The 1980s in one photo

The furniture that used to be on my childhood room is today in my home office. While I could fill the shelves with books and other official-looking adult things, it’s much more fun to make it a kind of museum of the early to mid-1980s.

The Space Shuttle on a 747, a Rubik's Cube, a Polaroid camera and the A-Team van.
The Space Shuttle on a 747, a Rubik’s Cube, a Polaroid camera and the A-Team van.

Not all my toys are in my office. My A-Team action figures are in the doll-house of my daughters. How did they get there? Well, naturally Rapunzel, Anna, and Elsa had a problem, no one else could help, and they were able to find them.

Some of my toys from the 1980s have taken up residence in my daughters' doll house.
Some of my toys from the 1980s have taken up residence in my daughters’ doll house.

Birdman could have used some editing

Birdman may be a great movie in some way I don’t understand. But it’s not a particularly good movie and by good movie I mean a movie you want to watch again. After 90 minutes, it felt like I had been watching for 2 hours. You can imagine what those last 30 minutes felt like.

I get that it must have been hard to film it in one shot without cuts. That seems gimmicky to me. Editing makes movies better. Also, the last shot was no good. Are we to believe that his delusions are not really delusions? Or that he and his daughter are connected in some weird way and his delusions have spread to her? This was like a Bobby-Ewing-in-the-shower ending.

Compare Birdman with previous Oscar winner The Social Network, which was on ABC on Saturday night. I  would watch that movie again and again. I don’t care for great movies, unless they are also good ones.

Cosco, Interac and the missing T that drives everyone crazy

I have a theory that car-seat maker Cosco and the payment service Interac are quietly driving people mad. Who among us doesn’t fight the urge to add a T-sound to their names. Those companies are taunting us.

“Yeah, go ahead and try *not* to think about the missing T. Suckers.”

They further create unrest when inattentive readers assume the T is there and add it in speech. Like at almost every damn store you visit. This makes the rest of us — who are trying so hard to say it correctly — angry and jealous. Imagine how much better life would be if we could use it incorrectly — without even being aware.

Interac: There is no T in Interac.

Potholes in Montreal

To the outside world, Montreal is known for the Canadiens, smoked meat, poutine, bagels and strip clubs — maybe not in that order. But to people who live, work or drive in Montreal, this city of 1.7 million people is known for just one thing: potholes.

As I write this on Monday, February 16, 2015, there is a series of about seven or eight large and deep potholes on the east side of Décarie Blvd. between Van Horne and Plamondon (map). They are comically big and have been there since at least Friday. I didn’t photograph the four hubcaps resting on a light pole off to the side near the Shell gasoline station. Someone must have removed those from the street after passing cars lost them after falling into these craters.

Here are some photos from today.

Pothole craters
Huge potholes on Décarie Blvd. northbound between Van Horne and Plamondon.

2015-02-16 12.58.48 2015-02-16 12.57.06 2015-02-16 12.57.11 2015-02-16 12.57.52

Top 11 podcasts for February 2015

Last year, I had to replace the AM/FM CD player that came with my 2003 model year Toyota. The CD player had stopped working. I went from listening to audio-books for the past six years to being forced to listen to a mix of VPR (NPR), CJAD, CBC Radio One and only occasionally music. Some local radio is good (mostly NPR). But even radio hosts I enjoy listening to, like Andrew Carter, became hard to take because of the often grating ads that run on CJAD.

I got a new CD/radio at Future Shop and made sure it had bluetooth. I had an idea that I would download audio books onto my Android smartphone and then stream them via bluetooth to my car stereo. That idea never took off because I discovered podcasts.

Podcasts are radio shows delivered to users on-demand without needing an actual radio thingy. The best podcasts tend to be produced by organizations like NPR and Slate. While anyone can produce one in their home, the best stuff is being done by professionals. Here is my guide to podcasts.

Hardware

You will need a car stereo (aka car deck) that has Bluetooth, and a smartphone (iPhone, Nexus, etc.) or music player (iPod, Sony) that has Bluetooth. Alternatively, you can connect it through a mini-stereo plug. But that doesn’t sound as cool and who needs all those wires? If you don’t have a deck with Bluetooth, you can buy something like an Aukey Portable Bluetooth 3.0 Audio Receiver (Canadian link) and plug it in to the Aux plug (assuming you have that).

Software

If you have an Apple smartphone or music player, you can download and stream podcasts with the Podcasts app. If you have an Android-OS phone like the Google Nexus, or LG, Samsung, HTC and so on, I recommend Pocket Casts. It is $3.99 and is worth it.

Top 11 podcasts

So what should you listen to? Here are my top 11 podcasts:

The American Life#1 – This American Life: This is one of the most popular podcasts. It’s also on public radio, so you may have heard it. It is a series of stories organized by a theme. These are extremely well-crafted but the conversational tone makes it feel unlike anything you normally hear on the TV news magazine shows or the evening news. But be warned: Ira Glass’ manner of speaking will slowly creep into your own if you are not careful.

 #2 – Serial: This true crime podcast became so popular that even SNL took notice and did a skit. So far there has only been one 12-episode arc. If the next story is as addictive, I’ll go ahead and make it #1 on this list.

#3 – Invisibilia: The title is Latin for “all the invisible things.” The show explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior, like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. This sounds vague. But the show is just like This American Life. As I write this, there have only been a handful of episodes, including one about a sightless man who taught himself to see using echo-location, the way bats do.

#4 – Freakonomics Radio: This is a weekly podcast from the guys who brought you the popular books. It shares a great deal with Planet Money in that they both spend a lot of time explaining things related to economics. It’s well produced and you feel smarter at the end.

#5 – The TED Radio Hour: If you like TED talks, you will like this. It combines clips from the talks with interviews with the speakers. Guy Raz went to the Ira Glass School of Announcing, so you’ll note similarities in his style.

#6 – Planet Money: This was one of the first podcasts I started listening to and it led me to many others, for which I am grateful. It’s also a relatively short podcast that hammers home one or two basic ideas. So you really do understand by the end.

#7 – The Moth PodcastReal stories by regular people (although a lot tend to be writers). Some are funny. Some are sad. Many are amazing. I first heard this show on NPR on the weekends and was so happy to be able to listen to it whenever I wanted.

#8 – Radiolab from WNYC: This is the half-brother of The American Life. If you like one you will like the other. Why is it only number 8? Who knows. This list isn’t very scientific.

Pop culture happy hour#9 – Pop Culture Happy Hour: Another weekly NPR podcast. It’s four people talking about your favourite TV, movies and occasionally music and less occasionally books. It’s like the friends you always wished you had to discuss The Simpsons with.

#10 – The GistI heard about this from Glen Weldon on Pop Culture Happy Hour. It’s a daily podcast–which is rare–from Slate. Mike Pesca interviews people and ends with his commentary/rant, which he calls The Spiel. He is very likeable, funny, and sports fans will enjoy that he is a big sports guy who sounds like he was raised in the NYC area. I actually listen to this podcast more than any other because is produced daily. Maybe because of that, I penalized it by making it only #10. Sorry, Mike.

#11 – Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin: Who knew he could do radio too. Alec Baldwin conducts good interviews with mostly entertainers. His episode with Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman were about as good as podcasts get.

There are, of course, lots of other good podcasts. I still have to get into StartUp. NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me is funny. Intelligence Squared is a good debate show. On the Media is a very good press criticism show. Then there are TV shows that you can download as audio like 60 Minutes, NBC Nightly News, and Real Time with Bill Maher. But you’ll soon discover that regular podcasts are not just better suited for your car than, say, 60 Minutes, but are actually every bit as good and maybe even better than the best TV news or talk shows.

Go listen to podcasts. Your daily commute will be much happier.

Letters from the Presidents

Ronald Reagan

What happens when you send the same letter to the living ex-Presidents? Don’t answer. I can’t actually hear you.

Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan

After Ronald Reagan died in June 2004, I read that he used to answer a lot of his mail personally and was known to write long letters to people who wrote to him. This gave me an idea. What would happen if I wrote an identical (fawning) letter to the living ex-presidents. Would they reply? Would it be a form letter? A signature stamp?

On June 14, 2004, I sent letters to presidents Ford, Carter, Bush and Clinton. The letters praised each leader for his wisdom and I thanked each for everything he had done in public life.

President Jimmy Carter

On July 30, 2004, I got a letter in the mail from the Carter Center in Atlanta. Well, actually, I got back my own letter with some writing at the top. The handwriting appears to be that of Jimmy Carter.  It also appears to be written with a pen. Heck, he even wrote my name!

Letter from President Jimmy Carter
Letter from President Jimmy Carter

President Bill Clinton

On July 30, 2004, I got a letter from former President Bill Clinton. This letter came only days after the Carter note, so I suspect that Carter must have put the heat on Clinton.

This one looks like a standard “thanks-for-the-positive-comments” letter. And it doesn’t look like former President Clinton signed it himself. But it’s better than nothing.

Letter from President Bill Clinton
Letter from President Bill Clinton

The way kids observe things: thoughts from a former kid

One of the most amazing things about kids is that in spite of the fact that they lack context for much of the world around them, they aren’t panicked. They accept there are things they don’t know.

Kids are also very observant. I don’t mean this in the usual way. I mean that kids spend way more time than adults looking at the details of things. Maybe it’s because when an adult sees something, we know what it is and don’t waste time looking at it in detail. We put it in its category and move on. Maybe kids just have more time to observe stuff from the back seat of a car.
When I a kid in the late 1970s/early 1980s we had a board game called Bonkers. It had a 1970s-style design with explosion and lightning bolts and stars. I found it weird when I was a kid. It was pretty different from the other board games. All these years later, I was able to remember the general look of the game, even if I couldn’t remember the name of the game or anything else about it.
Bonkers board game
This design was etched into my memory.

We also had kids plastic glasses featuring the Muppets. We got it at McDonald’s. The characters went all way around the glass and I remember slowly turning the glass and observing them. How many hours must I have looked at these at lunch and dinner? When I saw these at the Quechee Gorge Village antique store a few years ago, I froze. It’s not just that I hadn’t seen the glasses in a long time — it’s that I had practically done a PhD in the field of studying the images on these glasses.

Muppet glasses
I must have looked in detail at these glasses the equivalent of 50 adult years.
Maybe the lesson is that we should take time to see the items around us: the shape of the grill on the computer speakers in your office, the interesting design on the cap of the Hi-Liter, the pattern on the roof tiles at work.
Or maybe not. Maybe kids have a gift that we lack. Because hard as I try, I’ll never observe that Olaf and Sven poster the same way my kids will.