Monday, December 04, 2006

Still crazy about Commodore 64
Devotees of the seminal Commodore 64 gathered last weekend to praise the majesty of their PCs, poring over manuals and swapping stories
Dec. 4, 2006. 07:24 AM
MICHELE HENRY
STAFF REPORTER

Dropping his ears close to the motherboard now and then, Greg Nacu fiddles with the guts of his Commodore 64 laptop computer like he's tinkering with the engine of a car.

Once the pride of 1984, the hulking dinosaur lies open on a table in the basement of a west-end church as the 25-year-old hooks it up to an equally archaic 13-inch monitor.

It doesn't work right away.

But that's just fine for Nacu, a computer programmer from Kingston, who's been using this laptop exclusively since he found it hidden under his parent's bed more than a decade ago.

Being able to troubleshoot with ease is one reason he's crazy about his Commodore.

"It's just like a car," the pony-tailed man says, referring to the entire line of primitive, personal computing machines, specifically the suitcase-sized box before him.

"All you have to do is pop `em open and listen. Oh! there's a problem with chip CI #2, so you just slip in another chip — that's the best thing about these computers and it's cool in a geeky sort of way."

More than 75 others share his sentiments.

Their love of the yellowing clunkers is what brought them to Alderwood United Church, near Sherway Gardens mall, last weekend for the World of Commodore 2006 conference.

Coke-bottle glasses, flood-pants and a kind of tech-testosterone were in ample supply at the annual Toronto PET User's Group conference, which draws Commodore 64 fanatics from all over Canada and the U.S. to revel in what is now seen as nascent technology. The Commodore PET, unveiled in 1977, was billed the world's first personal computer. Even so, the Commodores were in production until the early 1990s.

Formed in 1979, TPUG is known as the second-oldest Commodore 64 club around and is dedicated to talking about, playing with and worshipping the computing equivalent of Ford's Model T.

Wearing "I Heart My Commodore Computer" buttons on the left side of their shirts, TPUG members flocked to the event to swap ideas, ancient DOS manuals and obsolete computer parts, such as the floppy disk drive.

Many user group members are more than mere hobbyists.

Leif Bloomquist, 33, has been crazy about Commodores since acquiring his first in 1988.

`I wish Commodore 64 were still alive. The rest of the industry is so boring'

Programmer Greg Nacu

Hovering beside a black screen blinking with a line of fluorescent green text, he says he's here to corroborate with like-minded individuals about a special project — getting Commodore computers to communicate with one another over the Internet.

"I had this idea when I was 15," says Bloomquist, a contractor to the Canadian Space Agency who's involved in writing software for the next Mars mission.

"I can now take what I've learned back to the computer I started with and do all the crazy ideas I had as a kid.

"We can create things now that were impossible 20 years ago."

Some enthusiasts, like Joe Palumbo, prefer to remain in the past. The 39-year-old, who sings the Commodore's praises at every opportunity, remembers fondly when "science fiction came into his home" in the late 1970s.

To this day, he uses a Commodore 64 to run his small business. He sells Commodore parts.

"It was a giant leap," Palumbo says, of owning such a device, "and being able to program it ... I was God." He adds that another advantage of living in this bygone era is that the technology of the best-selling single computer system never changes. About 17 million units were sold.

Erik Kudzin, an electronic technician, who drove in from Chicago to attend, says it's liberating to be freed from the shackles of having to keep up with the latest, increasingly pricey and complicated hardware.

"You can pull your hair out trying to use the computers nowadays," he says, from a room filled with vendors selling past-their-prime games such as Jump Man, old joysticks and even a Commodore 64 in its original 1982 wrapping.

"And, it does what you want. These are from a simpler time."

Waxing nostalgic about his childhood Commodore, Rob Adlers, a Toronto software tester, came to show event-goers that these devices, which long ago joined banana hair clips and Pac Man in the history books, have a purpose in today's world.

He demonstrated how the Commodore's SID (sound interface device) can be used today by DJs looking for the grainy, retro sound only this type of computer can produce.

"It gives them a new life," he says, as a handful of people gather around a small television nearby.

They watch with folded arms as a TPUG member shifts a joystick to make a pixelated man run through a maze. In another part of the room, a computer screen comes to life in front of Nacu, who hopes there will one day be a Commodore renaissance.

"I wish Commodore 64 were still alive," he says, as he types Load "*",8,1 onto the screen — it's the most common first command the defunct computers understand. "The rest of the industry is so boring. The Commodore has personality."

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Missed connections, second chances
Aug. 6, 2006. 07:38 AM

During some downtime one afternoon last September, Sarah LeGresley intended to continue her search for an apartment in Toronto using Craigslist, a wildly popular Internet site she had discovered just a week before. She veered instead to the "Missed Connections" page, only to find what appeared to be a message meant especially for her.

She stared blankly. "Then, I almost had a heart attack," LeGresley says. "My heart leapt in my throat. I almost teared up. I knew it was him. I got on a phone with a friend, and said, `Is this Marc, do you think? The chances are so slim, but it has to be!'"

The message was specific enough. It was like a letter to the girl he met while playing TSO, or The Sims Online, an interactive Internet game. "I've been thinking about you a lot," Marc wrote. "I was in (Las) Vegas and it just wasn't the same without you."

LeGresley just knew it was Marc, even though he didn't sign his name. She still had his phone number, though they hadn't talked for a year after their long-distance relationship broke up on poor terms.

She text-messaged, and emailed him. He had moved to Los Angeles. He responded. "That's the sweetest thing someone could ever do," LeGresley says of Marc's posting. "It far beats flowers, that somebody still cares after a year of not speaking. I didn't even know where he lived anymore."

Craigslist's Missed Connections is becoming a phenomenon in Toronto, providing a space for people to express their hope for love, or their feelings of lust, all for free. The virtual bulletin board attracts as many as 50 new ads every day.

Mostly, they're directed at complete strangers the writers found attractive, commonly on the subway, often on the street, perhaps earlier that day. Another common posting is, like the one for LeGresley, directed at a long lost friend or lover, in wistful tones, hoping for a relationship redux.

Craigslist is a hugely popular website, with local versions in dozens of cities around the world. Ten million people use it each month, generating more than 4 billion page views, to buy or sell goods, find a job, an apartment, or even love. In some cities, like New York, San Francisco and Toronto — where Craigslist debuted in 2003 — the personals section is becoming the trendiest clearinghouse for those seeking a mate.

"Now that we have this medium through the Internet to be able to contact each other, it's so much easier to look somebody up," says Toronto relationship and sexuality therapist Rebecca Rosenblat of Missed Connections.

The feelings expressed so commonly in Missed Connections have always been there: You wished you'd talked to that person who made your heart stir. The difference is now there is an easy and increasingly referenced second chance to do so.

"There's something very romantic about it," Rosenblat declares. "It's healthy, it's part of attraction, it's something tugging away at your heart, gut or groin, and it's coming from deep within. So there's nothing really wrong with it."

It's probably safe to assume the success rate is remote. Studies show that no matter what the environment, even a nightclub, the chances of someone responding to your advances are only one-in-10, according to Rosenblat. Since not everyone knows about Craigslist, the odds of a link-up may be no better than Jennifer Aniston reconnecting with Brad Pitt.

But judging by the number of postings in Toronto the public remains undeterred, steadfastly looking for love.

"This is a total long shot," a 30-year-old man wrote last Thursday, "but hopefully you read this section. To the beautiful girl wearing the red/white polka dress, red purse, red shoes on the subway this morning, I thought you looked incredibly beautiful and would like to chat sometime."

A woman wrote on the same day, to a waiter at Demetres: "I so wanted to give you my number last night but didn't have the nerve. I think your name was Adam. I was the strawberry blonde."

Another waiter, at Utopia on College St., was the object of numerous posts after a young woman thought he was "the most beautiful man I have ever seen." Others joined the conversation, and soon warned her that, "I know him and he's taken — basically married."

While some in the messages dream of second chances, others simply think they're dreaming. Matt Cohen, a 20-year-old DJ and audio engineering student from Elmvale, near Wasaga Beach, recently challenged other Missed Connections readers asking, "Has anyone posted here ACTUALLY found their missed connection? Just seems like it's always an EXTREME long shot."

He wonders why people don't just go ahead and approach the one they're interested in. "I've approached people on the sidewalk and met random people," he says in an interview. "But I'm a social butterfly."

Mario Cufino, 29, thinks Missed Connections' growing popularity is a statement about Toronto itself.

"If they weren't so shy, they wouldn't have to be doing all this posting," says the actor, who lives in Richmond Hill. Still, his confidence only goes so far. "I've been to other cities in the U.S.," he says, "and everybody will go up to you and talk to you. Everybody's open and exciting. Here, they're all coddled in their own groups. They're all shy."

Cufino's criticisms are valid, Rosenblat says. But, as Jerry Seinfeld has said about comedy, approaching someone is all about timing and delivery, and there are a myriad of reasons why either could be off. "That's why people have a hard time at bars," she says.

Human beings respond to missed connections in the most tortuous of ways. We return to that coffee shop at the same time. We take the identical subway car at the same time. We keep trying to retrace our steps, all with the hope of seeing that beautiful creature again. And this time, actually talking.

"With missed opportunities and missed connections, the mating dance is at its most virile, most exciting, because you're not entertaining the negatives," Rosenblat explains. "The basic instinct part of the brain is going wild. You're probably getting stoned on feel-good hormones.

"But the most romantic feeling is one that embraces possibilities, of uncharted waters. That's why it's exciting to pursue."

For Marc, the Los Angeles celebrity videographer who re-found Sarah LeGresley, there was trepidation because she was the one who ended their relationship a year ago. "I didn't want to be the one who came back to her. But I did want contact with her again," says Marc, who asked that his last name not be used for this story

He thought the risk was worth it, certain he could express himself without LeGresley finding the posting. But she did. "I was obviously very excited," Marc says on the phone from L.A., "but I was shocked." LeGresley is planning to eventually move to the U.S. to be with Marc.

If other cities are any indication, Missed Connections is sure to expand the more people know about it. There are some growing pains. One man was vilified for posting a cellphone picture of the woman he fancied. Someone else posted a message about a friend who actually went missing.

There are the priceless: To the "cute guy with the red goatee" at Dundas Station, one woman wrote, "I was going to smile and say, `Hi,' (but then) I remembered that I'd just had my eyebrows waxed. Sorry if I scared you with my flaming red skin."

And the painful: "We were together for a long time. I thought I was missing out by not "dating" other people ... But now after a seemingly endless string of insignificant dates — some good, some bad — I realize I still love you. I think about you everyday. Now I know there really is no one else out there but you. But I'm afraid it's too late."

Still, the hope continues.

Remember Matt Cohen, the skeptic? He couldn't help but put up his own posting to find someone from his past. "I went to West Bayfield Elementary," it begins, "and then moved away. I had a crush on Jessica for the longest time. I am just wondering what ever happened to her."

Consider, also, this posting from June: "I ran into the subway at Chester and stood at the door across from you. We locked (eyes) a couple of times. You were wearing a sundress over jeans. We both got off at Spadina and got on to the streetcar. Yeah, I'm a twit."

Finally, just last week, came a response: "Hello, was the dress black? I was on the streetcar a little while back and locked eyes with a good lookin' boy, following the exact route."

A long shot. But isn't that why there's hope in the first place?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

We still love to hate those mail-in rebates
Jun. 10, 2006. 01:00 AM
ELLEN ROSEMAN

Mail-in rebates. Gift cards with time limits. Ink cartridges for printers.

These are a few of my readers' least favourite things.

Let's start with mail-in rebates, which attract constant comments.

You buy a product advertised at a discounted price. You collect all the paperwork, send off your application and then wait for weeks. Sometimes, the promised rebate never arrives and you forget to follow up. And sometimes, you find out you didn't qualify for the rebate, or they said you didn't qualify, in the first place.

I've missed claiming two rebates — on a printer and a cellphone — in the past year. My family members had thrown out the packaging with the universal product codes, or UPCs, required for redemption.

In May 2005, Best Buy Canada announced it would phase out mail-in rebates within the next two years. (I wrote a few columns at the time.) But rebates are still prevalent, especially on consumer electronics items. And most have tight time limits.

Kate Sakamoto bought a computer for her son last September. The printer wasn't available, so she picked it up two weeks later.

To her horror, she found the manufacturer's rebate on the printer had to be claimed within seven days.

"There was no disclaimer on any of the ads," she said, adding that the store never mentioned a time limit.

Rebates, said Richard Eng, "draw in the buyers, but the sellers still benefit from the full purchase price. They can have their cake and eat it, too."

His advice: Complain to retailers that use the mail-ins. And when doing comparisons, ignore the price after the mail-in rebate.

"Understand, it's a potential saving, not a sure thing. Understand that the saving is contingent upon your following through with a troublesome process."

Here's advice from another reader, who has had little success claiming his rebates: "If I can, I'll avoid a purchase that includes one."

Plastic gift cards with magnetic strips are replacing old-fashioned paper gift certificates. But use the cards quickly, because they may have an expiry date.

Margaret Pitkeathly tried to make a purchase at a Canadian Tire store, using a $25 gift certificate she had mislaid and then found in her home.

"I was disgusted when the clerk cheerfully informed me that the card had expired," she says.

The two-year expiry date is stated on the packaging and on the back of the card, she was told in response to her email to Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd.

"Please note it is a common practice in the retail industry to have expiry dates on gift cards," a customer relations representative said.

"Some retailers have a shorter period (12 months) and some even charge a monthly fee of $2 in the event the card account remains open without any activity."

Don't you love this argument? We're just doing what everyone else does — and some are worse than we are.

A number of American states, however, have passed laws to eliminate expiry dates on gift cards and prohibit fees.

"I've now asked seven people, all of whom shop regularly at Canadian Tire, and not a single one was familiar with the policy," Pitkeathly said, adding she found nothing at the company's website.

"Luckily, my gift card was for $25 and not $250."

Printers are cheap, but ink cartridges are expensive. Some people feel they're held hostage by cartridge costs.

Lis Hood bought an all-in-one laser printer from Dell Inc. She didn't realize she had to buy her ink cartridges online and only from Dell.

"I can't go to a store and I can't use a refillable service," she complained.

Dell has no retail presence and sells products by phone and on the Internet. So, its cartridges aren't sold in stores.

When your ink runs low, you get a warning on your computer. You click a link to purchase an ink cartridge, which is delivered to your home the next day.

"The goal is to be direct and keep people out of the stores, searching for cartridges and compatible 19-digit SKUs," or stock-keeping unit numbers, said Wendy Gottsegen, a spokeswoman at Dell's head office in Texas.

A Dell marketing specialist called Hood to explain the ink fulfilment model and offer her a free cartridge.

Hood was still unhappy. She found it was no cheaper to buy cartridges online and vowed not to buy any more products from Dell.

Dell has to work harder to explain its business model, we told Gottsegen. And she agreed.

"We're getting to set to launch a whole slew of new printers, and I just made a note that we need to do better ink-fulfilment PR," she said.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

heat Codes: Saving Time Waiting For Customer Service (Air Date: May 30, 2006)

By Sean O'Shea and J.P. Miles
Global Defenders

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

It's an experience almost every consumer has to endure: calling customer service at a large or small company and getting the automated phone system run-around.

Some companies try to humanize their automated helpers, giving them names like Emily and Julie, making them sound like the girl next door.

But despite their perky voices, many of us can't stand being stuck in their automated queues.

"It's what I call voice mail jail, where you're constantly dialing numbers. The problem is, it's an abuse of technology," says Eamon Hoey, a Toronto-based telecommunications consultant.

In the United States, one frustrated technology developer started a website called gethuman.com. With the help of thousands of frustrated consumers, gethuman has compiled a list of cheat codes - ways to subvert automated systems, and get to a human, faster.

Soon, they'll have a list of Canadian cheat codes online.

And it's understandable why this kind of information will be popular. Some companies have gone too far trying to get consumers into a customer service self-serve aisle.

"There is no such thing anymore as a mediocre call centre or contact centre," said Henry Dortmans, a consultant with Angus Dortmans Associates, Inc.

"They're either really great or they're really terrible and it's because of technologies like this."

But through the Global Defenders own research, we've already discovered time-saving cheat codes for some frequently-called companies in Canada.

Take Bell Canada. When we followed instructions and waded through the automated maze, it took us a long time to get through to an agent.

But by pressing four zeros - one after each prompt - we cut through a lot faster.

Compared to spending 1:58 on hold listening to Emily's commands, our cheat call got through in just 29 seconds.

Using their voice system, we also got through faster than by standing in line by repeatedly telling the system to find us an agent. (Don't be shy: keep repeating the word!)

Over at Rogers, the fastest way to get around the voice prompts is to keep pressing zero repeatedly. Times vary, but it's always faster than waiting in line.

But pressing zero isn't always effective to defeat automated systems.

At Fido, the wireless provider, the zero button is useless on its own. Unless you hit the "pound" or "number" key first.

Then, you hit zero.

Cheating the Fido system really pays dividends.

Instead of spending 1:03 getting to an agent, we got through in as little as just eight seconds. Over and over again.

It was the same story at Aeroplan: where you can defeat the voice response system pressing zero five times (but make sure to wait for each prompt). It's a big time saver.

When we followed Aeroplan's voice commands, it took us 1:57 to reach an agent.

But it took as little as 14 seconds to reach an Aeroplan agent when we pressed those zeros.

It adds up to time saved - steps avoided - and a quicker way to a real person.

-------------

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

--------

AMERICAN EXPRESS PLATINUM CARD NUMBER

USING VOICE SYSTEM - 1:38

CHEAT BY HITTING ZEROS WITH EVERY PROMPT - :50

--------

AMERICAN EXPRESS CORPORATE CARD NUMBER

USING VOICE SYSTEM - 3:12

CHEAT BY HITTING ZEROS WITH EVERY PROMPT - :58

---------

AIR CANADA RESERVATIONS LINE

USING VOICE SYSTEM - 1:31

CHEAT BY HITTING FOUR ZEROS - :15

---------

AEROPLAN CUSTOMER SERVICE LINE

USING VOICE SYSTEM - 1:20

CHEAT BY HITTING FIVE ZEROS - :12

---------

BELL CANADA

USING VOICE SYSTEM - 1:58

CHEAT BY HITTING ZEROS OR REPEATEDLY SAYING "AGENT" - :29

(IT'S FASTER TO USE THE KEYPAD)

---------

FIDO

USING VOICE SYSTEM - 1:03

CHEAT BY HITTING POUND THEN ZERO - :08

----------

VIA RAIL CANADA

USING VOICE SYSTEMN - 1:03

CHEAT BY HITTING POUND THEN ZERO - :04 (OUR BEST TIME!)

-----------

ROGERS CUSTOMER SERVICE

USING VOICE SYSTEM - SKY'S THE LIMIT, VERY BUSY SYSTEM

CHEAT BY HITTING ZEROS OR ANY BUTTONS TO CONFUSE SYSTEM: WILL SAVE SOME TIME BY IT ALL DEPENDS ON HOW BUSY THE CALL CENTRE IS.

YOU CAN ALSO INSIST ON BEING TRANSFERRED TO AN AGENT. BE PERSISTENT. DON'T SPECIFY WHICH KIND OF AGENT. JUST KEEP REPEATING THE WORD "AGENT".

Sean's Footnote: The www.gethuman.com site will start to incorporate Canadian cheat codes soon. You can submit information to that site. If you have other cheat codes of interest, let us know as well. Send them to sos@globaltv.com

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Titanic locket fetches $85,000
Apr. 30, 2006. 11:35 AM

LONDON (AP) — A locket that went down with the Titanic and a survivor's handwritten account of the 1912 disaster fetched tens of thousands of dollars at auction Saturday.

American passenger Helen Churchill Candee's 36-page description of the ship's sinking, which fetched $85,000 in the sale, describes how she gave her locket to Edward Kent, a friend on board the ship, for safekeeping after the Titanic hit the iceberg that destroyed it.

The locket, which sold for $100,000, was found in the drowned Kent's jacket pocket when his body was recovered.

Candee survived the disaster in a lifeboat. It is not clear when she wrote her account, the auction house said.

The items, all purchased by collectors who asked to remain anonymous, were among about 300 Titanic-related lots auctioned by Henry Aldridge and Son house in western England, said Andrew Aldridge, head of Titanic and maritime memorabilia there.

Before boarding a lifeboat, Candee handed a silver flask and the gilt locket containing a picture of her mother to Kent, saying ``Take these for me, you know we women have no pockets," she wrote in her manuscript.

"But Kent drew back his hands; angered I commanded, 'Take them,'" she wrote. "His eyes appealed to mine. I (knew then) read them (what he meant). ... But he took my treasures (though silently) against his (prophetic) soul's prophecy and slipped out of the cabin (and disappeared). We never saw him again.''

Candee, a travel correspondent heading home to America to see her injured son, also described passengers wearing life-jackets over their evening gowns and bathrobes as they climbed a staircase to the ship's deck.

"The crowd looked strangely like dancers in a (costume) ball,'' she wrote. "The Dance of Death to be the next number.''

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

IRS seeks undeclared income in PayPal accounts
Apr. 11, 2006. 04:06 PM
MARY DALRYMPLE
ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service won approval from a federal court to ask PayPal to turn over information about people who might be evading taxes by hiding income in other countries, officials said Tuesday.

A federal court in San Jose, Calif., gave the IRS permission to ask PayPal — a company that enables online money transfers — for account information for American taxpayers who have bank accounts, credit cards or debit cards issued by financial institutions in more than 30 countries reputed to be tax havens.

PayPal spokeswoman Amanda Pires said the company just received the summons.

"We're still evaluating our options," she said. "The privacy of our customers' information is something we take really seriously.''

PayPal enables individuals and businesses around the globe to send and receive money online. In 2005, users moved $27.5 billion (figure U.S.) through the money transmitter. The company, owned by eBay, has 100 million account holders globally.

The request for information is an outgrowth of an IRS effort, begun several years ago, to trace money that American taxpayers hold offshore to avoid paying taxes. The IRS said many of those taxpayers access their money through credit and debit cards. The tax collectors have already obtained information from some credit card companies, merchants and payment processors.

"PayPal is another one of the mechanisms by which money stashed overseas might be spent," Eileen OConnor, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department Tax Division, told reporters.

In some cases, the IRS obtained credit card numbers but could not identify the cardholder. The IRS said PayPal might be able to lead the tax agency to those individuals.

The IRS also hopes PayPal can help them identify currently unknown taxpayers' and their payment cards , as well as offshore bank accounts, that might be evidence of tax evasion.

The request covers transactions occurring from 1999 through 2004.

An 2003 amnesty program netted $170 million in taxes and penalties from income hidden offshore. More than 1,300 taxpayers avoided criminal prosecution by coming forward and revealing the person or company that marketed the offshore arrangement.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Ten digit dialing comes to 8 million Canadians
Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Ten digit dialing CanadaEffective June 17th, over 8.5 million consumers in Quebec and Ontario will have to adopt 10-digit dialing – the area code followed by the phone number – at all times.

The new 10 digit dialing requirement will affect consumers in Quebec who live in a region served by area codes 450, 514 and 819 and consumers in Ontario in the 519 and 613 area codes.

The new dialing method will also apply to local calls from the 418 region (Eastern Quebec) to the 819 region (Northern, Central and Western Quebec) and to local calls from the 705 region (North-Eastern Ontario) to the 519 (SW Ontario), 613 (Eastern Ontario) and 819 regions.

Area Codes with new 10 Digit Dialing
Area Codes with new 10 Digit Dialing


The Telecommunications Alliance says that as of this June 17, people who do not dial the 10 digits will hear a recorded message prompting them to dial the area code followed by the seven-digit local number on all subsequent calls. Their call will then proceed, but this message could disrupt certain communications such as data transmission (faxes, Internet, etc.).

Special numbers such as 911 will not change in any way and will still involve dialing only three digits.

The alliance says local 10-digit dialing is necessary due to the high demand for new telephone numbers and to provide a uniform local dialing method between adjacent regions. Ten-digit dialing has already been introduced in other Canadian regions and will soon become the norm across North America.

To ensure that consumers don't have problems after June 17th, the alliance recommends adding the area code to all programmed numbers in your telecommunications equipment, including:

* Speed-dial lists
* Telephone options and functions (such as call forwarding, call blocking, call display, etc.)
* Fax machines
* Modems and Internet dial-up systems
* Equipment for the hearing impaired
* Cellular phones and other wireless devices
* Alarm and security systems


For more information about the changes you can visit a special website set up to answer questions about the changeover at http://www.dial10.ca/

Friday, February 17, 2006

Bell gets cash to take Net to remote areas
Disabled to get better service
Small savings for all customers

TYLER HAMILTON
TECHNOLOGY REPORTER

The federal telephone watchdog is letting Bell Canada spend most of the $480 million it has paid into a government-created reserve fund to bring high-speed Internet access to communities in Ontario and Quebec that currently lack service.

At least $24 million of that amount must also go toward improving access to telecommunications services for the disabled, and another $81.5 million annually that would have been paid in future years will now translate into small rate reductions — averaging about $1 in savings a month — for all customers beginning June 1.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, as part of its landmark price-cap decision in 2002, made it mandatory for Bell and other regulated phone companies to pay into the so-called deferral account, which was intended to fund future initiatives that would benefit both consumers and the industry.

Four years later, the account has ballooned to $652.7 million, with Bell's contribution representing the lion's share. The regulator ruled yesterday that the funds would be best distributed in a way that expands broadband access to all Canadians — both those in communities with no service and to those individuals lacking access because of a disability.

The decision, said CRTC chairman Charles Dalfen, "is in the broadest interest of all consumers."

Lis Angus, executive vice-president at telecom consultancy Angus TeleManagement, said the ruling meshes with the government's social and economic goals.

"I think this is a good decision," said Angus. "It allows high-school kids to be educated where they live. It enables health-care advice to be supported remotely. People can run jobs from their communities without having to leave."

But not everyone from the 11-commissioner panel agreed. Commissioner Barbara Cram argued that all the money should be sent back to consumers in the form of a rebate, equating to roughly $80 for each Bell customer.

Bell was pleased with the ruling, but offered little detail on the company's broadband expansion plans.

"It's hard to comment on what our proposals will look like," said Mirko Bibic, chief of regulatory affairs at Bell. "But in terms of the concept, we feel the CRTC made the right choice."

Bibic did estimate customers would see a reduction of up to 75 cents relating to their monthly local phone service and another 30 cents on optional services, which include features such as call answer and call display.

All companies have until June 30 to propose to the regulator how they plan to use the funds.

But the ruling comes with some restrictions. At least 5 per cent of the funds available to each company must be spent on programs to improve telecom access for the disabled. Money must also be devoted to bringing broadband into communities where it doesn't or isn't likely to exist and are expensive to reach.

The CRTC also said funds must be used to develop both high-speed access services and "backbone" infrastructure, with the latter being available to all competitors "at a minimal rate." The "least-cost technology" should also be used, the regulator said.

Angus said digital subscriber line (DSL) technology could be used in some areas, but added there's an opportunity to use wireless technologies — based on broadband standards such as Wi-Max — as a lower-cost way of reaching remote areas.

Bell, for example, is a partner with Rogers Communications Inc. in the Inukshuk joint venture, which could become a way for both companies to expand their reach into areas where fibre-optic infrastructure and DSL are too costly to deploy.

"I don't think it's limited to DSL," said Bibic. "We will be permitted to propose any technology that delivers broadband to these communities."

The CRTC decided not to release any of the money to competitive service providers, such as Rogers and recently acquired Call-Net, arguing that those companies have already benefited from the deferral account in previous years.

Rogers declined comment.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A new high for cottage country
Jan. 30, 2006. 07:54 AM
TYLER HAMILTON

"Everyone ... is envious when they learn that I have a high-speed satellite trial"

—Former Star Web editor

It may be the end of January but the unseasonably warm weather has probably got you thinking prematurely about cottage season.

And if, as a city dweller, you're hooked on broadband Internet for work and play, then satisfying the northern need for speed can be a challenge, given the lack of high-speed cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) infrastructure in cottage country.

Face it: Dial-up is no longer acceptable.

This column has been written before about a new broadband satellite service introduced last year, via Telesat Canada's Anik F2 satellite. Now it's time to look at how well the service actually works and whether it's as affordable as first promised.

Telesat kindly offered to let former Toronto Star Web editor Dean Reeds try out the service at his cottage up in Kinmount, a Kawartha Lakes community about two hours northeast of Toronto. Reeds is developing a second property up there, so he uses his cottage these days as both his main residence and home office.

Getting the service set up was probably the biggest hassle.

Reeds, who already subscribed to Bell ExpressVu satellite TV service, was a little disappointed he couldn't put the new satellite dish on the same mounting pole. That's because the TV and Internet services use separate satellites, which are positioned in their own orbital slots.

When they finally did find an appropriate place to mount the Internet dish, trees surrounding the area — this is cottage country, after all — blocked the line of sight. Reeds had to get permission to install the dish on his neighbour's property, but then the dish was too far from the cottage. To compensate, the installer used a higher quality cable to carry the signal back.

"The installer was exceptional in every regard — friendly, knowledgeable, professional, tidy, and very enthusiastic to get the signal in a tough place," says Reeds. "My gut feeling is that heavily treed lots will be a constant difficulty for installers."

Reeds got the basic service, which is pitched by reseller Barrett Xplore Inc. (http://www.xplornet.com) as "perfect for email and light surfing." It offers download speeds of up to 512 kilobits per second, or roughly 10 times faster than a dial-up modem. This is similar to "lite" cable and DSL packages.

Barrett calls this basic service the "KaZam" option, which costs $54.99 a month with a two-year contract. One step higher is "KaZoom," offering 1 megabit per second downloading for $89.99 a month. The "KaBang" and "KaBoom" options, priced at $134.99 and $179.99, respectively, are more ideal for power users with speeds ranging from 1.5 to 2 mbps.

Reeds has been happy with the basic KaZam option. "It destroys dial-up," he says. "The download speeds are consistently above 400 kbps, even in marginal weather, and even when satellite TV service is spotty." His previous dial-up service frequently lost its connection because of older phone lines in the area. The only outage he experienced with the satellite was during an ice storm, a much better record than his Bell ExpressVu service, he says.

Since installing the service, he's been able to edit his website in real time, use instant messaging, download the odd song, and make phone calls through the Internet using Skype. "When I use Skype the voice of the person I'm calling is very clear, but on the other end, they report that the quality of my voice isn't great, so I only use Skype for shorter conversations."

Uploading large documents or massive files is a different story. "Downloading is fine, but if I try to upload a whole bunch of images to my website, it's slow."

Even so, Reeds figures he saves $10 a month using Skype for long-distance calls and another $10 to $15 a month by sending fewer long-distance faxes, because images and large documents can now be sent as email attachments.

And as with all high-speed services, Reeds can be online 24 hours a day without fear of tying up the phone. This means he can have Internet weather reports on his computer screen at all times, is notified if his "buddies" log into their computers, and is alerted when new email arrives, allowing him to be more responsive to friends, family and business colleagues.

On top of that, he has networked two computers in his cottage — a Mac and a PC — through a home Wi-Fi wireless system. The router lets him take a laptop down to the dock where he can surf sites and enjoy his morning coffee. At some point he hopes to test out a cordless phone system that will let him use Skype almost anywhere on his property.

There are other benefits. As Reeds explains, "I can quickly use the Internet to check questionable Scrabble words, or to settle a dispute via Wikipedia, or look up various animal tracks that appear around the cottage after snowfall, or bird varieties after seeing a newcomer to the bird feeder."

He freely admits these are things that could be done with dial-up, but the hassle of connecting meant he rarely did.

Fact is, says Reeds, "everyone who lives up here full time is envious when they learn that I have a high-speed satellite trial," to the point where it has become a reference point for some real estate agents in the area.

"My next-door neighbours have their place for sale and I received a call from a potential buyer's agent inquiring about the satellite. They would only consider making an offer on the cottage if high-speed satellite was available to them."

When the trail ended, Reeds was decisive: he wanted to keep the system; he was willing to pay the $500 cost of the equipment.

Compared to cable and DSL services in the city, the service is still quite pricey. On top of the $500 equipment charge, customers typically pay a $99 installation fee and one-time $75 system access fee. But given the lack of alternatives, and the pent-up demand for broadband in the bush, many cottage owners — like Reeds — probably wouldn't blink. "In short the service is reliable and performs well," he concluded.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Air Canada loses check-in time fight
But airline, transportation agency urge travellers to still adhere to recommended check-in times
Feb. 3, 2006. 04:17 PM
KEVIN MCGRAN
TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

Air Canada is urging passengers to arrive for their flights as early as possible despite losing a Canadian Transportation Agency ruling this week that sided with two passengers who weren’t allowed to board their plane after arriving about 45 minutes before their departure time.

The agency this week ruled in favour of Craig McIntyre of Montreal and ordered Air Canada to pay $1,482.92. That’s the value of the tickets that McIntyre had to purchase from WestJet to return his sons to Edmonton because Air Canada refused to let them board because they hadn’t checked in an hour before their flight.

“It’s still important that people leave lots of time to get to the airport,” Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said today. “Traffic can be bad. Sometimes it’s hard to park. The airport can get congested if it’s busy. If you’re going overseas, you have Customs. It’s important people leave a lot of time so you’re not rushing.

“We can’t hold up planes, that would inconvenience all the other passengers.”

While Air Canada recommends that passengers arrive one hour before departure for in-Canada flights, the agency ruled that the only hard-and-fast rule is that passengers must be through security and in the departure lounge 25 minutes before their departure, something the agency ruled the McIntyres could have done.

The agency issued a statement today urging travellers to comply with check-in time “recommendations” after a newspaper report “left the impression that travellers do not have to respect air carriers’ check-in times. This is not the case,” the agency said.

“It is in the best interest of travellers to always verify with their carrier how long in advance of the flight time they must check in. Therefore, travellers should arrive at the airport with plenty of time to check in, clear security and reach the departure gate.”

McIntyre’s sons, Eric and Scott, were to travel on Air Canada’s Flight No. AC181 from Montreal to Edmonton on May 17, 2004. McIntyre said he dropped his sons at the airport at about 8:10 a.m. for the 8:55 a.m. flight.

McIntyre helped them inside the airport, leaving his vehicle unattended, then went back to park the car, producing as evidence his parking receipt marked for 8:24 a.m.

The McIntyres say Air Canada would not check the two boys in for the flight because they were too late in arriving at the check-in counter.

In a written statement, Scott and Eric state that the agent advised them that Air Canada did not check in passengers who arrived 30 minutes before a flight. The agent refused to reconsider her position when McIntyre’s sons pointed out that they still had 45 minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart.

Air Canada indicates that the recommended check-in time for flights within Canada is 60 minutes in advance of a flight and that failing to meet this requirement will result in the cancellation of a passenger’s reservation.

McIntyre argued that the tickets did not contain time limits for check-in and that when he showed the tickets to the Air Canada agents at the check-in counter, they agreed.

But McIntyre’s sons weren’t allowed to check in and had to buy new tickets from WestJet. “Air Canada did not present any concrete evidence in contradiction of Mr. McIntyre’s position,” the agency wrote in its decision.

“The agency is of the opinion that had Scott and Eric been allowed the opportunity to reach the boarding gate in sufficient time for the 25-minute cut-off, they may have been able to do so.”

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Economists Pan Harper Tax Plans
January 18, 2006



Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has repeatedly claimed that his tax cut plans will help the poor.

THE FACTS

Today, 66 economists released a letter criticizing the Conservative tax agenda, especially the elimination of the capital gains tax for individuals. Below are excerpts:

Jim Stanford, economist with the Canadian Auto Workers:

“The Conservative Party’s proposal to eliminate income taxes of reinvested capital gains is especially damaging, because it would deliver very large tax savings to a tiny group of high-income Canadians. Moreover, defining, monitoring and policing the six-month reinvestment requirement would create an administrative nightmare for the federal government.”

John Loxley, Professor of Economics at the University of Manitoba:

“The Conservatives have underestimated the true cost of this measure by a significant order of magnitude. This raises significant questions about the reliability of their overall fiscal plan. The uncounted costs associated with this measure alone would reduce estimated federal surpluses by several billions of dollars over the term of the next government.”

Andrew Jackson, Economist and National Director of Social and Economic Policy for the Canadian Labour Congress:

“There is no other tax measure whose benefits are more closely concentrated at the top of the income spectrum. Over 40 percent of taxable capital gains income is declared by the tiny fraction of Canadians who earn more than $250,000 per year. They are the ones who will reap the benefits of this policy, which would greatly exacerbate inequality in Canada
Are Harper’s Reform Roots Showing?
January 18, 2006



Yesterday, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper told reporters that: “The reality is that we will have for some time to come a Liberal senate, a Liberal civil service, at least senior levels have been appointed by the Liberals, and courts that have been appointed by the Liberals. So these are obviously checks on the power of a Conservative government.” (CPAC, January 17, 2006)

Sun Media columnist Greg Weston today pointed out that Stephen Harper’s comments yesterday are a reminder of Reformers, who ”earnestly believed that the nation’s problems could be traced to a single horrible truth – that every corner of the federal government and the judiciary was infested with Liberal vermin imposing their agenda on the nation.”

Weston then remembers “former Canadian Alliance deep-thinker Randy White” musing about the “Liberal” judiciary.

THE FACTS

Randy White is now retired, but conspiracy theories about Canada’s judiciary are alive and well within the Conservative Party.

Conservative Justice Critic Vic Toews told the National Pro-Life Conference on September 8, 2004, that new abortion legislation is being held back by activist judges using the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to implement their own social policy.

“The extent to which the courts have, on their own accord, stretched the cloth of their own policy initiative suggests [an] apparent policy agenda of their own,” Mr. Toews told the audience at the Winnipeg, Manitoba conference, in a speech entitled “Abuse of the Charter by the Supreme Court.”

In a 2003 interview with Concerned Women Today, a “broadcast ministry” run by Concerned Women for America (CWA), Toews discussed the judiciary’s same-sex marriage “agenda”:

“We have seen these radical liberal judges who have their own social agenda coming to the bench and forgetting that their responsibility is to interpret the law and not to make law. And so we are very, very concerned about that.”

And, on his 2003 Focus on the Family CD, Conservative candidate Darrel Reid claims hate-crime legislation has also been imposed on Canada by the judiciary:

"Can you imagine what our society has been built on, the Judeo-Christian ethic, some judge has the nerve to declare it hate literature – it's beyond our belief. And sometimes I have to shake my head that what my parents understood, what the Bible teaches me has become so obnoxious to some elites and to unelected judges in our country – I just can't believe where we're headed, unless God intervenes."

As Mr. Weston asks: “what new laws and programs, exactly, Mr. Harper, would a Conservative government implement were it not for all those bleeding-heart Liberal judges and bureaucrats you claim will be ‘limiting (your) ability to operate?’”
Chief Electoral Officer asked to Investigate Conservative Campaign
January 18, 2006



Mr. Harper has said that accountability is his number one issue during this election campaign.

THE FACTS


The Conservative Party may be in contravention of the Canada Elections Act and third-party financing laws over the “Blogging Tories” website.

On January 18, 2006, two former Conservatives, Eugene Parks and Carole Jamieson, asked the Chief Electoral Officer to investigate a potential breech of Canada’s election laws by the Conservative Party of Canada.

They say that they have passed on evidence to the Chief Electoral Officer that the “Blogging Tories” website is an initiative of the Conservative party, rather than of individual Canadians.

There are strict spending limits for political parties during election campaigns. And there are also limits on how much other groups (third parties) can spend during elections. Under the third-party financing legislation, it is illegal for a third-party to evade election spending limits by splitting itself into two or more groups.

Stephen Harper opposes third party spending limits. He has challenged this legislation at the Supreme Court, and has said that if elected, he will repeal the legislation that limits how much third parties – such as lobby groups – can spend during elections.

Perhaps Mr. Harper should practice what he preaches.
Jack Layton: "Politics Before People" Again After the Election
January 18, 2006



Last night, on CBC’s “Your Turn,” Matt Connor from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, asked NDP leader Jack Layton what it would take for the NDP to support a minority government.

Mr. Layton said:

“I know you want to know what I would do with one result or another, but I'm going to trust Canadians to make a decision in the election, and I'm going to go to work with our team of New Democrats on behalf of working people.”

THE FACTS

Mr. Layton forced this election upon the Canadian people. He worked in concert with Stephen Harper to end the important work of the Liberal government, and now he is saying he doesn’t find Stephen Harper’s policies ‘scary.’

NDP voters will find the idea of overriding the Charter of Rights scary, they will probably find the idea of Canadians fighting in Iraq scary, and they will find the notion of a ballistic missile defence shield scary.

Progressive voters have heard from Jack Layton – power is more important than principles in today’s NDP
Layton on Strategic Voting: I'm For It When It's Good for Me...
January 18, 2006



Last night on CBC’s “Your Turn,” NDP leader Jack Layton was asked by Paul Wild of Milton, Ontario, about strategic voting.

THE FACTS

Jack Layton has travelled the country asking voters in ridings where the NDP has a remote chance to vote strategically. Now, when he’s asked the question directly, he evades it, saying there’s no difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives.

But NDP voters know the difference. In the 2004 election campaign, a total of 15 Conservative candidates in Ontario were elected as a result of vote splitting. In fourteen of these ridings, the third-place NDP candidate drew away enough votes from Liberal candidates to ensure Conservatives were elected.

More importantly, Mr. Layton was forced to admit he doesn’t really try to compete in all 308 ridings across the country, and that he’s asking for these votes only to build a sense of momentum for the NDP – not to make a difference for Canadians where they live.

Jack Layton is consistent in one thing: he ALWAYS puts politics before people.
Harper’s Platform Costing Deceptive
January 13, 2006


Ottawa – Stephen Harper would drive the country into deficit if he honours the $75 billion in promises contained in the Conservative Party platform released today.

“It’s clear at this point that Mr. Harper has been, frankly, dishonest during this campaign about what promises he can and can’t keep,” said Finance Minister Ralph Goodale.

“Mr. Harper needs to come clean and tell the Canadian people how he plans to pay for this get-elected spending spree. His only choice is to run a deficit, make deep cuts into social programs, and raise taxes.”

Mr. Harper has hidden $26 billion in cuts in his campaign platform, which may explain why he has not released costing tables with it.

The Conservative platform rejects the five-year spending forecast of the Liberal government, which was generated by 19 independent private-sector economists.

Their projection for government spending is a total of $920.3 between 2006-07 and 2010-11. In contrast, Mr. Harper’s hidden costs can be found in a five-year cumulative total of $894.4 billion.

The question Canadians have to ask Mr. Harper is where he will find this undisclosed $26 billion, over and above his alleged $23-billion surplus.

Revenue Minister John McCallum, former Chief Economist and Vice President of the Royal Bank, said that Harper’s platform vague and misleading costing calls into question his economic credibility and his political intentions.

“Stephen Harper said in his platform speech that he wants Canadians to trust him with their money. But why would Canadians trust Mr. Harper with their check books when he won’t provide a transparent accounting?”

Under these circumstances, it is clear Harper will be forced to run a deficit and cut government programs – and will force the government to renege on more than a dozen commitments. Harper confirmed that he would raise taxes on middle- and low-income Canadians, withdraw from the Kyoto accord and withdraw from the Kelowna agreement with First Nations and First Ministers.

On top of this Harper’s most expensive campaign promise – to address the “fiscal imbalance” – remains uncosted, and he has said an election campaign is no time to negotiate it.

Skepticism remains about the workability of individual Conservative promises, such as the affordable housing tax credit – which Harper described yesterday as “experimental” – and a foreign-credentialed professionals agency, as well as the federal public prosecutors’ office.

”The platform confirms that Mr. Harper’s government is going follow in step with other right-of-centre governments – racking up huge deficits at the same time as they’re slashing programs,” said McCallum. “It’s in service of a core conservative vision of a much smaller, weaker government.”

In contrast, the Liberal platform builds on 8 consecutive balanced budgets of the Liberal administration and ensures continued balanced budgets, the first time since Confederation this has been achieved.

“The Liberal platform reflects the responsible fiscal management that has produced a string of 8 balanced budgets in a row and demonstrates the same overall discipline that we have shown as a government for the past 12 years,” said Revenue Minister John McCallum.

Monday, January 09, 2006

AND YET THEY CAN'T LOOK UP AN ORDER THEY SEND TO A FLORIST WITH THIS FANCY PIECE OF HIGH TECH.

Order-Management Software Brings Automation To Online Florist

With new order-management software, UrbanFlorist.com has eliminated manual processes that took at least 11 people to complete.

By Elena Malykhina
InformationWeek

Feb 23, 2005 12:00 PM

Canadian retailer UrbanFlorist.com used to rely on a manual system to process its orders, but deploying CommercialWare Inc.'s OrderMotion order-management software helped the online florist get a 15% jump in revenue per employee and cut its fulfillment errors in half during the Valentine's Day holiday.

The online florist used to run a small shop in the Vancouver area, but the company saw 1,000% annual revenue growth over the past three years after taking its business online. Still, the florist was looking to eliminate its manual process of taking and fulfilling orders for flowers, which required that every order pass through the hands of at least 11 people. "We used to have a very heavy paper trail and our staff handled almost 10,000 printed pages a day," says Alif Somani, CEO of UrbanFlorist.

To automate its order-taking process, UrbanFlorist deployed OrderMotion in early December and since then has cut its error rate from 6% to 3%, Somani says. "We invested in a technology that supports our customer-service department so that they can do their job more effectively," he says. This means sales representatives can now spend more time taking orders and less time managing them, which has resulted in a 15% increase in sales per representative.

The software centralizes all the company's in-house back-end operations, including order capture, fulfillment, inventory management, payment processing, database management, and reports generation, and integrates all orders coming in via mail, phone, fax, and the Internet into one platform. Additionally, OrderMotion can be integrated with FTD's Mercury Network, which supports order messaging among more than 70,000 member florists worldwide.

This Valentine's Day, UrbanFlorist received as many orders in five days as it did during the entire Christmas season. Yet the florist was able to deliver a better overall customer experience because it had a good handle on its order processing and management, Somani says.

"With OrderMotion we have been able to eliminate our paper trail and support our customers on the spot. We've also been able to automate all our order information, customer information, [customer-relationship management], and support mechanisms," Somani says. "After all, our concern is not putting out orders but taking care of customers' needs, and having the right technology in place is essential to do that."