Sunday, October 7, 2018

RECOMMENDED: Masterchef Australia

Don't be fooled by cheap imitations. By that, I am explicitly calling out Masterchef USA and Masterchef Canada, which is based pretty much on the same premise as Masterchef USA.

After ten seasons, Masterchef Australia is a comprehensive cooking contest with a real focus on the contestants. It feels like a throwback to earlier episodes of Top Chef moreso than Masterchef. They did expand at one time to Junior, All Stars and Professionals but scaled back to focus on the quality for one show and it shows.

We came across the Australian version thanks to Gusto, a lifestyle channel in Canada that was introduced as a competitor to the ubiquitous Food Network. The first season we saw was six but after that we were completely hooked. Why?

1. As noted above, it's comprehensive. It's a three month competition with challenges every day. But the kicker? Each day is broadcast. So when they say "get ready for tomorrow"", the next show IS tomorrow. When it airs on TenPlay in Australia, it is shown every night. None of this "fit into a typical 24 episode season" crap. This was shocking to get into but wow, what a difference it makes.

2. The judges are NICE. They are fair but hard but they aren't about tearing down the contestants but building them up. Their pedigree is also closer to Top Chef's approach, where you have a high quality chef who isn't an abrasive TV showboat and a critic. Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris are the chefs. Matt Preston is the critic. I'm sure Ramsay isn't the total ass he portrays but that he lets himself get shown that way is depressing. Even super critical chefs like Marco-Pierre White ( who no longer appears on the show) come off as inspiring and mentoring to the contestants.

3. The contestants get along. Maybe it's a North American thing - people just want to screw everyone else. But in the Australian, and even in the others, the contestants seem to genuinely want everyone else to do well. They live in a house and compete but are friends and support each other. Sometimes, it can even get downright annoying, all the hugs and pats on the back, but to me, it's proof that not every person on TV is simply showboating but actually want to learn and respect each other.

4. They actually teach the contestants. If you only watched North American versions, you might be wondering "where are they learning anything?" (yes they do on other shows - but it's never allude to) In MCA, they broadcast the "Masterclass" where the judges show them techniques and ideas. You can definitely see why other Masterchef incarnations are starting to borrow this concept.

5. The quality of the dishes are astounding. What do I mean? Even the auditions show a quality of food presentation that would make a professional chef blush. You may get some nice comfort food dishes but the quality bar is so high you might be thinking "these people cannot be home cooks". It makes me wonder what they are doing in Australia to encourage this level of wow.

6. The format is awesome. Mystery box is standard for most shows and the format of each week is generally the same. Maybe because it's broadcast every day or just the production method - it feels like a real challenge. Mystery Box, Invention Test/Team Challenge, Elimination, Winner for Immunity (more on that) and then Pressure Test. Complete and Repeat.

7. The guest chefs or challenges are amazing. Bring your best dish and challenge the chefs to make it. Learn your trade by working in a professional kitchen directed by the professional chef. Heston Blumenthal Curtis Stone are among the more internationally recognizable chefs but the calibre of the chefs presented make you want to visit and taste some of these great dishes.

8. But it's fair. You need to make a chef's dish, you get the recipe to work from. At least you can understand how they learn these processes. You're not given unreasonable times.

9. The immunity process makes sense. You win a challenge and then you have to prove your mettle by competing against a professional chef. Blind taste test (sure, when watching you may not understand how the judges don't know which is which).

10. Scoring is clear and understandable. Judges score a dish out of ten. The finale is made up of three challenges showcasing different aspects of their journey.

I could go on but you need to go find whichever network is showing Masterchef Australia or watch it on YouTube and see how a good cooking show is really done.

If you haven't watched MasterChef Australia, you could be forgiven to think all of these cooking contest shows are more like the Bachelor or Survivor than actual cooking.

Do yourself a favour and watch MCS - wherever you can.


Monday, September 24, 2018

RECOMMENDED - Google Inbox Replacement - light a Spark right away!

With the announcement that Google would be shuttering Inbox, there's been a lot of articles about what to use as its replacement. I've pretty much been living in web mail for the past few years - but on my iPhone and iPad, it's been a bit of a toss-up. Mail on my MacBook Pro hasn't worked properly for months now (and solutions never worked properly) so I figured I would use this as an opportunity to find a better solution overall.

Spark is an email client for iPhone, iPad and Mac OS from Readdle. I started with it on my iPhone, evaluating a few other alternatives but what sealed the deal for me was its clients for the Mac and iPad.

Spark has a "Smart Inbox" which combines multiple accounts into a single inbox, making it easier to stay on top of all your mail. Since the feature was offered, I've been using Gmail with its support for multiple email addresses but some mail clients don't support it easily. Spark handled it without a problem.



Mails can be pinned as well as snoozed ( a feature I used often in Inbox) and all of your existing Gmail filters (rules) are still left intact. It felt like an awesome mail client but then I discovered its other great features.

When sending an email, there's an option to remind you if you need to follow up on it later. There's also an option to "Send Later" which is great for scheduled emails.

An email can be "exported" to other services including Reminders and Trello. When a message is exported to Trello, it can be added to any of your boards.



I don't use many of the services listed but with support for Evernote and OneNote, Spark should cover many favourites. I hope they add Pocket soon.

Emails can also be generated as a PDF and stored to popular cloud services including Dropbox and Apple Files. Files from these services can also be attached easily.

One of the features I've enjoyed recently in email clients are automatic replies. Spark's Smart Replies let you add your own and easily insert them when needed as well as Signatures.

When moving to a new client, it's often frustrating to learn new keyboard shortcuts. Spark has that covered with separate keyboard maps depending on which Account you are using. From the list, an Active set can be chosen. While I don't use gmail's keyboard shortcuts, it's certainly popular for some and it's nice that you won't lose them.

So it's a mail client...and it's free. Great deal but where Spark adds surprising functionality is with its Teams functionality. Team functionality does require a subscription but makes collaboration part of your email experience. Shared draft emails is such a cool feature, especially when responding to proposals or important marketing messages.

I get frustrated when I receive an email from a company where the actual response is in an attachment, obviously crafted by a team of people. I don't care who wrote it - just put it in the email. With Spark Teams, there's really no excuse for it.

Emails can also be linked to in external documents. Click the link and Spark opens the email directly. This works across devices as well.

Speaking of devices, I've never been a big fan of Apple's Mail support on the Apple Watch. Spark's implementation is super clean, showing counts of types of emails at a glance.

While Teams is a subscription based tool, it does require that everyone buy into Spark as a solution. This can be tricky, unless you can enforce it top-down.  ReAddle offers a number of other products, that individuals may find useful as well - a PDF editor, improved calendar and Scanner.

So with any company offering a free product, my concern immediately jumps to how they make money. Why is that important? Google offers free email - imagine what would happen if they decided to shutter Gmail. That could never happen, right? Well, they just shuttered Inbox. In fact, Google could be cited for the number of its own products or concepts that it has shut down over the years.

ReAddle doesn't have a great record either but rather than hide it, they advertise it. It's an interesting approach but it also shows that they do recognize what has gone well and what hasn't. The fact that they've been around since the iPhone launch in 2007 DOES say a lot about the company.

If you are looking for a replacement for Inbox or even just looking for a better email client, take a look at Spark - I think you'll love it. If you do use it, what features do you like?





Sunday, June 3, 2018

RECOMMENDED: iDevices --- the Smart Home Realized

There are lots of devices available for a Smart Home. The Nest thermostat was one of the first that truly ushered in the current batch of tools. Sure, before that, you could use X-10 to automate as much of the house as possible and there were always custom solutions but the current idea of the automated home made it feel so much closer to reality than ever before.

I have a Nest thermostat as well as a Nest Protect. When Nest was purchased by Google, I was excited about the possibilities but then discouraged by the founder leaving. But still there was a lot of promise in other areas.

I purchased an outlet switch at the Apple Store for an iDevices switch. It worked as a HomeKit device. We used it for patio lights and they worked amazing.

They offer an Foundation Kit which includes two plugs and an outside adapter. ALMOST a perfect fit. I did have some troubles with the outside adapter communicating with our at home network. Company sent a new one after a number of troubleshooting episodes. End result? Outside adapter for the win! Christmas lights are no longer an issue.

WAIT - surely, we could have been using one of those dusk-to-dawn dimmers for outside lights and in fact, we have. They work great - but when they get buried in the snow and you want to change them, the trouble isn't really worth it. Cue the stories of how spoiled the current generation is. It's not enough to have to turn on lights, you have to turn them on from inside. Don't want to put up lights? Buy one of those outside laser light shows. But seriously, it's not just a geek thing - if you can do it and it makes your life better, why wouldn't you?

So when iDevices introduced their new wall switches, I knew I had to try them out. At $99, they aren't cheap. I was able to purchase several during various sale periods, reducing the price to about $75 but dealing with duties, it brings it back up. The competition is getting fierce as well. Non-HomeKit devices can be fifty dollars cheaper and even the Eve and Koogeek switches are cheaper.

I don't know if there are problems with mixing and matching switch devices but I do know consistency in a home is important. While we may use other devices for different parts, I would like the overall home to look the same. The other thing I really like about the iDevices switches is the nightlight feature. They have a small strip in the middle of the switch that can change colour as you choose to fit in with the wall colours or other decor. They are also close to flush against the wall.

iDevices aren't strictly HomeKit either. While they have their own app, they are also Google and Alexa compatible. Of course, it now sounds like we have a full house ("Siri, turn on downstairs", "Alexa turn on the backyard") - but unless Apple figures out how to offer an affordable HomePod in Canada, Alexa is the best go to (disclosure - I haven't tried a Google device yet). Cross system compatibility is really nice while the entire home automation market tries to establish clear winners.

So there are some gotchas with the switches:

1) they don't work well with certain mesh devices (I have an Orbi). A firmware update caused my lights to turn on and off sporadically so I reset it back to the older version - problem solved. Before buying, check the compatibility list.

2) the dimmer and single switch aren't compatible. When you have a three way switch (two switches that control the same light), you have to have the same type of switch for both switches.

What makes this troubling is that they recently introduced a new "child" device called the Instant switch which links to existing plugs. That switch doesn't have the nightlight feature - so you can't really use it with the same look as the others. They should offer an option on this that doesn't have the nightlight to address the complaint as well as a nightlight option.

The iDevice family is pretty close to all encompassing: wall outlets, wall switches, wall plugs (indoor and outdoor) and thermostats (at one point, they offered a Shower and Grill piece but they weren't really HomeKit devices). My wish list includes USB switches or perhaps an extension strip. By focusing on the key home areas, rather than trying to deal with the whole health aspect, I feel very comfortable in using iDevices as a base for my home automation framework.

I hope their prices do come down a bit so I can finish off the rest of the house but I can still wait for the sales or better combination packs.

iDevices - definitely recommended.

Friday, December 22, 2017

RECOMMENDED: Heat Trak mats - snow shovelling NOT required

After going through so many winters and paying for snow removal, I had had enough. I had slipped on the patio steps more than once - even once laying right on my back.

I searched Amazon for some heated mats and initially only found products that had really bad reviews.

Then I searched outside of Amazon and found Heat Trak. The reviews looked promising and while the return policy included a 15% restocking fee, I ordered a few just to try them out. If they worked, great - if not, I would only use one and return the others.

Well, no need. Check this out:



First time we used them, there was no snow but it was cold. We had people over and when they went outside in their socks, they were loving it - no boots needed!!

Then the snow came - sure enough - the mats worked perfectly. It's not instant - 2 inches of snow melts every hour but that's more than enough to get the job down. They aren't THAT expensive either (under $200 for a 5' mat)

Here are some links for Canada:

5' x 30'" long mat: http://amzn.to/2zeYbVJ

One caveat, if you buy the mat on its own, it doesn't come with a power supply. So here's the link for the power supply:

http://amzn.to/2BwOoA6


We also bought a smaller mat which is perfect for steps or smaller areas -http://amzn.to/2BkCq8A


HeatTrak


Here's a link to the company web site - definitely worth checking out. They also have some more industrial mats that are better for driveways but they are a tad expensive (>$1000).



Saturday, August 13, 2016

RECOMMENDED: Puffin Mobile Browser

If you're looking for speed in a web browser, most people immediately go to Chrome. But between Chrome, Safari, Firefox, most don't really find a big difference between browsers on your mobile device (phone or tablet).

When testing a web site, I tried to grab as many different browsers and devices as possible. And that's where I found Puffin. In a word,

WOW!!

Our web site was operating behind a separate firewall but even then, Puffin delivered pages at least 2-5x faster than Chrome or Safari and this was on an iPhone 5C. Even on an iPad 2, Puffin's speed is incredible.

It also supports Flash if you need it. Maybe more so - it's download mechanism is powerful too. On your phone, the chances that you are downloading something directly to your phone for use on your phone is unlikely. Instead, you likely want to refer to it later. Puffin has cloud-to-cloud drive support so when you want to download a file, it will send the link to your cloud drive (like Dropbox) and download it behind the scenes there. The result? Instant download.

It works for both Android and iOS. There is a free version but the full value of the Download is found in the Pro version (all of 0.99$ in the App store).

https://www.puffinbrowser.com/index.php




RECOMMENDED: Torch Browser for Media



http://torchbrowser.com

If you consume media through your desktop web browser, you should consider using Torch. Torch is based on Google Chrome (Chromium, Google's open source version, to be exact) so it feels very similar. It is based on an OLDER version of Chrome (since Chrome updates on Google's schedule and Chromium not so much) however, it really works well.

They have both Windows and Mac versions - although the Mac version isn't being supported anymore, it's still super functional.

Why Torch? If you are watching a video and want to keep it for later, you can simply click the "Video" button and it downloads it for future use.



Myself, I'm not that big on video. I don't mind watching it but what I really care about is listening to it - it's easier when driving (also a lot safer).

When you click the Video button, it attempts (since it would be site-specific) to find the original source and downloads it. If it's successful, it will also convert the video into an audio file.

If you've ever gone through the joy of using tools such as Vid2Mp3 or the others, this Torch feature is worth the use alone. You can likely find similar plug-ins directly for Chrome and the like, but if it's all in one browser, it's easier and you don't need to worry about upgrading on a regular basis.

Torch also has support for Torrents, media sharing and more.




Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Recommended: Roger Varette (Ottawa - home siding)

We recently worked with Roger Varette on a small siding job at our home. We had previously been delayed by a contractor who kept us waiting for 5 weeks.

We found Roger on Kijiji. Instead of having to come out for a prolonged estimate process, he sped up the entire task asking for pictures to get a general idea as to what was required.

This was over a weekend where we weren't expecting responses until the Monday. He requested a deposit for materials and was ready to get the work done on the Tuesday - so only 48 hours notice, which was great for us!

He had some transportation issues so we were concerned the delays would immediately start (we're used to that with contractors) Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by a call saying "I'm here". He checked the colours of siding and his eye for the color was extremely good, especially just from two pictures.

Our big concern was getting the job done. He had both walls done in less than 6 hours and the results were perfect to what we needed. He was great. He offered suggestions on other areas, gave us time if we wanted to replace lighting, cleaned up after himself and his pricing was great.

For some readers, this may seem like "well, shouldn't all contractors be like that" - Truth is, after working with a lot of contractors, we've had some that leave the mess for us to cleanup, start a job and then prolong it with half finished work. Those who have dealt with contractors can likely relate.

I've read some negative reviews of Roger's work but all I can say he delivered exactly what he promised, fast , easy and proactive! I would not hesitate to recommend him for this type of work!