Totally Wired

Well over five years ago, I was having a hard time with wired earbuds. The pair that came with my phone at the time had a sort-of butterfly wing that held each earbud securely in place, but when they slowly deteriorated I found it nearly impossible to find a pair that used the same (or similar mechanism). My ears are a little strange, it seems.

Lo and behold, during my search I came across a display for Bose and their new-ish SoundSport model. They were wireless. They sounded decent enough in the store, and after some thought I picked up a pair. The clincher were the wingtips each earbud had, which made their fit more or less guaranteed. Note: these were not what are now somewhat pedantically called “True Wireless” as there was a flimsy harness wire which connected them (this turned out to be handy, given that if I had to remove an earbud I could let it drop and it would simply hang over my shoulder). They sounded good and were comfortable, which is really all I wanted.

I listen to music a lot; and when I’m not listening to music on my phone I’m listening to streaming radio stations like BBC 6 Music. I’m not an audiophile, but I like decently balanced sound. Whenever I read about “high fidelity wireless earbuds” I struggle with the dissonance that a) Bluetooth (how wireless earbuds connect) is an inherently lossy format to begin with, and b) what exactly are you listening to that requires peerless sound quality? If I’m commuting to work and listening to compressed MP3s of GBV, what exactly am I gaining from a $400 pair of earbuds?

The Bose SoundSport buds simply worked, which is all I wanted. And then they began to fall apart. After 1.5yrs the rubber covering on the selection buttons was disintegrating. It became harder and harder to pause what I was listening to (I had to press with the edge of my fingernail to do this after a while). After stretching it out as long as I could, a total of 2.5yrs, I began to (begrudgingly) look for a replacement. I started looking at “True Wireless” models from various brands, and they were all hideously expensive and/or maintained the same hard-to-fit-in-Matt’s-ear bud shape. In a moment of “what the hell, eh” I decided to order a pair of Google Pixel Buds. They were comparatively inexpensive and I figured it was as good an introduction to “True Wireless” as I was going to get.

Out of the box, the Pixel Buds did their job. They fit about as well as the Bose and came with a sleek egg-like charger case which didn’t take up much space. I also appreciated that I could, especially for client phone calls, optionally only have one bud in my ear (the idea of having both of my ears plugged on a phone call is not attractive as I get a form of claustrophobia from things like that). And then, after a year, they too began to fall apart. The charger case began to crack along the edges, and then each bud’s charging ability began to lessen, up to the point where I couldn’t use them for 50-minute client sessions. It became a bit of a joke, though I didn’t appreciate the cost and inconvenience of having to contemplate replacing them in less time than I was able to stretch out my pair of Bose previously. When I looked up help from Google the answer was either a version of “did you turn it on and off again?” and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I know this is the way things are: disposability. I don’t like it, but I when it comes to what you get for those low prices I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. But goddamnit, can’t something last more than 2 years without falling apart??

Let’s take a moment to made room for my biggest bugbear about wireless earbuds (True and not): radio frequency (RF) interference. The idea that is sold to us about wireless/Bluetooth devices is that we are liberated from our phones etc, but little ink is spilled (don’t get me started on online product reviews) about RF interference. Yes, within the confines of my office, Bluetooth technology presents no immediate shortfalls. However, when I’m walking down an urban sidewalk, whatever I’m listening to begins to cut out, with the sort of maddening infrequency that makes the whole point of listening to music futile. The worst culprit is Spadina Avenue, where my office is, naturally. I can neither listen to music nor conduct phone calls walking on Spadina owing to what I can only imagine are high levels of interruptive wifi signals (Spadina is a tech company ghetto after all).

I finally decided to look for a good-fitting pair of wired earbuds, which made it clear, if it wasn’t already, that True Wireless Earbuds Are Everywhere Now. And here I was, looking for something unintentionally retro. I looked far and wide, even at used products — this is how desperate I was. Eventually, scratching at the bottom of a Google search, I saw a pair of JBL earbuds for sale at Staples. Sleek and black, and made for workouts, they were also on the verge of being a legacy model at this point. They were also $29.

It’s been a week with them so far and I have no complaints, aside from navigating the wires occasionally. They sound great (no lossy format), they fit decently, I don’t have to worry about charging them throughout the day, and there’s no need to fear RF interference.

All is well.


The Memphis Effect

As mentioned in my last post, going to Memphis had an effect on me. One thing that it affected that I didn’t have the space to mention was how I was influenced musically.

First, let me tell you about American museums (or at least museums in Memphis): unlike here in Toronto (I’m thinking of the ROM) where you are basically in an Ikea and are able to roam about and find the exits freely, the museums I went to in Memphis (namely the National Civil Rights Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music) subscribed to a similar script. First, thou shalt sit and watch an obligatory documentary for at least 12 minutes before entering said museum. Second, after said documentary has been screened, thou shalt exit through appointed theatre exits and continue through a prescribed path until the gift shop approacheth, not unlike a mouse in a maze.

Thing is, during the Stax documentary (which was very well done, as was the NCRM doc), I witnessed the apparition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Now, if you have a decent knowledge of rock-and-roll, you might have heard Sister Tharpe’s name as an early influence on the genre. This is similar to how some of us might hear the name Kepler attributed to astronomy or Cruyff as pertains soccer. I sat there on that Saturday afternoon (I was amongst a cohort of three people) and watched an excerpt of her performing the gospel standard Down By The Riverside with a choir behind her, ripping into her white Gibson SG for a ridiculously soulful guitar solo.

That did it.

Leaving Stax, I proceeded to watch everything I could on Tharpe, with particular attention to her electric guitar performances. This was not someone playing rhythm guitar while she sang, strumming chords. Just as her voice had a beautiful, soaring quality with a lot of power behind it, so did her guitar work. Technically and tonally she was (and is) extremely expressive, demonstrating a vocabulary of electric guitar playing that predated rock-and-roll as we know it, combining both religious and secular gospel with R&B. There are a number of good places to read more about her — here’s one. And another. It’s no surprise that when she was finally (belatedly) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard who introduced her.

But I wanted more. I was inspired to the degree that I wanted to explore what I saw beyond listenership. And so I did my research, and after a couple of weeks, I located a guitar teacher. And after a lesson or two, I ended up locating a semi-hollowbody guitar — an Epiphone Riviera Custom P-93 (pictured) that someone was selling because they weren’t finding use for it.

An Epiphone Riviera Custom P-93

I play drums and can do adequate keyboards, but I’ve never (ever) wanted to learn to play guitar (just magically “play” it? Sure, but not actually learn the thing), despite the fact that some of the greatest influences on me are from guitar-driven music. Learning guitar is a strange yet rewarding process of teaching the increasingly calloused finger tips of my left hand to traverse the frets and coordinate themselves, touching the strings at first hesitantly, then, with practice, confidently. Oh, and then there are the pickups, the tuning, the tremolo bar. I’m not doing this because I want to start a band or play on stage, but rather because I’m drawn to this process, and a relationship that I am building with the instrument.

What am I learning? Mostly surf and rockabilly, for the time being.

Here’s more SRT:


The Society of Experience Chosen As Must-Read By Harper’s Bazaar

I cannot believe how the stars aligned for this, but Harper’s Bazaar – a massive, Hearst-owned fashion and lifestyle magazine – put out a list of their Top 15 “must-reads” for the fall of 2015. And I’m #11. Along with Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Patti Smith, Isabel Allende, David Mitchell, and I’ve lost my mind. It’s the only debut novel on the entire list (and the third Canadian title)!




I don’t typically work from home when I’m writing fiction. Too many distractions which are almost purely mental (as opposed to audible or visual). Reminders of things that need cleaning, fixing, adjustment. Things I’ve put off seemingly forever.

I typically write in coffee shops, sometimes the odd bar. So yes, I am typically more comfortable in a strange place, surrounded by strangers (though to be honest I tend not to seek out locations that are packed), with music that is not my own playing overhead. This may sound odd. After all, what could possibly provide more distraction than that?

I find the hardest variable is music. The last thing I want is to write while music I know is playing. Why? Because if I like a song, then I’ll be focused on it rather than the brittle little fictional world I’m constructing. My foot will inevitably start beating on the floor to the drums. I will anticipate the dynamics, the chorus. Pretty soon lyrics will be passing through my eyes like ticker-tape instead of my characters’ dialogue.

So, though it might seem paradoxical, I prefer the random jukebox that is the playlist of whomever is working at an establishment I’m located in. And you know what? I discovered many years ago that I can write through pretty much any type of music. And the stranger or furthest away from my taste the music is, the easier it is to tune it out. When I’m in a place that isn’t home, with people I don’t know, with music playing that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to listen to, I can more easily fall into that glorious black hole which allows me to sync with the fictional universe on the other side of my consciousness. Continue reading…


Planet Kensington is Closing

Yes, Planet Kensington, the venerable punk/rock venue and cheap drink haven is closing at the end of February.

Rumours are swirling about what the new owners of the space will do, but knowing that gentrification and niche-obsession are the current trends in Kensington Market, my hopes are not optimistic.

As before, I ask people visiting this blog who live in or near Toronto to come down and see the fabulous surf-rock outfit, the Z-Rays, as they play their last Saturday residence gig at this fine, fine establishment on February 17th. They play from 3pm to 6pm. Bring ear-plugs and money for alcohol. It can’t be anything less than boss.

I hereby raise a glass to yet another piece of Toronto’s character chipped away by weasels.

Update: The band is only playing the 17th – there is no show on the 12th as previously noted, due to unforeseen circumstances.

Update #2: Okay, there will be a show tomorrow (the 10th). It will not be the Z-Rays proper, but rather some sort of open jam with two of their members – which could be really fun. In any case, it’s one more chance to enjoy the venue and listen to live music on a Saturday afternoon.

Update #3: Second show added! Aside from tomorrow, there will be two Z-Rays shows to round out the end of Planet Kensington. As mentioned, Saturday the 17th is still on – their second show will be the following Saturday (Feb 24th). The very last day PK is open will be for “Death Metal Brunch” on Sunday the 25th. Yum.