Dining Au Noir

March 4th, 2011

Sensory deprivation is a technique used to calm and relax you.  The theory is that in the soundproof, lightproof tank, buoyancy and temperature are perfectly balanced in a saline solution so that your body feels nothing — not even gravity.  Taste is the one sense that they don’t do much to counterbalance: you just don’t eat anything before going in the tank.

A new trend in dining seems to allow focus on taste as the key sense.  The intent seems to be to rise above visual presentation of food.  As someone who mashes up all sorts of ingredients and tosses it in a bowl, I have never worried too much about presentation.

They call it dining au noir and it is a wacky new way to consume food in a restaurant environment. The place is pitch black, with no cellphones, matches, lighters, cigarettes, or flashlights to ruin the “ambience”; your wait staff are blind — experts who need no light to function flawlessly as food service professionals.  The focus is apparently on the conversation and the taste experience.

I personally can’t imagine a more terrifying thing, but that’s because I am still afraid of the dark after all these years.  And eating something I can’t see, despite what I said about presentation not mattering… well that’s more unsettling than appetizing.  Even more troubling: the only introduction most people have had to this phenomenon was on TV’s CSI, where one of the dinner guests was discovered dead when the lights come back on.

New ways to do things always fascinate me.  My daughter tried au noir in Montreal* recently and recommended the experience to my wife and me for our anniversary.  My wife, knowing my fears, found the recommendation quite amusing.  I am up for a challenge though, and maybe someday I will work up the courage to try dining in the dark.

*5% of O.NOIR’s profits are given to support local associations that serve blind and visually impaired people of all ages.

Bits and Water

February 3rd, 2011

There’s been a storm in Canada in the last few days that didn’t involve snow or high winds.  It is a storm of controversy over a recent CRTC decision to allow the big telecom companies to do Usage Based Billing.  This would have affected the independent ISPs who currently offer unlimited plans but run their traffic over the telecom company infrastructure.

As of this morning, the decision has apparently been reversed, in response to a public outcry.

Terence Corcoran of the Globe and Mail finds the whole thing a false controversy. He says that there was no indication that this would cost the end consumer any more than what it costs for Internet connectivity now.

It’s possible he’s right.  After all, the official word from the telecom companies is that this merely covers the cost of their infrastructure and is more “fair” because heavy users will now be paying their share.  Remember what “fair” means next time the telecoms announce their annual profits.  But for now, let’s just look at common wisdom in this controversy.

  1. Easy and cheap access to digital “pipes” fosters innovation.  YouTube and other higher-bandwidth Web destinations rose out of the capacity of today’s pipes.
  2. Canada now pays less than other countries for download rates.  In my view this merely means the telecoms have “room” to increase prices.
  3. All of the big ISPs who “own the backbone” of Canada’s Internet are also television signal providers.  Their offerings like “on-demand”, pay-per-view, and premium channels are in direct competition with innovative Internet-based services like NetFlix and iTunes.

Corcoran addresses some of these points.  But he doesn’t come to the same conclusions as I do.  To me, everything points to our Internet connectivity costs rising substantially.

I also take issue with Corcoran’s statement: “not pricing based on usage is economically crazy.”  Loss leaders, bundling, freemium… there are plenty of successful (non-crazy) business models that do not rely on usage to set prices… especially for something as intangible and infinite as bits flowing over a wire.  Even water (which is far more tangible and demonstrably scarce than bits) is flat-priced in some jurisdictions.  The telecoms themselves say that they need to cover the cost of the massive infrastructure they have put in place.  Okay, but show us how the massive profits are reinvested in infrastructure and I’ll be happier.  After all, we’re not on IPv6 or fibre optic everywhere yet.  Many other countries are already there.  The US and Canada, with some of the highest Internet costs, are lagging.

All in all, I hold a pessimistic outlook: the telecoms will get their money one way or another.  Hang on for the ride.

The Illusion of Space

January 24th, 2011

On HGTV this morning I saw the following (which I have severely paraphrased):

Potential Tenant: “It’s a great place but the bedroom is no bigger than what we have now, so it will be a tight squeeze.”

Real Estate Agent: “The apartment meets all of their criteria and I have some ideas about how to make the bedroom work for them.”

Potential Tenant: “It’s a little beyond our price range but we’re still considering it.”

Real Estate Agent: “Here’s a plan for the bedroom: simple shapes and lighter paint on the walls will create the illusion of more space.”

Potential Tenant: “With the ideas our agent showed us for creating more space in the bedroom, we’ll take it.”

I was a little confused by the edited show.  I couldn’t understand why they would choose these snippets of conversation that seem to be disconnected.  On the one hand the potential tenants are concerned about the amount of space in bedroom, which they know is not any physically bigger than their current bedroom.Measure it! The real estate agent, by her own words, is only creating the “illusion” of space and yet the tenants interpret that as having solved their problem.

If you’re selling a home, you want it to show to its best advantage.  Thus, paint and mirrors that open up a room and make it seem bigger or wide-angle photography — these are ways to “market” the home.  But as a buyer, you would still need to take measurements and be sure that your furniture fits or your plans for the room will physically work.

When you see a home full of someone’s stuff (even in a de-cluttered place) the sense of space will be very different from seeing the same home vacant and empty.  You may think the rooms are bigger or smaller depending on how your spatial awareness works.  Once again, nothing beats actual measurements.

The New Rules of Borrowing in Canada

January 18th, 2011

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty introduced some new rules last year that affect the way Canadians borrow money going forward.  You may have heard how real estate speculators will be affected by these rules more than the average mortgage holder or home buyer.  For example, starting March 18, if your down payment is less than 20 per cent you will be able to take no more than 30 years to repay the loan, down from the current maximum of 35 years.  That does affect a home buyer’s maximum affordable home price or increases the mortgage payment amount.  But it saves a ton of interest over the long-haul, something that speculators care less about than average homeowners.

Also, something I haven’t seen mentioned in detail are the rules about home equity lines of credit.  Did you know that as part of the new package of legislation, the government is “encouraging banks to lend responsibly”?  Thus, as of April 18th, the government will no longer offer banks the insurance to cover losses from customers with lines of credit.

There are several possible results that we may see after April 18th.  Interest rates on new home equity credit lines could rise.  It could become tougher to qualify for one.  Or both.

The reaction to these rules among real estate and mortgage industry insiders has been mixed.  Clearly some say that this will negatively impact their business.  But many recognize the healthy “caution” that this emphasizes in Canada and steers us even farther away from having a U.S.-style mortgage meltdown sometime in the future.

Photography and Real Estate

January 16th, 2011

From the New York Times: “Eighty percent of people across the country who bought a new home last year used the Internet while house hunting, and they rated photographs as the most useful tool in their search, according to a survey of buyers and sellers by the National Association of Realtors. The survey also found that 24 percent of home buyers got their first glimpses of their new homes on the Web, up from a mere 2 percent in 1997.

My dad was a professional photographer but I have allowed my photography skills (and the equipment I should have to take really great pictures) to wither away.  So when I am listing a home, I hire someone to give the home a fighting chance in the visual world of the Internet.  Merely having photographs is an important first step.  People need to be able to see the home.  But to really make a difference you need: a wide-angle lens, good lighting, intelligent angles, and enhanced contrast.

Often when a window lets in so much sunlight that the details of the room are washed out, you need to be able to compensate.  Sometimes this is done in Photoshop and sometimes it is done on the spot with an experienced photographer. Similar problems arise when the room is not lit well enough and its features cannot be discerned at all.  Again, experience counts.

Timely photos are also important.  The current condition of the home is a good thing to reflect — and it is expected in the instantaneous world of the Internet.  However, many people in the industry make a compelling point that summer photos for a winter listing can provide an “alternative” view of the home.

The latest trend in real estate advertising is to feature “concept” photos: a family enjoying the backyard or a dog lounging on the porch.  The argument is that these kinds of photos give potential buyers a glimpse into what life would be like if they were to buy the home.  I am perhaps old-fashioned in this regard.  I believe the photos should be generic enough that people can inject their own fantasies into them — which follows the same theory as home staging: uncluttered and neutral is better.

New Year’s Resolution: Read More

December 31st, 2010

I have been reading quite a bit over the Holiday Season.  I just realized how much I absorb when I dedicate time to reading books or online resources.  Most of the time I grab a few paragraphs here and there.  It is a disjointed way to try to gain knowledge or even entertainment.  I want to be able to read in good solid blocks of time.

Online, instead of “surfing” the web looking for tidbits of information, I would prefer to find a good source and dig deep into it.  I should also dedicate time to books and away from computer screens or televisions.

I have not felt guilty about how little reading I have done.  This decision is driven by the fact that my eyesight is deteriorating and reading is something I love so much that if I am not going to be able to do it in the future, I want to have read as much as possible before then.  My eye doctor has just prescribed bi-focals for me!  Proof positive that I am getting old.

Happy New Year to all!

Link Rot

November 22nd, 2010

I looked back at my posts from the early days of this blog (February 2007).  Apart from the embarrassment of seeing how much more frequently I used to post, I was disturbed by how many of the links I included in those articles are now sitting “parked” on a domain farm somewhere.  While technically not dead links, they are useless in terms of any value they might add to the articles.

Sure, nothing is forever, but the linkers that last longer than others on the Interwebs are hampered by the Sudden Internet Death Syndrome that befalls so many linkees.  It’s a bit of a drag.

Two more winners

November 15th, 2010

If you’re in the USA (because some cable channels are not available in Canada), I have discovered two new shows that the adults in my family are really enjoying: The Walking Dead on AMC and Terriers on FX.  I am gripped by both of these shows.  From the descriptions and the early buzz, I actually had given them a pass.  But the positive comments from the twitter-sphere were too overwhelming to ignore.  And, as usual, tweeters are right.  These shows are awesome.

As I hinted above, these are cable shows for adults, so they are not for everyone.  In fact, one of the frequent comments about The Walking Dead is that it does a masterful job of melding the gore and horror elements together with the character arcs and the plot development.  But the gore is utterly over the top: the episode called “Guts” was aptly named on a number of levels.

Terriers is brilliant because it is funny and heartbreaking at the same time.  Since I was turned off by every description of the show I read before I watched it (“losers as private investigators”), I can only advise you to try it out and see for yourself what all the buzz is about.

Gatekeepers or enablers?

November 11th, 2010

In recent business history, spurred on by the open access of the Internet, traditional gatekeepers have been falling by the wayside.  The most prominent is the recording industry.  They are the folks that put music on various sorts of plastic discs and are kicking themselves that they let Steve Jobs talk them into iTunes.

In my business, real estate, the Canadian Competition Bureau went after the Canadian Real Estate Association for the seemingly anti-competitive way homes are listed for sale.  In fact, the main complaint was about “limiting consumer choice” because of the rules governing the way the member-to-member listing database was run.  Making parts of MLS® public meant that everyone got a glimpse as to how useful the database was and everyone wanted to participate.  If you’re selling your home on Craigslist or kijiji you likely won’t get as many truly motivated buyers as you would through MLS®.  Thus, it is said, consumer choice was limited.

I am not about to argue the merits of the Competition Bureau’s claims or the general sense in the public that real estate agents are just a bunch of crooks.  But I would like to point out the similarities of public reaction to any gatekeeper — what has been referred to as a “copyright middleman”.  Whether it is a recording industry or a real estate association, the idea is not to artificially increase the scarcity of data but to ensure there’s value added to it.

For example, buying an album used to be an experience: an album cover was a piece of art — that’s additional value over and above the recorded data (music).  In the music business (which is not dying by the way, but growing in huge ways — distinct from the recording industry which is clearly shrinking), time spent with the artists is a scarcity.  Concerts, personal appearances, and even dinners with the artist are things that are actually paid for by fans.  Fan-bases are grown by wide distribution of a non-scarce product.

In real estate, the listing, the photos of the home, and the data describing the home are non-scarce entities — these things can be copied and distributed widely.  I maintain that they should be distributed as widely as possible to generate interest in the home.  However, MLS® still has a key role to play: ensuring the quality of the data, reputation, and connections between real estate professionals — those are scarce resources and are quite valuable.  Any home data appearing on other websites simply doesn’t have the “trust factor” that a genuine MLS® listing has.  The Toronto Real Estate Board, for example, spends a lot of time and money tracking down and correcting listing errors, as well as counseling and disciplining members who violate the rules.

My own role I see not as a gatekeeper, but as an enabler: helping people to understand the data, apply it to their own situation, and personal interaction with potential buyers and other agents.

Selling your own home, like many do-it-yourself endeavors, is a worthy pursuit.  But some people don’t have the time, patience, or talent for fielding inquiries, hosting open houses, following up, writing up offers, reviewing offers, negotiating counter offers, and so on.  There have always been home sales by owners.  There have always been discount real estate brokerages who leave much of the process in the hands of the buyer or seller.  There will always be premium services where every step of the transaction is handled by the real estate agent.

In the future, there will be less of a role for “guardians of the data” and more of a role for “helpers and guides”.

My verdicts on this Fall’s TV dramas

October 20th, 2010

The 2010 Fall television season is in full swing.  There are some shows still to premiere, but for the most part the broadcast and cable networks have revealed all that they had to wow us with this autumn. (As many of you know, I watch way too much TV but I do my best to limit it by only watching recorded shows and sticking to dramas.  I’m sure there are some great comedies and I know I love The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family when I watch with my own family.  However, this post only covers dramas.)

Already some shows have been given the axe: Lone Star and Outlaw are two notable dramas that fell very early on.  I didn’t watch Lone Star because it sounded like a remake of Dallas. I gave Jimmy Smits a chance in Outlaw, but it was hampered by lame writing and I’m not surprised it didn’t last.

The winners for this season are The Event, Blue Bloods, and The Defenders. All shows are doing well in the ratings and NBC ordered a full season (22 episodes) of The Event on 18 October 2010.  All three shows are worth watching if you enjoy drama.  On cable, if you can stand its graphic nature, Boardwalk Empire is also a fantastic one to catch (it has already been renewed for a second season and is one of HBO’s most successful shows in years).

The Event is adrenaline-fueled like 24 was; I love the show for a strange reason: it is written the way I would write it if I were talented enough to write for TV.  There is none of that frustration I feel on other shows where the protagonist (and often the antagonist) do things and you think: “people would never do that!”  Sure the situations are implausible, but they are logically consistent — and satisfying.

Blue Bloods is just plain good.  With Martin Scorcese and Mark Wahlberg at the helm, it smacks of quality from top to bottom.  It is great to see Tom Selleck back on television as the patriarch of (and mediating influence behind) a family of cops and lawyers.  The family’s Sunday dinners are a microcosm of the wider debate about justice issues facing society.

The Defenders is a guilty pleasure for me.  It’s a drama with Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell (two of my favorite comedic actors) cast as defense attorneys in a Las Vegas law firm.

Meanwhile, I am still rooting for the Canadian productions of Flashpoint and Rookie Blue. Flashpoint completed its third season, with renewal or cancellation still to be decided by CBS.  Rookie Blue did very well in its rookie season; in July it was renewed by ABC for a second season and stars one of my favorite actresses, Missy Peregrym.