À propos de Stern - Montreal High Lights 2012

À propos de Stern - Montreal High Lights 2012

The 2012 Montréal en Lumière (Montreal High Lights) Festival - visited it the weekend of Feb 18.

It is cold, yet Montrealers find no problem enjoying live shows and music and food out on the streets!
Here's one of the cool shows: A Propos De Stern
It takes something I noticed just this year to a new level. This year I noticed a some buildings in Montreal showing animated pictures projected on the side of buildings.
This specific show is really engrossing. And the props and movement in the images fit very well with the windows on the wall of this building!

In addition to that they had a number of other activities. The program was dedicated to Wallonia-Brussels regions, so they were selling Belgian (French? No!) Fries, with Mayo of course.
Their blurb states: "Among the multitude of attractions, get ready for a mind-blowing new-generation interactive slide, projections and lighting displays redesigning the facades of the surrounding architecture, spectacular video mapping displays on the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan (3 displays nightly), illuminated musical spectacles, characters in illuminated costumes created especially for the MEL…"

I could not stay for the full festival - on Feb 25, they have a whole night of festival activities! Nuit blanche à Montréal: "Calling all nighthawks and nocturnal friends—Saturday, February 25, 2012 is the date set for the wildest night of the year!"... Maybe next year a US holiday will fall around Nuit blanche so I can make it up here then ... :-)

Some video snippets:
À propos de Stern - Snippet 1
À propos de Stern - Snippet 2

Just in case some links above stop working, here's the writeup from the High Lights web site:

Getting started with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich

Until recently I was happy with an old-school phone-only phone. Now I have some time on a phone-that-does-more-than-calls smartphone. It is a unlocked GSM Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

First impressions are that this is great fun - a lot of opportunities to waste time of course. And it also can make and receive phone calls, but that seems like an minor side feature nowadays.

Unfortunately, the whole experience is not yet completely satisfactory. Lot of minor and major glitches abound, and it took a while to get some simple essential tools enabled.
My goal was to get the 16GB device to work mostly over Wi-Fi and use it as an offline MP3 music and .avi/mp4/flv video player. And to play long audio books well, with bookmarking capability.

Not so simple, it turns out!

Google Voice does not work over Wi-Fi
This does not work on the phone! Having been accustomed to using Google Voice on my computer, I expected a phone with no service (no SIM) should have Google Voice work over Wi-Fi. No luck. And a web search does not yield much info - no help at the Google Voice support pages certainly.
Some web pages do suggest that this is probably due to the legacy phone carriers imposing their will on Google. Maybe - but would be nice if this was clear on Google Voice pages, and it is still confusing that this holds true when there is no SIM - and no carrier involved at all.
In any case, the final answer is that Google Voice does not work on the phone over Wi-Fi. It must have a carrier voice and data plan.
Google Voice works great!

Unknown Singer in 59th St Subway NYC

There is always something interesting wherever you go in New York.

This weekend, waiting for the #1 downtown train at the 59th St station, the subway travelers were treated to a really incredible singer. She was on the opposite side platform, so the snippet Video of the Unknown 59th St Singer is a bit dark and noisy, but the singer's voice comes through quite nicely. A snapshot grabbed from the video.

The video is of Mad World, Google search says it is by Gary Jules (Mad World), also on Donnie Darko Soundtrack. And covered by many other singers as well. But this unknown singer on the subway, she was the best, and she had the best stage too!

And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I'm dying, Are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it's a very very
Mad World, Mad World ...

The lyrics fit the haunting voice of the singer very well, but she was even better in a previous song she sang,
Simon And Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair.

Really, really, great to hear such nice singing, in the busy underground world of NYC subways. To whoever that singer was, thank for your singing this weekend [2011-Nov-12].

Xi'an Famous Foods

Xian Foods - Pictures and details on the Albums - Flushing's Chinatown.

Xi'an Famous Foods is worth the long trek down to Flushing, Queens. And their best items travel well too - the cumin lamb burgers - though be aware that the appetizing, hot, spicy smell of the food pervades the subway, the bus, and car, so make sure it is wrapped well!

Their original location is in Flushing, Queens, New York.
And now they have multiple locations in the city too - mostly downtown, in and around Chinatown: 67 Bayard St is one location. All the locations are quite small, with very little seating. And it can go from empty to crowded in seconds. Think standard NYC hole-in-the wall type of place, with great food.

[2012 Update] So the Bayard St location is good to go to if pressed for time, since going to Flushing takes the whole afternoon out. But - it seems to me that Spicy Cumin Lamb Hand-Ripped Noodles has far less lamb in the NYC location than at the Flushing location! Next time around, I plan to get the Spicy Cumin Lamb (Plate) which is all lamb, and a side dish of noodles (they don't have rice on the menu).
The Lamb Cumin Burgers are outstanding in both locations. If you take them home, sprinkle some lime juice on them, to kick up an already excellent dish another notch!

After another trip to Flushing, can confirm that food is better there. In addition to the small underground Golden Mall stall, they have full restaurant two blocks away at 41-10 Main St. They label it as a chic version of their original restaurants and have renamed it to biang!. It does look really nice. If walking from the Train 7 Flushing station on Main St, 41-10 is around 3-5 blocks down, and 41-28 Golden Mall location is another 2-3 blocks down.

Reliance Global Call - Drops Calls

2012 July update: After months of not using Reliance, I tried it again for a few times this month and it seemed to work fine for a couple of times. But then, it failed again - after 5 minutes into the call, the audio got cut-off, but the connection was still alive. So this is still not usable, all that has changed is it takes longer for the audio to cut out.

Starting in the middle of 2011, the calling card from Reliance GlobalCall has been a disaster to use. Every time I connect from the US to some number in India using their local access numbers, the audio abruptly cuts out. And there is just silence on the call at my end, and lot of static at the other end. This happens anywhere from 10 seconds to 2 minutes into the call. At peak times on weekends it is really bad and cuts off in under 10-30 seconds.

For years, using Reliance to call India from US worked fine. Starting sometime in 2011, it has been touch-and-go, most of the time the conversation gets cut off even though the line is still connected.

Desafío Extremo: Polo Norte

Extreme Challenge: To the North Pole

I recently stumbled onto a great hour-long show on a Spanish TV channel V-Me, of a group trying to trek up to the North Pole. No English subtitles, but great to watch anyway. Nothing but snow and ice all around and very cold. No other people too, until they reach the North Pole itself.

Cool gear: Transformer-like canoes - used as a gear slide, as a boat, or tied together as a catamaran to navigate the waters between ice fields in the Arctic. There was a time when I thought it would be great to trek across some of the Arctic or Antarctic in the cold. But now I prefer to watch it on TV and am content to taste a minuscule bit of the real thing by braving the cold in New Hampshire, USA and parts of Canada, secure in the knowledge that a nice warm building is always close by to run into once it becomes unbearably cold!

The show has a blog, looks like they attempted this a few times before reaching Pole Norte: Cuatro.com: Desafío Extremo: Polo Norte

YouTube seems to have the show too, this part is quite interesting. On reaching Polo Norte, two of them challenge each other to a bathing-suit run! In -35C/-31F weather! One of them ups the ante and even jumps into the water - which was at -0.5C/31F. Brrrrr! So that person jumped from warm water into the air, experiencing a 60F degree drop in temperature in an instant! And wind-chill was probably crazy too... amazing!
YouTube: Desafío extremo: Polo Norte, en el confín del mundo 4/5

Craigslist full of rental scams

So Craigslist is making it hard to post ads for real posters who care about their privacy (Craigslist Wants Your Phone Number) and simultaneously letting very easy-to-spot scam postings totally fill their vacation rental pages!

New York, and London - just look at the vacation rental pages on craigslist. So easy to spot the scams - when you see the same pattern of ad repeated many times, it is a scam. In addition to scams, craigslist is now filled with useless Airbnb postings which are just noise and do not provide a contact email address or phone number. The Airbnb automated postings are for Airbnb members only - craigslist should not allow them, they are just ads for Airbnb.

There are many sites with information on scams: Rental Scams, and here's a guide to craigslist scams. And important to note that while it is easy to spot the scammers that are from out-of-town, there are also scams involving local people, as shown in NY Times - Renters Get Swindled and Scammed article.

The easy signs of a scam are poor English in the posting and in subsequent communication, too many postings that look the same with different rentals and different email addresses, "contract" does not contain dates (they want you to fill in dates which means they don't really care), you can change dates a lot and apartment will still be available, and sometimes - low prices (no way a NYC midtown 2-bedroom apartment is available for $200/day). And if you ask to see the apartment and the renting agent immediately (even just as a bait - ask this even if you are not in that town), they will make up a reason why that is not possible, and that indicates a scam.

Property Tax Abatement

[This posting applies to MA residential property only.]

Tax abatement for residential property is one of those topics where there are a large number of misunderstandings - some owners think they are paying too much (but they aren't) others think they may be paying too less (but in fact they may be paying more than necessary).

The most important thing to remember is the assessment - "Total Real Estate Value" on the MA Real Estate Tax form - has absolutely no relation to the market price of the property. It is simply a number used to calculate your property tax.

It does reflect the amounts assigned to similar properties - so all properties in your town that are largely similar to yours, will (should) have similar "Total Real Estate Value" amounts.
This makes sense since the goal is to spread the tax fairly, and as long as similar houses are valued the same, applying the percentage property tax means everyone is taxed fairly.

But - this is where things can get out of sync. The Board of Assessors in the town Tax Collector's office only has the actual real estate sales figures to go by. And it is very difficult to figure out what other "similar houses" exist in the area. So the assessment is made on recent sales, corrected for any information the assessors may have regarding similar property.

This system has a tendency to inflate property taxes for recent purchasers of property. Their house values are higher than the other similar houses that were bought way in the past. There are other reasons too why these values can drift apart, for both recent and past purchasers. This is where the tax abatement process comes in. Property owners can file for tax abatement - and as long as they provide concrete data regarding relative values of comparable properties - it becomes easy for the Board of Assessors to update the value of your property.

Blogger missing features

Providing assistance recently to a few people who started using Blogger, it becomes clear that while Blogger provides a wide range of tools, some key features are missing. The current feature set of blogger is somewhat confusing in terms of which target audience is actually fully covered.

Here are some things that are not easy to do in current Blogger - while some gadgets or widgets may be claim to provide the feature, they are not really easily usable. Though things do seem to be improving periodically, and there may come a time in the future when a decent, complete set of features is available.

The audience for these type of features is the low-volume blogger, blogging for personal use, and for friends and family. These features are very easy to provide in a hosted version of Wordpress, as a comparison point. It would be nice if Blogger could be used to build a social-media network for a small group, kind of like a friends-and-family network. This is something not doable right now.

Breckenridge Ski Review

Breckenridge, Colorado claims to be one of the largest and most-visited ski resorts in North America, but it is not easy to get much information on the mountain related to ski trail reviews. All the search engines spew out is sales info on condos and travel packages. Here are some usable reviews: NYTimes, Dom's Skiing Breckenridge, Epinions.

So, here's a collection of brief points and answers a first-time traveler might want to know. Mostly from the point of view of intermediate skiers, who may also handle a few of the black diamond expert trails.
Here's a (large PDF) Breckenridge trail map.

  • Altitude-sickness is real! There is a lot of information on this on the web. For recreational skiers, not a serious problem, just take headache medicines every day - good chance of a splitting headache everyday. Climbing uphill is also a strain, so avoid it.
  • It is not called Brecken-wind for nothing. Extremely windy and blustery at the top of the lifts. One of the days, the important Beaver Run Superchair was closed all morning, causing major backups on other lifts. And Peak 10 Falcon Superchair was also closed - which meant no Peak 10 skiing.
  • Pre-peak season such as end of January is nice - not very crowded, but still great packed powder conditions. Most lifts had no waits, or very short waits, except for some of the key Peak 8 and Peak 9 lifts. Definitely nothing like the reported 45-minute waits during peak season here. Entry to lifts is not always well organized - just a mass of people all converging to the chair and merging crowds. Easier to squeeze in from the outer rows.