Yearly Archives: 2008

Blogs are about conversation

It might seem obvious, but it’s worth saying: blogs are about communication. Communication isn’t the same thing as dissemination/syndication, as it implies that readers can participate in a post with critiques, questions, and additional information. Reader participation makes a blog more than simple announcements, it elevates a blog from a simple homepage1 to being a bazaar of ideas.

Participation can take many forms: comments being the most immediate (since the reader can easily browse them when reading the article); but automatic backlinking works too (see pingbacks). The irony is that adding that kind of a system to a blog makes it intrinsically more interesting, both to the reader and the writer.

Rant trigger: some guy presents an idea without any mechanism of receiving feedback. Honourable mention: dmo asks for tips on his blog, without providing a mechanism for readers to comment..

Note to self: Sports photography

I was taking a photos at the Icebreaker soccer tournament this weekend. A few things worth noting

1/100 of a second isn’t nearly as fast as I thought it was. With a telephoto at around 100mm, there was still significant motion blur from the movement of my camera. I’d consciously turned off shake reduction (WHY? WHY? WHY?). If I’d had SR on, maybe I would have been able to use a few more of the shots.
I was shooting at low shutter speeds to try and create a feeling of depth. At 100mm, f12-f16, with a subject ~40 feet away, I had a depth of field of about 35 feet. In my books that’s too much. If I’d forced my camera to stay around f8, I’d have had a much more dramatic DoF: 10 feet; but that would have started interfering with my motion blur. I’m starting to wonder if a monopod would have helped. 1
Shots from behind the net were the most dramatic. A few of the games I was watching went to shoot outs, so I had a nicely choreographed play to track. I opened my focal length up to 50mm, which was probably a mistake, as it didn’t compress the kicker to look close to the goalie, nor did it give me enough of an angle to catch the ball hitting the corners of the net, although stepping back 5 or 10 feet probably would have helped.
I didn’t have a chance to take many “vertical” shots (ie, the camera 90° to horizontal), mostly because the action was moving too quickly.

QuickTax(Web) isn’t worth your money

or the past few years I’ve been trying to use Intuit’s QuickTaxWeb to do my taxes. I say trying because it hasn’t worked for the last 2/3 years. In 2005, I noticed that they weren’t calculating tax properly on research grants that I’d been awarded. This year, their crappy web interface didn’t provide me with anywhere to enter my political contributions (thereby raising my income by about $200). Their help told me I could go back to the start of their wizardy interface and put myself into “advanced mode,” but 30 minutes of searching still hadn’t revealed that shortcut to me.

When I was using their help tool, the search stopped working due to server errors. (NullPointerExceptions – the Java equivalent of not doing a NULL check before dereferencing a pointer)

Foolishly, I decided to buy their desktop edition, on the assumption that a $19.99 desktop app would have the same functionality as a $19.99 web app. Nope – it doesn’t handle RRSPs, or other “advanced” tax issues, without using the “forms view” which is basically a glorified paper and pencil view.

Can anyone recommend a decent Canadian tax package?
6 comments Sunday, April 27, 2008

Paris

For some reason, Mayor Larry likes to keep saying Ottawa is a “world-class” city. Then again, he also liked to say that “zero means zero” (or is that 4.9?).

img_0730.JPGI suspect it will be a few more generations, a few city-wide fires, and a revolution or two until Ottawa becomes a world-class city to rival Paris. We don’t have the boulevards, landmarks, or public transit system to rival the French capitol.

About the only place we can hope to compete is with our on-street food vendors. We have two advantages: our culture accepts eating while walking and we have a large francophone population. It’s only a matter of time before some bright lad or lass at Algonquin discovers that crepes can be made and sold on the street.

“Oh! But what about beaver tails?” you say. The answer to that is simple: savory crepes. Do beaver tails have ham, tomato, feta? No. What about cheese? No. Beaver tails are a culinary dead-end. Crepes are like prokaryotes. There isn’t a gastronomic niche crepes can’t handle. Bring on a Canadian school of crepes, I say.

Sure, our city is a sprawling mess. Sure, our future transit plans are pretty much what we have now (with a little more tunnel). Sure, our city has few landmarks almost no public art. Sure, we don’t have much in the way of urban parks. But we can at least have some decent street food, dammit!

Ottawa’s Transit Plan: Critique

So what would make a good transit plan? I’m not an urban planner, but I can make a few ill-informed guesses:

The plan shouldn’t be based on streeters that ask people what they think of their current transit system – that model is too easily biased. Instead, they should do a survey of where people actually go. Ask them for their home and work/school addresses, for example. Build a map that shows where people go and when, then build transit to service their needs, not what you think they may want.
The plan shouldn’t just have a “vision”, it should also explain how the goal will be met. The existing plan states that they want to see 30% – in 2001, it was around 16%1, but they provide no indication of how those goals will be achieved.
Include city growth as part of the plan. Ottawa is all crawling with new condos downtown and new subdivisions in the ‘burbs. The plan should serve existing population centres and plan for new growth.
The transit plan should include zoning amendments to encourage growth and in-fill around transit lines. The old 2020 plan alluded to that, but the new napkin sketch doesn’t even raise the possibility.
The plan should provide a basic breakdown of costs. We’re told that laying track from Baseline station to Blair, and from the Rideau Centre past the airport is only $660 million more expensive than upgrading the transitway? And that a fleet of a few dozen trains won’t cost much more to buy than the 690 buses that OC Transpo runs? That may be true, but it’s hard to believe without knowing where the numbers came from.

The proposed plan is fine – if we want to pay around three billion dollars to get the same service we have today.

Ottawa’s Transit Plan: Yesterday’s Solution Tomorrow

As others have mentioned, the City of Ottawa has put together four possible plans for public transit in 2031. The four plans cover the same ground, they

follow the current east/west arterials running parallel to the Ottawa river;
head south as far as Bowesville and Barrhaven Town Centre;
go north into Gatineau;
feature a tunnel though the downtown.

The only difference is the mode: the first plan is entirely bus, with each of the other three plans phasing in gradually more light rail. Plan four has the most track, featuring rail lines from the current Baseline station to Blair with a dogleg down to Bowesville and the airport.

If I sound unexcited about the plans, it’s because they’re all pretty much the same. Swap tracks for Transitway, and add a few percentage points of capitol and ongoing costs, and they’re basically the same plan: what we have now. Even the growth projections for transit trips downtown are ho-hum: they project an overall rise of transit use (heading into the downtown core) of 10%.

Tomorrow: suggestions for what a transit plan should include.

The Red Apron

The Red Apron is an Ottawa-baesd food subscription service. You pay their not-too-cheap fee, and then they deliver meals to your work or home. If my food budget wasn’t already maxed, I’d give it a shot.

Cameras and Taxis

The great thing about a liquid lunch is it gives you a good reason to leave the bike at home and take a taxi. Earlier this week, while returning from just such a junket, I started talking with the cabbie about the City’s proposal for putting cameras in taxis.

The guy was emphatic. The cameras were a terrible idea, for a number of reasons:

The cameras don’t just take the occasional picture, the track the taxi’s speed, time on shift, and money made from fares.
The cameras must be installed by a city-approved umm… installer. Apparently there are only two, leading the drivers to think that there’s a little patronage action going on behind the scenes.
Drivers think that their fares may be put off by the invasion of privacy. The example the driver gave was of someone cheating on their spouse. He felt he’d lose business if they knew there was a camera taking their picture.
A camera wouldn’t stop a crime from happening, it would only make it easier for the cops to track down the perp. The driver didn’t seem interested in justice-for/vengeance-on/rehabilitation-of criminals as much as preventing the crime in the first place. He was in favour of a barrier, but said the city dismissed the idea because it would make Ottawa look dangerous.
The proposed cameras sounded over-priced. He thought the city was going to be selling them to cabbies at a premium.

It’s interesting that the media (embodied by CBC and the parts of the Citizen that I read) hasn’t really talked about the alleged capabilities of these cameras. If safety is the first concern of the city, then it sounds like they should opt for barriers, and then put cameras in (you know, the kind the only take pictures) if the cabbies want them.

Folks on CFRA were saying that it sounds like City staff would have access to the cameras, leading to the possibility that the cameras could be used for purposes other than ensuring cabbie’s safety.

Link Love

On the off chance you’re interested in the RSS feeds that I read, here’s a quick rundown:

Local

Blogawa.ca
Blog aggregator for Ottawa-related blogs. I wrote the aggregator, so you should read it. =)
Runesmith’s Canadian Content
The rambling of Jennifer Smith. I enjoy her ongoing outrage at the Conservative government.
Ottawa LiveJournal Community
It’s more of a “where can I get X” listing, but it’s sort of interesting to see what the kids are up to.
THE CANADIAN DESIGN RESOURCE
A near daily listing posting of random bits of Canadian design from the past hundred or so years. I have no idea why their name is in ALL CAPS, but that’s the way it’s presented in their feed.

Geekery

Lila’s Dreams Blog
Lila’s Dreams is a dev blog for an upcoming web-based MMOG. The setting is inside the psyche of an 11 year old girl. I’m not sure what the game is going to end up being, but it sounds like gardening should be a large part of game play, which sounds quite neat.
Dubroy.com/blog
I went to school with Pat, and he’s blogging as a grad student, which is a lifestyle that’s dear to my heart. He opines about usability, the evils of hierarchical filesystems, and difficulties installing stuff on Macs. I disagree with most things he says, but he’s well read and he comes at problems from the right angle.
datalibre.ca
Breathless open data zealots who think freely available data is a really good thing. They don’t trouble themselves with the hard questions of data ownership (curation, metadata, dealing with licensing/access restrictions) but approach the problem from a public interest standpoint. I’m not sure why I read this blog.
The Online Photographer (TOP) and Photoborg
I’m not sure why I read these sites. They’re kinda/sorta about photography. I’m looking for something with a few more tips, but I do enjoy the opining.

A Canadian School of Design

A little before Christmas, I started to notice that the IPod Touch had become the fetish object of the season. My fellow Ottawa denizens were wandering around lovingly stroking the screens of their Touches. In the winter. In the cold. Outside. Without gloves. Like idiots.

But it isn’t really their fault, is it? The Touch was developed in Cupertino, California, where the average temperature in January bubbles around 4°C and 15°C. Canadian fetish objects are pretty much the same as those in the United States, but we have a reality that our southern cousins don’t: winter.

Winter plays a huge part of our identity. Canadians snowshow, snowboard, ski, skate, and skidoo. We invented hockey. We dominate the sport of curling. We essentially invented the modern ski resort. In the temperate south of the country, we endure subzero temperatures five to six months of the year.

But our consumer goods, our clothing styles, architectural styles, and fetish objects are designed elsewhere. We use stuff designed in climates where zero is considered cold, and a light dusting of snow will close a city.

Imagine what gadgets would look like if they were designed with winter in mind. When it gets below minus five(ish), you don’t want to expose your skin to the elements for more than a minute or two. If MP3 players were designed by Canadians, they would be easy to control inside a pocket or mitten. They would have controls that are easy to manipulate without being seen. Alternatively, they would have buttons large enough that users would be able to control the volume or navigate tracks without having to remove their frostbite preventing gloves.

When you start to consider the realities of winter, more and more of our society seems like a cargo cult. We’ve imported styles that were created for much warmer places. When you see people walking around in winter, how many people do you see wearing long coats? I don’t mean coats that cover their hips, I mean coats that go to their ankles. When you’re wandering around Ottawa in -20°C weather, wearing a coat that goes to your waist is silly. It means your legs freeze, or you have to wear long-johns1. But do Canadians wear long coats? No. Because we’re suckers and we import our ideas of style from the south.

The realities of winter hit architecture hard as well. When six months of the year necessitate heavy clothing and heavy boots, our buildings should respect that and provide somewhere to store our sweaters and jackets when inside. Do they? For the most part, no. Malls, libraries, movie theaters, hospitals, and office buildings require us to carry our surplus duds around with us. The few buildings that do feature a coat check tend to be bars or clubs, where being seen is part of the experience.

It would be wonderful if Canadian designers and architects could reverse our fixation on southern climates. Well made Canadian goods that were attractive and designed for our climate would be wonderful. But they seem unlikely to catch on. Too much of our media comes from southern climes, where gloves are a fashion statement, and open air dining is an option year round.

Note: I didn’t notice our tom-foolery myself. It took the first 60 pages of John Ralston Saul’s Refliections of a Siamese Twin to wake me up to our national fixations on warmer climates. Perhaps a solution to our cargo-cultish behaviour was contained in the rest of the book, but JRS didn’t manage to keep my attention past page 61.