Did Postmedia attempt to smear the NDP in the @vikileaks30 affair?

After a most momentous week in Canadian politics — namely, one in which a government with an absolute majority in both the House of Commons and the Senate was at least momentarily thwarted in its efforts to pass Bill C-30 — the @vikileaks30 twitter account has been retired. It simply no longer exists. However it has had one hell of an effect, and the way in which it was reported about should definitely raise a lot of eyebrows.

For those who don’t know about this story, @vikileaks30 was an anonymous account launched on Wednesday which broadcasted certain salacious details about Vic Toews, including parts of affidavits from his 2007 divorce — largely his ex-wife’s testimony — and many interesting details of expense claims by Mr. Toews as a government minister.

Soon after the novelty twitter account appeared on the scene Ottawa Citizen tech news reporter Vito Pilieci came up with an interesting plan to figure out who was posting on it and came up with the idea to send the twitterer a web site link which was unique for that particular user. There’s nothing wrong with that technique, I’ve used it myself a couple of times, and twitter’s use of URL shorteners makes that technique discoverable only with some difficulty. The IP address which was used to visit the link turned out to have been one connected with the Parliament buildings. That much can be reliably established.

What I find a little more difficult to understand is the way that the story was reported both by Pilieci himself and Postmedia flagship paper the National Post. Starting with the title, which was surely written by a higher-up: “Vikileaks Twitter account on Vic Toews linked to ‘pro-NDP’ address in House of Commons”. Indeed the original Ottawa Citizen story used the considerably less “inciteful” (if you will) “Vikileaks30 linked to House of Commons IP address”. But this is only the start of the smear. In the story itself we see this paragraph:

Aside from being used to administer the Vikileaks30 Twitter feed, the address has been used frequently to update Wikipedia articles — often giving them what appears to be a pro-NDP bias, actions that have attracted the attention of numerous Internet observers in recent months.

I’ve taken the liberty here to put in bold type the second instance of the smear. Note the use of “weasel language” here — the author (almost undoubtedly Pilieci himself) double-qualifies the statement so as to obviate the necessity of backing that statement with actual evidence, which he indeed does not provide.

So, that’s interesting. Without any more specifics this certainly looks like an attempt to smear the party that currently holds the position of Official Opposition in the House of Commons. Now why would someone do that and be this specific about it?

Well, the Ottawa Citizen, which currently employs Pilieci, is owned by the Postmedia Network, which is a group encompassing several newspapers, including my hometown’s The Gazette newspaper and Canada’s second national daily, the National Post (which should be no surprise to you as the link shown above goes to a NatPo story). The National Post, pretty much since its inception, is regularly accused of running a pro-Conservative slant on the political stories it covers, which clearly explains why they chose to edit Pilieci’s story  from the rather more neutral “Vikileaks Twitter account traced to House of Commons” (the title of the story on Thursday) to the, well, deliberately less equivocal title they chose to run on Friday. Am I supposed to think that this is just some kind of “oversight” or absent-minded error? Maybe others can think so, but I’m not that gullible. The smear is clear and deliberate.

OK, so maybe you think, this is a one-off thing… well, no. On Friday the Citizen ran this Stephen Maher editorial, this time with a neutral, toned-down title: “Maher: Toews made himself Twitter target with ‘pornographers’ crack” about how the @vikileaks30 story started. Read the story, though, and the ugly smear rears its head again in connection with the IP address:

That IP address also was linked to some Wikipedia pages where someone had written pro-NDP comments, which the Citizen reported.

Actually I do wish that Postmedia hired better editors because what Maher is saying now is not quite the same as what Pilieci was saying earlier, but this seems to me little but a barely-disguised attempt at repeating the smear. And then not content with doing it once, Maher pipes up again soon after:

It may be that that person is a secret NDP supporter, and enemy of Vic Toews, or it may be that there is some confusion over the IP address.

Does Maher think we’re all blind here?.. this is getting pretty blatant. Again, note the use of the weasel phrase “it may be”. Overall the article is pretty weak stuff by a national  Postmedia correspondent. In Canadian print journalism this is as senior as it gets without getting bumped up to a position involving more management duties, this isn’t the young guy who writes the computer column (that would be Pilieci, who is a staff member at the Ottawa Citizen and not really staff with the Postmedia “mothership”).

But that article isn’t what really rang a bell for me on the smear question — rather, what made me see the big picture was the follow-up by Pilieci following the @vikileaks30 poster’s announcement that the account was now retired. See if you can spot the difference from the (youthful?) exhuberance of his former column:

A further look into the IP address associated with Vikileaks30 found the address had been used in a range of online activities, including to edit several entries on the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia ranging on topics from the history of ice hockey to a biography of Whitney Houston, as well as to alter content on a variety of politically charged topics that span the political spectrum. It does not appear the poster was targeting any specific political party or affiliation.

This went to publishing after it was clear that the NDP slur had failed to gain any traction in the House of Commons or indeed with public sentiment. What a difference a day makes, I say.

It still remains a good question as to whether there was a concerted effort by the Tory-friendly Postmedia to deliberately steer hostility towards the NDP at a time when the Conservative Party was in a bit of a crisis. The coverage in the first story mentioned actually lead to quite a few angry words in the House of Commons, mostly coming (as the second story reports) from rather easily-influenced Tory attack dog John Baird:

“Not only have they stooped to the lowest of the lows, but they have been running this nasty Internet dirty-trick campaign with taxpayers’ money,” he said.

That’s the head of Canadian diplomacy shooting himself in the foot there, taking Pilieci’s story as gospel truth (his was the main story that included the smear). Oh dear.

I for one will be following further developments regarding this aspect of the C-30 story, and I certainly hope that others will start asking questions about the possibility of spin or even possible fabrications by the newspaper conglomerate that bills itself as “the largest publisher by circulation of paid English-language daily newspapers in Canada”.

Either that, or they need to take a serious look at who they keep on staff.

Note: in order to avoid any confusion if any of the three aforementioned stories should be edited or somehow deleted, I have taken screen captures of all 4:

  1. The original IP address story as it appeared on the National Post web site on 2/16
  2. The same story as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site
  3. The Stephen Maher story as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site on 2/17
  4. The later story by Pilieci as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site on 2/17

“Lawful access” — coming very soon to a computer near you

Public Security Minister Vic Toews is planning to introduce his so-called “lawful access” bill to the House of Commons later today. So, how does it measure up?

According to Ottawa U Law professor Michael Geist, it’s going to create a panopticon society where online privacy essentially no longer exists and is replaced with a sort of Big Brother. Which is pretty funny when you consider that the Tories are also about to introduce their bill to scrap the long gun registry and proactively delete any and all data therein. Apparently guns don’t kill people, but the freedom to go about one’s own business does… that pretty much tells you what you need to know about Stephen Harper and his cronies.

And then there’s the issue of cost, which is entirely offloaded onto the ISPs themselves, who will now have to keep a record of everything you do online — well, everything you do online taking the direct route via your ISP, making it trivial to circumvent — for 90 days. I rather pity the ISPs who are going to be stuck storing all that data at their own expense. You can be certain that they’ll be glad to pass the savings onto you, of course.

So what’s the justification for this garbage? Mr. Toews, never one to shy away from stooping to scrape the bottom of the barrel, claims that either you are with him or you are siding with “the child pornographers”. Never mind that there have been a number of child porn busts recently which have not required any of the new police state powers Mr. Toews insists are absolutely crucial to fight that crime. Personally I’ve always thought that it was illegal, but apparently by senile old Vic’s reckoning it was impossible to fight this crime before! Of course it wasn’t. Mr. Toews is just pulling his Maud Flanders act, and it sells out very well out West, where evidently people ignorant or mad enough to vote for the insane old codger think “internet” is a kind of potato blight.

But why should we let Vic the impaler set the terms? I say, unless you are against this so-called “lawful access” bill, you are siding with the fascists. I guess the Conservative Party has yet another self-renaming in the works.

Assange extradition case: is the UK CPS under foreign pressure?

Like a rather large number of people I am following the legal proceedings to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden with very keen interest. It is a very unusual case indeed. The British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is currently attempting to extradite Mr. Assange, the head of Wikileaks, to Sweden for questioning regarding something which does not appear to be considered prosecutable in any way outside of Sweden. Of course there are additional facts which make this case particularly odd for the CPS to pursue — but pursue it it has, all the way to the UK’s highest court.

One does very well to wonder why. Mr. Assange has not been charged with any crime, in the UK, Sweden, or anywhere else. Mr. Assange has offered to submit himself to questioning at the Swedish embassy in the UK. There are strong questions of prosecutorial misconduct already surrounding the case, and rumours seem to abound to the effect that the “victim” in the affair has been coerced into declaring that there was wrongdoing at all by a particularly zealous and right-wing Swedish prosecutor.

So of course inquiries have been made as to why the CPS is taking on this case. I myself cannot think of a justification to pursue extradition proceedings against a person who is not under a criminal charge for anything. It just doesn’t make sense, unless of course the entire affair is political in nature, in which case there are strong implications that the CPS is being used by another organ of the British government for purposes which, on the outside at least, seem unethical at best and downright illegal at worst.

As I have already mentioned an inquiry was made to obtain information from the CPS as to why they are conducting this campaign, and the CPS’s response can now be published, as it has been here. The CPS is refusing to answer the question, but it’s the cited reasoning which is most interesting:

Information is exempt information under s. 27(1)(a) if its disclosure under the FOIA would, or would be likely to, prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other State.

Now, I’m no expert in diplomacy or foreign relations myself, but it seems that the CPS itself is admitting that it is, directly or indirectly, being pressured by a foreign government into proceeding forward with the extradition. That seems highly improper. The CPS is not, nor should it be, answerable to the Foreign Office, or indeed any other body than the Home Office. And what interest does the Home Office have seeking the extradition of a man who is not charged with a crime in the UK or abroad?

And since the response hints at foreign pressure, who is behind that? Sweden has not seen it fit to charge Mr. Assange with a crime. Which country could possibly have a vested interest in getting the head of Wikileaks out of a jurisdiction where he enjoys legal protection and into international territory where he is completely unprotected? Hmm, I wonder. Not to mention that Sweden,  nice country though it may be, hardly has the clout to tell the Brits what to do. For that you have to look elsewhere. Surely it would have to be a more influential country, perhaps one which operates several military bases in the UK, to pick only one consideration out of a hat. As it is now no question can be answered as the CPS is keeping mum on the subject.

Of course one doesn’t have to spend too long reading between the lines to figure it out…

More thoughts on Portal 2

Okay, so this is a post about Portal 2, but you’ll probably not want to read it unless you’ve already played through the game because it is literally full of spoilers right from the beginning. So I’m going to make some white space now in case you’ve stumbled on this article by accident and don’t want the game spoilt for you, although when you think about it you really should have taken the hint from the first sentence of this post…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What happens in Portal 2 is that a time warp takes place. And it doesn’t take place before Chell gets woken up in The Courtesy Call, it takes place when Wheatley is in charge.

The biggest hint in the game is an obscure achievement called “Ship Overboard”, which is a kind of companion to the “Door Prize” achievement. In Ship Overboard you stumble on a dry dock which is rather oddly located in a salt mine, with a rescue buoy from the ship BOREALIS. This is a reference to Half-Life episode 2 where the Borealis, which bears an Aperture Science banner, and her dry dock go missing. But this is the HL2 timeline, and that takes place some time in the future. So why does the dry dock turn up in the Aperture experiments facility that was built in the 1970s?..

There’s an even better question, though. How did it come to pass that Aperture had scientific testing facilities as far back as the 1950s? If you look at the “official” Aperture Science wiki it states that AS was just a shower curtain company from its foundation in 1953 to Cave Johnson’s death in 1976 (that’s also problematic if you’ve played through the game, but bear with me) and only gets into science at all in the 1980s. Yet in the 1950s test chambers there’s a trophy room touting science awards that Aperture Science Innovators (as they were known then) has won in the 40s and 50s. So clearly something has changed there.

This is also obvious when you consider that in the beginning of the game, through the ruined test chambers, you never see anything about the repulsion, propulsion and portal gels, but they’re a big part of the ending of the game which takes place in the same day as the beginning of the game.

It also goes some ways towards explaining exactly why someone would build a science facility in a closed salt mine in the first place. After you reach the bottom of the mine you have to wonder why and especially how such gargantuan and technically complicated buildings could possibly be built 3 miles underground. Not to mention how a shower curtain company manages to attract test subjects who are also astronauts, war heroes and olympians.

Another hint comes very early in the 1950s testing phase of the game, where you’re informed that you need the portal device in order to complete the test. This was supposedly not invented until the 1980s! And the propulsion and repulsion gels were not invented until the late 1990s, but they show up in the 1950s and 1970s test chambers! And the 1950s chambers were condemned (“vitrified”) back in 1961 (read the signs, folks!). Also the reason stated for the vitrifying of the facilities is cosmic ray contamination, which seems unlikely in a facility that’s 3 miles underground. Unless of course there is some sort of a portal device involved…

There’s clearly a time warp that occurs somewhere and changes the in-game reality. It’s not just the gel or the portal technology, but the “current” Aperture Science facility also becomes hugely more vast than was hinted at in the first Portal game. By orders of magnitude.

As for Cave Johnson, in the first Portal timeline (from the wiki posted above) he dies in 1976 of mercury poisoning, but now he’s made prerecorded messages for chambers that were only built in the 1980s.

One may well then ask, “if Aperture Science had all this technology in the 40s or 50s why didn’t they deploy it all then?” Indeed the gameplay is structured so that the 1950s introduce the repulsion gel, the 70s introduce the propulsion gel, and the portal-surface-making gel shows up in the 80s. Some of that new technology was obviously released then, that’s how ASI was able to fund their fantastically immense facilities, but you have to keep in mind that ASI is not a very good science company — they build giant spheres of asbestos to conduct tests in, test products without knowing what elements they contain (“it’s a lively one and it does not like the human skeleton”) and “throw science at a wall to see what sticks”.  It took them some time to figure out how to replicate the propulsion gel, and their early experiments in gathering moon rocks — a necessary ingredient for the portal-surface-making gel — led to the cosmic ray contamination that caused the shutdown of their 50s facility. They only managed it in the early 80s, with bad consequences for Cave Johnson and his “why not” approach to scientific experimentation.

So, for those of us who think that the Portal 2 game was rather short, this seems to offer the answer that the game is, in fact, not over and that there is more to come. There might be more use for a stalemate associate yet. The game is such a mindfuck it’s brilliant.

The CBSA: fast asleep on your parcels

For a few weeks now I’ve been noticing that some packages of stuff I ordered just weren’t coming in. In particular I have a bunch of dealextreme orders for cheap Chinese stuff which I needed to make a couple of youtube videos poking fun at, well, cheap Chinese stuff you can get on dealextreme so I was becoming very curious as to what was going on there. After a while the CBSA emerged as a clear culprit for what was happening there.

Well, I’ve just received one of the packages I’ve been waiting for, and indeed I was right — overseas parcels are being unreasonably delayed because someone at the Canadian border is just sitting on this stuff. The order was for a few t-shirts from a place in Pennsylvania. Now I’ve driven there, PA is about 10 hours away, and I’ve just received this package on March 18th.

When did the package ship? February 24th. Over 3 weeks to cover a distance that wouldn’t even take half a day to drive. When did this shit become acceptable?

And then, in the time-honored CBSA spirit of adding insult to injury, I got charged a $5 “handling fee” for some dweeb to intercept my package and let it gently age for a full 2 weeks before the damn thing was even looked at. So to recap, not only am I hugely inconvenienced by this nonsense, I’m also being charged for the privilege of having been inconvenienced. A bit like a mafiosi who beats you up and then charges you “protection money”.

It just seems to me that since the CBSA is (by all evidence) unable to discharge its duties in a reasonable time frame it at the very least should drop that so-called “handling fee”. Either that or shape the fuck up, hire some more fucking personnel and get those fucking packages moving at a reasonable rate, which they’re nowhere close to doing now. At this point I have stuff which is nearly a month late. This is more than an inconvenience, this is a serious impediment to commerce.

Interesting times

2011 has so far been a rife year for change — if anything that’s quite the understatement. So far this year two long-standing regimes have fallen in North Africa, and this seems to be fanning local flames of discontent over large parts of the middle east and northern Africa.

It’s enough to drive some people mad with fear about some kind of greater Islamic Caliphate. American entertainer (and nothing else) Glenn Beck has made it the cornerstone of his show, which has recently become a sort of festival of ranting paranoia that’s led many to question whether Beck is still sane at all — although his general message differs little from what’s coming from the American right wing (i.e. Fox News) generally. Fox News doesn’t care for brown people, that’s hardly news to anyone.

That’s one way to see things. It’s also the wrong way to see things. When you look at these uprisings more closely you find that in each country in which protests have occurred so far, the causes for the protests are pretty much purely local to the place in which they are happening, and that beyond the demands for change there is little in common between them. To claim otherwise is either foolish or dishonest.

This is not to say that each national protest occurs in a vacuum, of course. Tunisia, as the first country to revolt, has undeniably inspired protesters in the other locales by showing them the power behind non-violent resistance. When President Ben Ali resigned he had been in power for 24 years and had built a strongly repressive regime that for most of the protesters had existed for as long as they were alive. That this regime could be toppled with relatively little bloodshed has without a doubt bolstered the spirits of protesters across the region and made them realize that no matter how long a regime has been in charge of their country, it’s just not going to last forever. In fact as soon as Ben Ali’s resignation was announced I had a strong feeling that Egypt would be next to see protests.

Tunisia’s revolt came as a result of two factors: resentment against Ben Ali and his internal security forces, but especially changing government policies that caused the price of food to skyrocket in a very short timeframe. Additionally young Tunisians are a well-educated middle-class people, so long-term unemployment for many of them — it is said to have been running around 15% — was the spark by which the revolution started.

The situation was very different in Egypt, which did not see an economic downturn or sharp price reforms like Tunisia. Rather in this case the impetus was provided by simmering resentment over Hosni Mubarak’s (almost) 30-year rule of the country, particularly the complete lack of political reforms and the authorities’ reliance on brutal gangs of thugs to “maintain order” whenever there were political protests. I’m actually struck at how similar Mubarak’s Egypt was to the Iranian Mullahs regime in that respect — whether you call them “Egyptian secret security forces” or “basiji”, in both cases a brutal repressive regime used uneducated, unemployed people from the country in order to crack heads in the cities whenever the regime feels a threat. But Mubarak was not able to make much of a difference through his thugs, and it’s since transpired that he had initially ordered the army to have a Tiananmen-square style crackdown on Tahrir square and even wanted armoured batallions to just run over the protesters and retake the square by force. Fortunately the army point-blank refused to listen, and from that point on the dictator was finished.

This was just the beginning. Protests have broken out since in Bahrain against the Khalifa family, who control all aspects of political life in the tiny island nation; the biggest grievance there is that there is (apparently) widespread discrimination against the majority Shiite population by the Sunni Khalifas, as well as the (sadly usual) accusations of corruption. One especially salient point made by the protesters is that the police force of Bahrain is being supplemented with Sunni foreigners who are fast-tracked for Bahraini citizenship even if some of them do not even speak Arabic (the local language). The protests there, ongoing as we speak, materialized very quickly; they are not as big as in Egypt, but then Bahrain is a lot smaller and less populated. As an additional factor the protesters are vowing to cause disruptions during the Grand Prix of Bahrain, a Formula One race scheduled to take place in Sakhir on March 14th. Americans will also be particularly interested in the situation there as Bahrain is the home of the US Fifth Fleet.

Protests have also flared up in Iran, in a sort of “round 2” to the green protests which took place last year. There is also some unrest occurring in Algeria, Lybia, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen. In each case the protests have a distinctly nationalist nature and belie the very idea of some sort of pan-muslim uprising.

Personally it’s always been my position that repressive regimes tend to foster and stoke the flames of extremism. It’s not surprising that the bulk of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 operation generally came from places where dissent is not tolerated and political freedoms are few (ya, Saudi Arabia, I am looking at you). In that sense I can’t help but see the toppling of dictatorial regimes by democratic forces to be a fundamentally good thing and conducive to long-term stability in the region.

In that the US find themselves squarely on the wrong side of history by their long-standing habit of backing dictators who could either a)give them what they want in terms of oil and soil to build military bases on, or b)be a hired friend of Israel. Those two factors are still the cornerstone of American policy in the region, so America is clearly on the back foot and really can’t get involved much. Obama pretty much took the best line he could in Egypt, everything considered, but the point has been driven home that these uprisings are not about America or (at least so far) Israel, they are the shouts of peoples who have had enough from local despots.

Interestingly enough these local despots seem so far to have quite a bit in common. The fallen ones are both older (75 for Ben Ali and 80 for Mubarak), largely secular autocrats who have been in power for decades and seem to share a taste for black hair dye. Even in the countries which are currently experiencing protests the trend seems to be largely borne out, with exceptions of course — Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is still a youngster at 45, but Khalifa (Bahrain) is 60, Gadaffi is 68 and in power for 41 years, Saleh of Yemen is 64 and Bouteflika (Algeria) is 73.

What we’ve seen so far is only the beginning.

If you’re as interested in these things as I am, I recommend watching Al-Jazeera, either through their web site (http://english.aljazeera.net) or via the Livestation desktop application (http://livestation.com). AJ is the authoritative television station in the area and their coverage blows away all competition.

Quitting Facebook (again) and, to a certain extent America…

In light of recent developments in the Wikileaks saga — mostly the recent decision by the United States government to subpoena all information related to twitter users who follow #wikileaks, of which I am one — I have decided to curtail my activity on American social networks. Sadly, the United States government does have sway over American companies and can effectively put a gun to their heads in order to force them to reveal information on their users regardless of said companies’ privacy policy.

Frankly, this isn’t acceptable. If one wants to protect one’s information one is left with little choice but to try and abandon US sites and companies as much as possible and opt instead for other sites and companies that are at least at arm’s length distance from the American behemoth. Not that the USG won’t overreach and encroach on foreign sovereignty to the extent to which they can get away with, but at least I won’t make things easy for them. My domain name registrars and web server ISP are already fully Canadian, and I’ll try and examine ways to put more distance between myself and the USA in the coming weeks.

Yeah, I’ve deleted my Facebook account before, and stupidly came back because someone I know seemed to have problems getting in touch with me. That turned out to be pretty dumb and pointless for a number of reasons I shan’t bore you with, and I keep almost no data on Facebook as it is, but a step’s a step.

Am I giving up Twitter? There doesn’t seem to be much of a point in doing that now. You can’t delete a Twitter account anyway, you can only deactivate it; and one has to give kudos to Twitter for getting the formerly-secret subpoenas unsealed so that they can notify the users directly concerned, that took balls on their part. Can you imagine Mark Zuckerberg doing such a thing? I can’t. The guy has no scruples or moral compass. He’d hand over your info before even reading the subpoena. Probably already has, to be frank, and that’s why Facebook is the first to go, and I won’t be back this time.

Whatever happened to Obama? I railed as much as anyone against Bush’s secret warrantless wiretapping for the Orwellian nightmare that it was, and back when he was just a candidate Obama was saying the right things, such as:

“Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal.” -Candidate Obama, 2008

But once in the White House he wasted little time in showing us that this display of principle was nothing but bullshit and marketing (but I repeat myself). All in all Obama is no different than his predecessor, but he does prove in his own disappointing-the-supporters way that there is indeed no difference between black and white. I can’t remember a time when an individual has disappointed me more than Mr. Obama. People like me thought he would be the man to bring “change you can believe in”. But as with everything said for a purpose (in this case, to win votes), ultimately one is disappointed at the sheer hypocrisy of it all.

Micro-USB is the new, er, USB

Consider me somewhat of a gadget-trend barometer if you will, but I couldn’t help but notice that the last several gadgets I’ve purchased use a micro-USB connector for data exchange and battery recharge. Those gadgets have included the following:

  • Archos 5 internet tablet (when it came out people thought it used a proprietary connector)
  • B&N Nook
  • Google Nexus One smart phone
  • Amazon Kindle 3
  • Motorola Rokr S305 Bluetooth headphones

Obviously this isn’t the totality of gadgets, but there’s clearly a trend there. In fact I’d say that within a year the only USB devices to use a Mini-USB connector will be knockoffs.

Maple Leaf Hot Wings

Every time I make those I tell myself that I should put the recipe online, and tonight for the first time I haven’t forgotten. This is a recipe for spicy wings that’s derived from a Korean wing recipe I’ve seen on the internet, only adapted to suit the ingredients I happened to have at the time — including maple syrup, hence the name (yeah, imagination isn’t my strong suit). It’s hot, and it’s tasty as hell.

Marinade/sauce

  1. In a bowl, combine the following:
    • 4 tbsp chili paste (this stuff)
    • 2 tbsp hot chili powder (I use this one these days)
    • 1/2 tbsp cayenne pepper
    • 1.5 tbsp minced or chopped garlic
    • 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
    • 1 tbsp sesame oil
    • 2 tbsp maple syrup
    • 1 tbsp ground mixed pepper
  2. Mix thoroughly, so the powders won’t stay in a clump or stick to the sides of the bowl.
  3. Take 24 chicken wings. Place in a large ziploc bag, then douse with the sauce you just prepared. Mix well, make sure the sauce gets on all exposed chicken bits.
  4. Place in your fridge overnight (or longer).
  5. Bake the wings on a cookie sheet for 60 minutes at 350F/180C, turn halfway through.
  6. Enjoy.

This will produce wings that have a good spicy kick to them. They’re not 5-alarm wings or anything like that, but they’re really tasty and you can actually enjoy eating them.

Of course if that’s not spicy enough, ditch the chili powder and use 2 tbsp of cayenne pepper, but be forewarned — that will turn the heat up to 11. And if you think the wings are spicy on the way in, wait until the next day… ’nuff said.

The Barnes & Noble Nook: a Critical Canadian Review

A few months ago on a business trip to the USA I went to Barnes & Noble and decided to purchase a Nook, which is B&N’s answer to the Kindle. I’ve been using it for some time now and thought it would be a good idea to review the device for the benefit of those also thinking of procuring themselves one.

Discerning readers will realize from the title alone that the review isn’t going to be gushingly positive. In theory the Nook is a pretty solid device; it comes with 2 gigabytes of memory (roughly 1.3 gigabytes usable for books), it uses a combination of a 6″ e-ink screen for text display and a 3.5″ color touchscreen for navigation and book-cover display; there are also page-turning buttons set on both sides of the device. All in all it’s a smart-looking device. The Nook connects to your computer via a micro-USB slot, and as with other e-readers it comes with a USB cable and a wall-plug adapter for those times when you’re not near a computer but need to recharge the battery. The battery itself is user-replaceable, which I’m told is not the case for all reader devices.

It supports Adobe Acrobat (PDF) and EPUB format documents; PDB documents are also supported, although I have yet to come across one of those. Note that DRM’d documents can only be displayed if they were purchased from the B&N ebook store. If you live in the USA, that is. More on that later.

PDF support is quite good on this device, as long as your PDF files have been scanned for text using optical character recognition (OCR). As long as that’s done the text is formatted acceptably on the e-ink display. If you have a scanned PDF, well, the results aren’t going to be so good, because then the PDF renders each and every page as one image, and the Nook will by default display one page image entirely. This almost always results in an unreadable document because the text is very small. Those of you with Acrobat Professional will want to make sure that you both optimize and scan your documents with OCR before uploading them to the Nook. Those of you who don’t have Acrobat Pro, well, good luck. Then again I find that most of the public-domain documents you see on the internet will have been OCR’d before they’re made available.

The Nook’s memory can be expanded by adding a micro-SD card… maybe. Now that we’re past the spec stage and onto the actual user review, things tend to look rather less rosy, to be honest. There is no question that there is, in fact, a micro-SD slot on the back of the unit, next to the battery, the user guide tells you in detail how to insert a memory card in it. My question is, to what extent is micro-SD actually supported by the Nook software? My experience is that support is patchy at best, and tends to vary a great deal. Of course when I got the device home the first thing I did was to add a 8GB micro-SD card to it; I have a large-ish PDF collection I wanted to get onto the Nook, so having less than 1.5GB of space wasn’t really going to cut it. I manage my ebook collection using Calibre (the Nook itself doesn’t come with any software for ebook management), and that seemed to work well with the Nook at least for a while. To save time I put the entire collection on the micro-SD card; it doesn’t come anywhere close to filling it up, it’s less than 1000 documents. Surely that wouldn’t be a problem, right?

At first the Nook worked with the card. However as time has gone by it seems to have become unusable. When you start up the Nook and go into the Library, it automatically checks for content. Now my Nook with the micro-SD card installed, when it starts up and I navigate to the Library, displays the “Checking for new Items” message… and seems to get stuck in that mode. Because it’s a battery-powered portable device it eventually goes into power-saving mode (I have mine set to do that after 20 minutes), and when you wake it up it’s still “Checking for New Items”. One particularly frustrating morning after syncing new content into it the evening before I picked it up, and it was still “Checking for New Items”. After looking over the Support/QA forum for the nook it seems I’m not the first or only person with this problem.  Oh yes, and to add insult to injury, under “Checking for New Items” appears the message “This will only take a moment”. Which I suppose could be considered accurate if you’re a geologist. Personally I’m not that patient. I restarted my Nook over an hour ago and it’s still displaying the “Checking for New Items” message (I keep pushing on the page-turn keys periodically so it doesn’t go to sleep), so you really can’t accuse me of not being patient enough. In this time I’m certain that I could have read out the titles and author names of all 800-odd volumes in my PDF collection, yet the Nook is still struggling, with no way for me to know if it’s working or if it’s just plain frozen.

As the saying goes this leaves me high and dry. There’s not enough space in the built-in memory to put my collection, but if I use a micro-SD card the whole device becomes completely unreliable.  B&N advertises the capacity of the built-in memory as “1500 books”, but that’s the domain of fantasy. It could be 1500 epub-format books that you download from B&N (if you can do that at all, that will be looked at later), but that means that you should shell out (using average figures) at least $15,000 to Barnes & Noble. These people must be as imaginative as those Sony execs who think that people will unquestioningly re-purchase their entire DVD collections in Blu-Ray format, and while the people I know aren’t necessarily average consumers I can’t imagine that someone would be enough of a sucker to do that. Most ebooks out there are in PDF format and significantly larger in size than epubs; my ebook collection certainly is, and in that world 800 titles take up about 6 gigabytes, or 3 times the “capacity” of the Nook which is advertized as 2GB but is in fact about 1.27GB once you factor out the OS and interface.

I’ve tried to make it work again, to little avail. The one time I was able to get it to work acceptably again, I deregistered the Nook from my B&N account, slow-formatted the micro-SD card (quick format didn’t work for this), reset the Nook to factory settings, re-registered it, and re-transferred the ebooks to it. This workaround worked, but it took several hours. Not the kind of timeframe that’s acceptable if I just want to add a couple of publications to the device.

I wish I could reset the firmware to a “clean” version, but that is not an available option; you can go through the software but the only thing this does is wipe out your user settings. I attempted downloading the 1.4 firmware, transferring it to the Nook’s built-in memory and restarting it, but because I already had the 1.4 firmware installed I only get the message “Invalid Update” on the bottom right corner of the e-ink screen. Clearly whoever designed the Nook software has no idea that software can get “crufty” and corrupted over time. I’ve been in the computer business long enough to know that this happens all the time. It’s not supposed to, but it does.

Yes, I could cut down on the number of books I have on the device so it all fits in the internal memory. However, that’s a workaround, not a solution. In my experience the Nook just does not work as intended once you use the micro-SD slot which is supposedly supported by the device. That’s like someone selling you a car with shot suspension and telling you that you should only drive down smooth paved roads.  That wouldn’t be acceptable either. You’d probably punch that guy in the nose and knee him in the groin for having the audacity to tell you that it’s a functional car, and you’d be right in doing so.

I’m also not thrilled about the interface of the Nook on those occasions in the past when it did eventually manage to work. When you have a large number of items in your library navigating to a title is very frustrating but in a “we really didn’t think this thing through” kind of way. For one thing, the only way to navigate through titles is through pages that show 10 items. You can’t search for a title (not in the “My Documents” section anyway), for one thing. The titles display doesn’t “wrap around” either, so that if you feel like opening “Zymurgy for Beginners” (that’s beer-brewing BTW) and you have a large collection of ebooks you are in for a frustrating time indeed — in my case that would involve pushing the “next page” button 81 times. Now once you do have it open you can reopen it by touching the “Now Reading” button on the navigation window, and once you have opened it you will find it quicker by switching the book sort order to “recent”, but it’s still a huge flaw in the fundamental function of the reader. So not only was this not designed by a very experienced software person (see above), it clearly wasn’t designed by someone who’s ever managed an even moderately-sized documents library. The Nook also does not support folders, so the idea of categorizing anything goes out the window. You can have folders in the file structure of the device, but in the Nook interface the display assumes a flat “hierarchy” where everything is at the same level. Again, that would have been a very easy to implement; all the Nook would have needed to do is retain the way in which the files it contains were originally organized when they were transferred to the device, but the interface flattens everything and undid all the good work previously done by the user.

Nor was the Nook designed by someone familiar with even the basic rudiments of the English language, either. How do I know this? Well, when you have a book called “The science of [something]”, you naturally would file that book under “S” for “Science”. The Nook files it under “T” for “The”. This is pretty elementary stuff. You don’t need a diploma in Library Science to figure that out. Yet the Nook software fails at this, and when you have a large document library — which the Nook and other e-reader devices should be good at managing, they’re usually marketed as a way to “carry your entire library around”, the Nook specifically states in its overview “Store as many as 1,500 eBooks, eNewspapers, and eMagazines”, but if everything is filed under “The” or “A”, it’s going to be hellish just finding the publication you want to open. Calibre is an open-source, free application, and it has that bit figured out. Why can’t the Nook, which you have to pay money to get? It’s not even a particularity of English. The use of definite and indefinite articles is something that’s seen in most languages. But the Nook software completely misses that well-known grammatical feature.

And finally, the tags you add to the book in Calibre may or may not work without any apparent rhyme or reason. Good luck trying to figure out what the book “entitled” “0192853791.pdf” is — the title and author are clearly visible in Calibre, but for some reason that got lost in the rather long time it took to get copied over to the Nook (which long time could be Calibre’s fault). Not very reliable, that.

Of course the principal purpose of the device, from B&N’s point of view, is that it will help sell books, but if you’re not in the United States, right now, it’s not going to happen. The shipping address of my B&N account is in Canada where I live, and practically speaking there is nothing available to people outside the United States, not even free books that are in the public domain — and I’m talking about stuff like The Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton in the late 1700s, and which is available from any number of other web sites but not from B&N. In my experience even those public-domain works that are hosted on Google Books aren’t available from the “Shop” button on your Nook, even if you can read them directly on the Google Books site from a computer located in Canada! Even worse, if you do try and “buy” it from the site you get a horribly misleading error message that states “You must have a billing address in the United States, U.S. territories, or Canada for B&N.com to process your order”. I do have a billing address in Canada on my account, I double-checked. I’m afraid that this oversight is rather typical of a product that’s been rather poorly designed and QA’d. Being physically in the United States does not help with this problem either because it’s based on the billing address in your account.

To be fair, there are about a handful of books that I could purchase through B&N.com in electronic format, but it’s a tiny fraction of 1% of the content that the store has. It’s an almost negligible selection of Simon & Schuster titles, plus stuff from some boutique publishers. People on the Nook support board seem to think that it’s some political issue.

However, in contrast, I’ve looked up random content I would be interested in on amazon.com, and in an interesting reversal it seems that the stuff that’s unavailable to me as a Canadian customer is very, very small. Chances are if they have it I can in fact buy it. Frankly if I’d been aware of this when I purchased an ebook reader, I would have bought a Kindle, but this was a bit of an impulse buy when I was physically at a store.

What else have I not covered yet… the Nook has a very basic web browser built-in, but the less said about it, the better. It’s just a beta anyway. Navigation is done through the secondary screen, but the process is pretty clunky. The Nook has a virtual keyboard for those occasions when you need to enter text, but this is clearly a data consumption (and not production) device; the keyboard has to fit the small touch screen so the keys are very small, and men will have serious difficulties using it without touching the next letter from the one they want to type, even those like myself who don’t have particularly large fingers. There are two games built-in, sudoku and chess, but again the navigation is just completely unsuited to the task at hand. Why not have a crossword instead, it would make more sense at least. The Nook has a built-in audio player, but with only 1.27GB to work with you’d have a very hard time fitting much music on there if you want to, you know, actually have books available. There are just so many flaws to the whole design that it might be understandable if the Nook had preceded the Kindle to the market, but it didn’t. Even the very idea of a touch screen for navigation is terrible because in comparison to the Amazon device it is an energy waster, not as practical as a keyboard and joystick, and when you use it in not-so-well-lit conditions it annoys the eyes and is distracting (it’s a regular backlit screen).

To be frank that’s the sort of experience (though it’s by no means the only one) that has led me to not go physically shopping anymore. In this case I’ve splurged some $200 (Nook wifi, cover, screen protector) on an unreliable device that really doesn’t suit my needs or work as intended, and being light it doesn’t even make a good paperweight. I cannot in good conscience recommend it, so if you get a Google ad at the top of this page advertising a Nook for God’s sake don’t buy one.

Can I recommend the Kindle? No. I haven’t tried it out at all, so it’s entirely possible that it suffers from the same problems as the Nook. Which I will likely find out when the Kindle 3 becomes available again, as it’s currently sold out. I could buy a Kindle DX which I think would suit me better, but that’s almost $400, if I’m going to spend that much I might as well throw some more money at the issue and get an iPad which is an entirely different and more capable device.

So my Nook seems destined to end up on top of the rather embarrassingly large pile of tech gadgets I now regret having purchased. The presentation in the stores is very good, but it’s organized carefully in such a way that the customer will just not see the major usability and reliability issues that the device suffers from; that’s what marketing is for. The Nook does have a saving grace, and it’s that it’s been cracked (“rooted”) by a group of developers over at nookdevs.com, with whose work I will hopefully be able to make a useful device out of it. Sure it’ll void my warranty, but at this point I can’t return the thing — I’m hopelessly past the 14-day satisfaction guarantee, and AFAIK the unit functions as well as B&N expects it to work — and it just isn’t usable for me in its standard configuration so I don’t really feel that I’m losing anything.

But if there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that you should never, ever just buy electronics as an impulse purchase. Take it from a guy who’s spend thousands upon thousands over the years on useless stuff so you don’t have to.