Friday, December 19, 2008

The war on Christmas is over. Christmas won.

Last year, comedians and commentators rattled about the “war on Christmas,” saying that it was no longer considered politically correct to say “Merry Christmas” or to put up Nativity scenes in public spaces. We were all supposed to say “Happy Holidays” instead.

To look at the malls and airports, there was some evidence of this. But I’ve come full circle. I’m comfortable with saying “Merry Christmas.” From a religious as well as secular point of view, December 25 is Christmas, after all. For me, it’s Christmas, and I don’t feel awkward or embarrassed to say so.

By the same token, I welcome a “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Eid” (even though it’s over) or “Happy Yule.” Or any other good wishes. This is a special season for many religions and cultures.

From me at least, “Merry Christmas” isn’t meant to be exclusive. Welcome to all, have a happy season, whatever it is, and a very good new year.

Scott Bury

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Word of the month: crisis

What crisis?

The news media keep referring to the current storm in Parliament, where a Liberal-NDP coalition, supported by the Bloc Qu├ębecois, are trying to replace the Conservative government, as as a “crisis.” Peter Mansbridge, CBC TV’s news anchor, CBC Radio news, the front page of the Globe and Mail, and more all use the word “crisis.

But is it really a crisis? Or is this just the way the Canadian parliamentary system is supposed to work?

According to some dictionaries, a crisis is “a time of great difficulty or danger.” How much danger does the country face right now, at least from a possible centre-left coalition government? Or even from the change of government without an election?

From the civics classes I took, I understand the system is supposed to work like this. The party that has the largest number of members elected to the House of Commons normally gets to form the government, and remains the government until the next election, or until it loses the confidence of the House. When that happens, either there’s another election, or another party or group of parties that can maintain the confidence of the house—which may be confirmed with a vote of confidence—can form a new government.

So the Liberal-NDP proposal is not a crisis in this sense. It may be a crisis for the government they seek to replace, in this case the Conservatives’, led by Stephen Harper, but the country’s democracy itself isn’t in any danger.

MP Bob Rae said as much today (December 3): "It's not a crisis. In a minority government, things can be more lively than otherwise ..."

Parliament is certainly lively these days. It's inspiring to see Stephan Dion get as excited as he seemed to be in the past few days. If he had acted like that during the past election campaign, we may not be in this situation today.

There is another meaning to the word “crisis”: it can also be a turning point, or the peak of trouble which determines what the future course will be. The question now before Parliament is certainly a turning point. How significant it is will remain to be seen if the coalition does come to power, and then by its actions in government.

Communications professionals should ask themselves: how do we define “crisis.” And if that definition doesn’t fit the current situation in the House of Commons, what is the right descriptor? Then let Peter Mansbridge know.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Don’t believe it

It’s a recession! It’s a recession! It’s a recession!

Remember the Big Lie?

Here it is again.

The news media have been going on and on about the recession. Every day, there’s a new report about the direness of the worldwide economy, progressively worse every time. [image courtesy]

Watch the news: stores are going out of business. They’re offering discounts on top of sales on top of specials. You can get stuff for next to nothing.

Except — I haven’t seen it.

In Canada at least, the malls are still so crowded you can’t find a parking spot. And the sales? Even CBC news couldn’t find bigger sales than 10 percent off at Birk’s Jewellers—the most overpriced purveyor of useless baubles in the country—or $75 for a plain white shirt at Harry Rosen, the most overpriced seller of boring men’s clothing in the country.

What’s the crisis? The owners of the toniest stores in Canada won’t be able to get that upgrade to their yacht?

Yes, auto workers are facing significant layoffs. But the financial sector isn’t hurting here, as it is in the States.

Yet, the media continues to stoke the fears of recession, even depression. Here’s a smattering of headlines:

‘Problem’ banks stoke fears over FDIC fund
More failures likely, warns chairman (Financial Times, November 25, 2008)

GM: Death of an American dream (Fortune, November, 2008)
15,000 auto jobs gone by the end of 2009: Economist (Toronto Star, November 26)

And yet, look at these more factually-based reports:
Bank of Montreal's fourth-quarter earnings rise to $560 million (, November 26)
Royal Bank says credit crunch will hit quarter's bottom line, still forecasts $1.1 billion profit (, November 26)

Retail sales soar past expectations (Report on, November 25)

The bandwagon effect, again
It’s the bandwagon effect. It’s happened repeatedly, and seems to be increasingly frequent. We saw it in the US election, when the media favoured Barack Obama over all his rivals.

And now the talking heads are competing to say “recession” more than anyone else, along with “economic crisis” and “credit crunch.”

The next question is, are these doomsayers contributing to the decline in the stock market and the credit crunch?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Stop the XMas Music!


Stop with the phoney, cheesy Christmas music, already!

It's barely November, not even Remembrance Day/Memorial Day yet, and already the stores are playing awful, tinny "XMas" tunes in an effort to make me buy junk.

I can understand that retailers are trying to encourage people to buy early. From what I understand, the average retailer that starts its fiscal year on January 1 doesn't see any profit before the Christmas shopping season starts, and in the current economic climate, I'd be anxious to start that season early, too.

But please, have mercy on my ears and sanity! There is a limited list of tunes played on the PA systems, and I can only tolerate so many renditions of "Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland" and "Sleigh Ride" and "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" before I lose it.

Don't get me wrong, I like Christmas and I like real Christmas carols. But political correctness demands that no one play religious music in a mall or store. So that limits the playlist even more. Don't forget, repeating the same sound or word over and over is sometimes used as a form of torture.

So please, retailers, have mercy and wait until December before piping the XMas tunes in all your stores - or I just may not buy anything!

Agree? Don't? Let me know.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Monitor review: ViewSonic N2060W

Communicator’s toolbox:
ViewSonic N2060W NextVision
20-inch widescreen LCD TV

A combined TV and computer monitor—a simple, brilliant concept!
It makes so much sense, especially given the increasing popularity of sites like YouTube and TV through iTunes, and the “convergence” of media that’s been threatened so much over the years. But how well does the idea of one unit doing double duty as a wide-screen computer monitor and wide-screen TV set work?

To find out, I’ve been using the 20-inch widescreen N2060W NextVision 20-inch monitor from ViewSonic, for a number of months. ViewSonic took a widescreen LCD monitor with built-in stereo speakers and added a cable, S-video and component video inputs and an NTSC TV tuner to enable it to function as a television. While it performs both tasks reasonably well, it doesn’t seem to mix the two tasks very well: the PC causes interference on the screen and the speakers if it’s running while the monitor is in television mode.

Basic data

Type of monitor: 20.1" color TFT active matrix, wide LCD (liquid-crystal display)
Display Area: 17.5" horizontal x 9.8" vertical; 20.1" diagonal
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Optimum Resolution: 1366 x 768 pixels
Contrast Ratio: 700:1 (typ)
Viewing Angles: 160° horizontal, 140° vertical
Response Time: 8ms gray-to-gray (avg)
Light Source: long-life, 50,000 hours (typ)
Brightness: 450 cd/m2 (typ)
Glass Surface: anti-reflective coating
Dimensions (WxDxH) / Weight : 60.8 cm x 21.5 cm x 44.3 cm / 9 kg
Warranty : 1 year manufacturer’s warranty
Price: $ 419-425 street


Installing and setting up the NextVision widescreen monitor is partly easy, and partly frustrating.

Getting the TV part of it to work was the easy part. ViewSonic has equipped the unit with standard coaxial cable connector and an integrated NTSC TV tuner. It also has stereo speakers and 3.5 mm mini stereo audio input/output and RCA audio jacks. Sound from the TV is good, and the image is sharp.

Connecting the unit to a Macintosh computer, however, was not so easy. Macs don’t use the standard DVI connectors for video, which ViewSonic could not provide. They’re not expensive—about $35 CDN—but you have to go out of your way. I had to get the right DVI to VGA connector from my favourite local Macintosh store.

The next challenge was resetting the display preferences. My iMac was set to a resolution of 1440 x 900; when I plugged in the NextVision as a second monitor, it initially showed an “Input out of range” message on a blank blue screen. Luckily, the Mac’s operating system eventually loads up the ViewSonic drivers and preferences screen automatically. Using the original monitor, I had to reset for a “refresh rate” of 60 Hz from 75—even though LCD screens don’t refresh like CRTs do. That brought life to the ViewSonic monitor, and I was able to set the resolution to the maximum of 1360 x 768.

Finally, I tried to connect the sound using a standard RCA jack to the Audio input jacks, but was unable to get any sound out of the built-in speakers. Yes, the speakers work in TV mode, but not in monitor mode, whether the monitor was connected to a Macintosh or an IBM Thinkpad. I contacted ViewSonic’s online support chat, who were very helpful, but ultimately unable to get any sound.

Using it
As a monitor, the NextVision is bright and clear. You can download Apple ColorSync profiles, and the results are quite pleasing and fairly consistent.
It’s nice to have lots of screen “real estate,” as they used to say in this business. With a monitor that’s 17 inches wide, I have lots of room for two word processing pages side by side, even zoomed to 125 percent, and there’s room left over for the dock on the side and a few other shortcuts from the desktop. Or I can have windows visible from several programs. This makes it easier to cut, drag, drop and paste between windows or applications.

Photos and videos look great: bright, sharp and clear.

There is a fairly wide viewing angle: 160 degrees, according to the manufacturer. I didn’t really notice that the images looked worse from almost any angle, and when you don’t notice design, it’s usually very, very good. So, kudos to ViewSonic for the wide viewing angle on its wide-screen LCDs.

As a monitor, the video part is great. As a TV, it offers a wide screen, so unless you have an HD signal, the picture is stretched sideways—everyone looks fat. (This can be disturbing if you’re watching the season of King of Queens reruns when Leah Remini is fat.)

And as mentioned, the PC interferes with the TV signal if both are plugged in and running at the same time.

Summing up

If you’re a resourceful computer user, good at connecting peripherals and working your way through all the settings, the ViewSonic offers a nice wide monitor that gives the communications professional a lot of screen real estate at a reasonable price.

Or if you want a smallish widescreen TV, the NextView N2060W is a reasonably-priced LCD alternative.

But putting the two functions together is questionable. First, I wonder about the setup—who wants to watch TV on their computer monitor? If I were running an office, I wouldn’t want people to be switching back to TV at will — unless their jobs involved monitoring TV coverage.

But mostly, the interference in the TV signal from the PC is annoying and reduces the unit’s usefulness.

Viewsonic also needs to buff up on its Macintosh support to earn top marks from this reviewer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hardware review: the Brother HL -4070CDW

Model: HL 4070 CDW
Colours: 4: black, magenta, cyan, yellow
Rated speed: 21 pages per minute black or colour
Features: automatic duplexing, wireless connectivity

It’s nice to have a color laser printer at my disposal for printing some custom business cards when I need them, promotional materials, and all sorts of proposals, reports, even letters. Commercial printers have been pointing out the advantages of colour in all kinds of documents for years—colour sells.

I tried Brother’s HL 4070 CDW colour laser printer starting early in the year and overall am please with the results. It’s an excellent choice for a small office that needs colour output.

Setting up the printer
If you can afford it, a laser printer has a lot of advantages over an inkjet printer for the office: although the purchase price is higher (computer dealers basically give them away—why not? They’ll recoup the cost many times over with ink cartridges), the cost per page is far less. Laser toner cartridges produce far more pages than inkjet cartridges do, so you don’t have to keep running out to buy more ink all the time.

Beyond those, Brother’s HL-4070CDW “personal” colour laser printer makes for an excellent choice for a workgroup or small office. It’s relatively compact for a four-colour laser printer, measuring just 18.5 inches by 12 inches by 16 inches high. Bulky, but not much bigger than my first Apple LaserWriter Plus back in the 80s. In addition to quick four-colour printing, it offers two-sided printing (duplexing) and wireless connection—at least, that’s what Brother says.
As you might expect, the unit is pretty heavy: 29 kilograms, or over 64 pounds. It was a big load for the courier that delivered it to my office.
The initial set-up was time-consuming and ultimately unsuccessful. Sure, the printer comes with USB, parallel, Ethernet and WiFi connections. I initially moved away my little inkjet all-in-one printer and put the laser printer there. Connecting to my desktop—a Macintosh G4—was simple through USB. Plug it in, and there it is. I had to install drivers using the included CD-ROM, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. But setting up the wireless connection was frustrating. More on that below.

What’s good about the printer
Initial results were quite pleasing. The first thing I noticed is that the printer is fast. The first page of a document arrived in the paper tray in 85 seconds; following pages from the same documents came out as fast as the drum could roll over. That’s far different from an inkjet printer, where you wait as each line gets inked, one after the other.

The results were good: high-quality, consistent coverage in colour images. The colours weren’t quite as bright as with an inkjet printer, but that’s to be expected from toners. Still, they were even and sharp, and registration was perfect.

The printer is also very reliable—in all the time that I used it, with all the different paper grades, it never had a paper jam.
Also, this printer offers two-sided printing, which can be handy and saves paper.

The only real problem I encountered with the HL4070-CDW was in connecting it to my LAN. Connecting to a host computer via USB was as simple as it sounds, and connecting via wired Ethernet to the router was easy, too—deceptively so.

But what initially excited me about this printer was the WiFi connection. “What an advantage for the small office or workgroup, and especially the small or home office: no need to run unsightly wires around the baseboards. Just plunk the printer down anywhere and go!”

Alas, it just didn’t work out. I followed the instructions for connecting to the wireless network meticulously and repeatedly, to no avail. I tried it with a Macintosh as well as an IBM computer running Windows XP. Still no luck. I called Brother, and had a marketing and a tech guy on the line talking me through it. They even sent new drivers.

And it wasn’t easy: configuring the network connectivity on the printer involves selecting from a menu on a three-line LCD screen, using four buttons (up, down, left, right). I tried entering my network’s password (try selecting a 26-digit code by hitting the “right” button nine times for 9, then Entering, seven times for 7, Enter, and so on). Still didn’t work. I even turned off the security protection on my network, but that didn’t work, either. The Brother people replaced the printer with another unit in case there was a hardware problem, but even that didn’t solve the problem. To this day, I have not been able to connect the computer to the HL 4070 CDW wirelessly.

Luckily, I had a long Ethernet cable, so I was able to connect the printer to my network router from the spot in the office where it was convenient. Since that point, I’ve had great service from the machine.

What I Think
The Brother HL 4070 CDW offers good response, reliability, versatility and quality for under $500. Yes, it’s lot more money than an inkjet printer, but for a small workgroup or small office with more than one person producing a volume of documents that need colour, the Brother HL 4070 CDW is a good value.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

TV sucks in technicolor

I watched a rerun of The Daily Show last night. In its regular timeslot. It brings me to one conclusion: television sucks.

I like The Daily Show. It doesn’t suck, on its own. But taken as a whole, TV sucks.

I know I’m not the first to complain about TV reruns, and I know that many people like them. How else to explain the success of stations like TBS or Peachtree, which show nothing but old shows?

But when you’re watching a program for new material, it’s hard not to notice that we’re not getting as much new material as we used to.

Yes, the seasons are shorter. The networks are cheating us.

When I was a kid, the “new” TV season would last from September to May every year. Then, a season came to be a half a year. That meant 26 weeks. Okay, we could watch every episode twice. Or maybe, watch the shows that were in the same time slots as the shows we watched during the first half of the season.

Then, 24 came out. You remember that: each weekly episode was one hour long, so the season was a full day. Poor Jack never slept. But that meant that the season was only 24 weeks long. When did that change happen? Before or after the debut of 24? I don’t know.

But at any rate, it meant the seasons were shorter. Who suffered? TV audiences.
Networks also started experimenting with half-season programs, cancelling duds halfway through the regular season and replacing them with something new, but again, only 12 or 13 episodes before they went into reruns. Yes, that’s right: a year of programming was then down to three months.

The hit Irish-produced nighttime soap, The Tudors, has a first season that’s 10 episodes long.

Then, in 2006, the networks screwed us over again. Remember how Lost was the most anticipated returning show? Well, ABC decided to interrupt the flow of the serial for over two months with a hiatus, filling the time slot with an experimental new show—which apparently flopped, because I haven’t seen anything like it return. I can understand the approach, but it’s disrespectful to the audience.

The TV season is worst around Christmas. Regular programming is suspended or preempted for more than a month in advance of the holiday. My favourite programs get replaced by lame “specials” until after the New Year.

And this year, Easter was almost as bad, just, thankfully, shorter.

The writers’ strike in Hollywood this year only made things worse. Any strike is a failure of management—just like failing to procure any raw material. But even though the strike has been over for more than a month, the schedules aren’t back to normal. New episodes of shows like The Office and My Name is Earl only started this week, the last of March. Saturday Night Live was a rerun on March 22—of an episode two weeks old!

And last night, March 25, was a rerun of an episode of The Daily Show that I watched last week.

And those that argue that TV programming is free, remember, we the consumers are paying through the advertising. We buy the products that get advertised. And then there’s cable fees, some of which go to the networks and channels to buy programming.
So no, it’s not free.

We’re being ripped off by TV.

What a waste of a medium.