled. Later, Lang wrote an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail about how the story was a non-issue. She did this entirely of her own volition, and broke CBC News rules in the process. Then, she had Royal Bank CEO Gord Nixon on her show for a softball interview. What really blew my mind is that while she reported on the Royal Bank, she was in a serious relationship with W. Geoffrey Beattie, who also is the chair of the Royal Bank’s Risk Committee, on their human resources committee, and member of the Royal Bank board.

Once this story broke, how did the CBC handle it? By circling the wagons. CBC Head of Public Affairs Chuck Thompson told CanadaLand,

Amanda did declare her relationship with Geoff Beattie to her executive producer (Robert Lack) and he has the appropriate processes in place.

What were these appropriate processes? We have no idea. I’d suggest that there are no appropriate processes for this situation. She should have not been involved in the reporting of the story, period. Her working to influence the story tells me she doesn’t have any idea what journalist integrity means.

You’ll recall Gordon Hewart’s famous words about justice,

justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done

I’d suggest the same is true for conflicts of interest. Not only must there be no conflict of interest, but there must not be even the perception of any conflict of interest. Putting some alleged backroom control into place isn’t nearly enough. Reporting the news is entirely about trust. Every time I see Amanda Lang reporting the news, I am reminded that the CBC is not worthy of my trust.

It saddens me because I genuinely like the CBC, but also for all the other reporters and worker who strive to do the right thing. They’ve been betrayed by management and some of their co-workers.

What really closed the book on my trust in the CBC was the response Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, posted about this mess. In part, she said,

It is unfortunate that our internal processes are fodder for external debate by people who have their own agendas.

Can you believe the cluelessness? She’s running a publicly funded organization and calls it unfortunate that taxpayers are learning about what their tax dollars are funding. Further, the business of news organizations is to do exactly this sort of thing! I suspect she thinks it’s unfortunate Lang was caught rather than it being unfortunate we learned about their internal processes.

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Sunday Edition image © CBC

Posted in big questions, consequences, news, television | Leave a comment

Thank you, angry Buick man

I’m grateful to all of those people out in the world who brighten my day, whether they know it or not. Today it was an angry man in a dark Buick.

I was driving my mother home from an appointment. As we neared home, I stopped at a red light a block away from the point at which we’d turn off the last major street before delving into our neighbourhood. Mom was talking about the local pizza place on that last block and how we should order from them again. The place came under new ownership some five years ago and pies suffered because of whatever changes the new owners made. She thought that perhaps they’ve learned their lesson and the only way we’d find out is by trying. The light turned green as she mentioned that they don’t send out flyers anymore so she had no idea what the current prices are. I pointed out that the prices were on the window, which wasn’t much use as we couldn’t read it from the road.

As you might imagine, I was driving a bit slower than normal as I cast the odd glance toward the pizza place. Two doors down, I signalled, braked, and began my left turn into the neighbourhood. Wanting to maintain my situational awareness, I looked around the car, predominantly toward the left. I noticed that the car behind me was following very closely. I glanced at the driver-door mirror just in time to see the driver stick his arm out the window and give me the finger.

What did I do? What most anyone else would. I burst into laughter. So thank you, angry Buick driver, for brightening my day with your assholeishness! I drove perhaps 5 km/h under the limit for 60 metres and I’ve committed a sin so bad that this angry man feels the need to open his window (it was –8ºC at the time) and give me the finger when he must know it’s exceedingly unlikely that I’d even see him?

Yes, I did happen to see him, but it’s so ridiculous that I found it hilarious. It may get me into trouble some day, but when I see that another driver is visibly upset with me for what really amounts to nothing, I can’t help but laugh.

Thank you again, angry Buick man!

Posted in funny, me, silliness, travel | Leave a comment

No snake-oil here.

Earlier this month, in my Synergistic [super-secret!] Research post, I told you that I think it’s beyond daft to spend thousands of dollars on each cable for one’s stereo. I absolutely believe that companies offering these cables for sale are taking advantage of their customers. I wouldn’t normally care as they’re not holding a gun to their customers’ heads, right? But I do care both because their claims about the cables are insultingly ridiculous, and because it gives a bad name to those who care about music reproduction and spend more to get better-sounding music.

Since I have spent more to get better sound, though I’m by no means able to spend a lot, I believe you’re entitled to know what I do believe. So what cables do I use?

Right off, I don’t use the cables that come included in the box with DVD players! Though I will not spend thousands for a single cable, I don’t take the opposite extreme position that any wire is good enough.

My current cable provider, Blue Jeans Cable, has some articles up on their site, and one titled Broadcast Quality — What Does it Mean, and Why is it Good? deals with exactly this issue.

In a nutshell, broadcasters and studios use neither consumer cables, nor esoteric thousand dollar cables. They use cables that easily exceed the required specifications, and are built to withstand far more abuse than your stereo cables will ever experience. So my thinking is that if I can get the same cabling and connectors the studios use to record the music, why wouldn’t I use it if the price were reasonable?

The article goes into detail about what a broadcaster looks for in a cable:

The broadcast world differs from this consumer market in a few critical respects.

First, the “consumer” in the broadcast world is typically an engineer; whether he has that test bench full of gear for testing cable or not, he knows what it is, what it would measure, and how to use it if he has to.

Second, the applications are critical; an engineer patching video from one end of a production or broadcast facility to another doesn’t want to plug it in, see whether it works or not, and then spend a few hours debugging it. He needs cable to be dependable; he needs every foot of it to be as good as every other foot of it, and if the manufacturer says it’ll carry 1080i HD-SDI signals three hundred feet, he needs to be able to rely on that claim when the rubber hits the road.

Third, this is very much a nonsense-free market; our engineer-buyer isn’t likely to be excited by specious performance claims that can’t be measured or documented. He’s likely to know which features of a cable are critical — like impedance tolerance, return loss, attenuation relative to the lengths of cable in use — and which aren’t.

Fourth, he buys a lot of cable to wire just one production or broadcast facility, and he will not return to a manufacturer who lets him down where quality is concerned.

Fifth — and significantly, for our discussion — broadcast applications demand more of cable than any consumer application. Analog 1080i component video, commonly in use on high-definition consumer devices, requires about 37 Megahertz of bandwidth — plus, to be safe, a few harmonics, which gets us up into the 150 MHz region or so. Serial Digital Video, SDI — commonly run in production and broadcast facilities — requires twenty times that bandwidth, and will break down catastrophically if the cable doesn’t conform to tight manufacturing tolerances. And the technical requirements of the cable aren’t all; cables are handled, plugged in, unplugged, flexed, coiled, uncoiled, and generally subjected to wear and tear to an extent seldom seen in home environments, and both the cables and the connectors used in professional applications need to have durability, flex-life, and resistance to damage from handling and pulling. As much as a broadcast engineer appreciates the technical capabilities of well-made cable, he also appreciates the difference between delicate cable that fails while in use and robust cable that lasts.

These exacting needs are filled by a handful of companies that produce the best wire, cable and connectors available for professional applications; these are companies whose names are virtually unknown in the consumer audio/video world, but who are on every engineer’s rolodex: Belden, ADC, Canare, et cetera. Conspicuously absent from that list are the companies that contract to Chinese manufacturers to make the cables one sees in big-box consumer audio/video retail stores, the companies that make the esoteric “high-end” cables for which a handful of people with more money than sense pay big bucks, and the multitude of Chinese wire and cable manufacturers and assembly houses that produce low-cost, but low-quality, cable for the consumer market.

Blue Jeans Cable LC-1 Low Capacitance Audio Cable

Blue Jeans Cable LC-1 Low Capacitance Audio Cable

As with most things, moderation is best. There’s a middle-ground between 50¢ cables and $7500 cables. I bought Blue Jeans Cable’s LC-1 analogue audio cable. How much does it cost? For a three foot length, a stereo pair costs $31.25. It’s not cheap, nor is it ridiculous. Given that I have separates, and a four channel set-up, I bought about eight pairs, plus a subwoofer cable.

You’ll also recall that I complained about Synergistic Research’s lack of measurements and details. Blue Jeans Cable is far more open about their wares. This is their brief overview of the LC-1:

The most important attributes of a line-level unbalanced audio cable are (1) shielding, and (2) capacitance. Heavy shielding protects audio signals from interference from outside sources. LC-1 Audio Cable uses a heavy double-braid shield, with one bare copper braid laid directly over another for extreme high coverage and high conductivity to ground; this is the identical shield configuration to Canare LV-77S, which tested best in our review of audio cable hum rejection characteristics (LC-1 hadn’t been designed yet so wasn’t tested at that time). By shrinking the center conductor to 25 AWG and foaming the polyethylene dielectric, we were able to get capacitance down to an extremely low 12.2 pF/ft, much better than LV-77S at 21 pF/ft. Capacitance can be important, particularly in long cable runs, because it contributes to rolloff of higher frequencies. The softer dielectric material and smaller center conductor, meanwhile, make the cable highly flexible and easy to route. LC-1 is built exclusively for Blue Jeans Cable by Belden, the leader in American communications cable, and is rated CM for in-wall installation in residential and commercial environments. For more information and specs on LC-1, read our “LC-1 Design Notes” article.

As the last sentence says, if you want more detail, follow the link and you get more than 1300 words about the components, construction, and specifications of the LC-1 cable.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a Blue Jeans Cable ad, but when I find what I believe is a good product, I’m not shy about saying so. They use industry-quality components to make their cables, and sell them at reasonable prices. They’re also very open about the specs of their cables and how they are manufactured. All of this is exactly the way I think audio components and accessories should be sold, so I’m a happy customer. In case you’re wondering, I have no other involvement or relation with Blue Jeans Cable beyond being a customer.

Make no mistake, none of the cables I’ve purchased from Blue Jeans Cable are what I would call sexy. The packaging was as spartan as it gets with my orders arriving in plain FedEx boxes. This is okay with me as the cables are behind my equipment, well out of sight, and the packaging is long gone. What I have are well made cables with high-quality components that are built to last and meet specifications far beyond what I need. As I mentioned earlier, if the cables are good enough for recording studios and broadcasters to create video and audio, the same cables are certainly good enough for me to watch and listen to their work.

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Cable photo from the Blue Jean Cable web site.

Posted in consumer life, electronics, marketing, me, music | Leave a comment

A hell of a good question…

A hell of a good question for the racist conspiracy theorists in the wake of Paris:

Posted in politics, religion | Leave a comment

Know your enemy

USA Today has found itself in the middle of a controversy because it printed an opinion piece by Anjem Choudary. A quick look at Wikipedia informed me that he’s a a British Muslim social and political activist who’s vocally anti-western. He criticized the UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and praised those responsible for the 9-11 attacks.

This is the first paragraph of his missive:

Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.

Go read the rest of it.

I think it’s wonderful that USA Today has posted his thoughts. Not because I agree with him, but so the radical Islamist apologists in the West can understand what they’re really dealing with. I do agree that we should make an effort to work out disagreements by talking about them before taking up arms, or even applying political pressure. Like minded folk to are working toward a common goal can find a compromise long before violence is necessary!

The bleeding hearts however, feel that we can get along with anyone as long as we try to understand them. The people who hold this belief need to read Choudary’s words. There’s no understanding or accommodation. If you do anything that offends the radicals, you must die. We can’t agree to disagree. Everyone must live according to their rules. Or die.

Posted in freedom, news, religion | Leave a comment

The case for mocking religion

Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet — who was only another male mammal — is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

Christopher Hitchens
Cartoon Debate
February 2006
Slate

Posted in religion, rights | Leave a comment

Alarmforce closure

You’ll recall that I wrote about my letter to Alarmforce to tell the CEO of my six-month adventure in pursuit of a $25 referral credit, and again after the CEO called me to discuss the problem.

Just before Christmas my mother received an envelope in the mail from Alarmforce. It was a Christmas card with Christmas wishes, an apology for the problem we experienced, and a $10 Tim Hortons gift card. I thought it a nice gesture because whether he did it himself or had someone else do it, it took thought and effort.

Yesterday, I checked my credit card statement and found the monthly Alarmforce charge, and it did indeed include the $25 credit. Thank goodness.

I’m very pleased to put this issue behind me.

Posted in consumer life, customer service, me | Leave a comment