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Nicli Antica Pizzeria - DiavolaI don't know a thing about authentic Neapolitan pizza, or authentic pizza of any other kind. But I like pizza, a lot. Ever since I had my first one as a tiny child, from Me-n-Ed's Pizza Parlor in Burnaby, I've been partial to thin-crust pizza cooked in a very hot oven, with relatively simple toppings. In Vancouver, I'd never found anything that competed with Me-n-Ed's for the type of pizza I crave. Until now.

Bill McCaig, who opened Nicli Antica Pizzeria in Gastown last week, is a friend of our friends KA and Jeff, but I can say with certainty that I'd love his food whether I knew him or not. Nicli isn't a pizza parlor, or a pizza joint, or a take-out stand. It's a pizzeria restaurant, where you sit down with a glass of good wine, in a hip, bright, classy atmosphere, nothing like your typical Italian eatery or stainless-steel 99-cent slice outlet. The pizza also has little in common with anything else you'll find in this city.

Nicli doesn't deliver. In fact, they don't allow take-out: I'm not even sure they'll let you bring leftovers home. That's because each pizza is relatively small—about 30 cm across—made with ultra-fresh ingredients sliced right before cooking, and is baked in a unique (in Vancouver) wood-fired brick oven at a blast-furnace 900°F (480°C), for a mere minute or two. You must eat it with a half-hour or so, because it doesn't keep its distinctive character for long.

The crust is something else. Thin, yes, but both crispy and doughy, blistered like Indian naan (I chose to tear and fold mine while eating like naan too). While our party of six tried a variety of pies, we all agreed that the basic-of-basics Margherita showed off the extraordinary crust to its best. With olive oil, fresh tomato sauce, custom fresh mozzarella, and basil leaves, it's all you need. Even my kids ordered a whole pizza each (in the $13-18 range), and that was a good amount.

The restaurant pays attention to detail, and not just in its pizza. I ordered a Diet Coke, and it came in a chilled glass bottle with a tall glass full of ice. Even the washroom sink has its water pressure and temperature just right. Nicli took months longer to open than originally expected, in part because of the usual bureaucratic delays, and in part because nothing like its oven had ever been licensed before here, and it had to be separately inspected and certified. Bill and his crew have taken the time to do things right.

The prices are reasonable for a night out, and the $5 house glass of wine was a particularly good deal. Splitting a platter of antipasti and some dessert, plus drinks, we spent quite a bit more than you might expect when simply "getting pizza," but this is a far superior experience, and much better food.

And now I'm dreaming about that pizza: for the first time in 40 years, I've found a new one in Vancouver to crave. You should try some.

Nicli Antica Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Back in October I mentioned two of my favourite podcasts, which I listen to every time there's a new episode. Now there's another.

CBC's "Age of Persuasion" is in its second season as a radio program, but only this year is it also available as an official podcast. (If you hunt around, there were some rogue ways to get subscribe to it podcast-style last year.) It's Terry O'Reilly's excellent documentary series about marketing and advertising.

It's interesting enough that even my 12-year-old daughter listened to it whenever she could last year—which is something to say about a show on advertising. I recommend you give it a try too.

If you'd like some other stuff to listen to, last week we released our first episode of Inside Home Recording for 2011, my co-host Dave Chick appeared on the now-annual audio recording podcaster roundtable, and I was also guest co-cost on the Canadian Podcast Buffet with Bob Goyetche and Mark Blevis.

I don't listen to as many podcasts as I used to, even though I am the co-host of a reasonably popular one, and also have an occasionally-updated largely musical one of my own. From 2005 through 2007 in particular, I devoured podcasts, listening in the morning while getting the kids ready for school, on the commute to and from work, sometimes at work, while driving in the car or shopping or waiting in line, while falling asleep at night, and even in hospital when I was recovering from surgery.

There are many reasons my listening habits have changed. Since I've been on medical leave for cancer treatment, I'm not commuting, and I'm also not often working on non-language right-brain stuff (such as editing images) that doesn't interfere with spoken-word podcasts. Now that I have an iPhone and an iPad, when I have time to kill either at home or out running errands, I'm more likely to fire up Twitter or a web browser or a game than to listen to a podcast.

And, because of my newfound cancer-driven appreciation for the little things in everyday life, when I go for a walk around the neighbourhood (often with the dog), I usually leave the earphones at home, and simply listen to the sounds around me.

Making a show un-missable

So while I still have quite a few podcasts in my iTunes subscription list, I miss a lot of episodes and delete many of them unheard. There are two shows I never miss, though: National Public Radio's Planet Money, and the indie show Reasonable Doubts. (Though I don't catch every episode, I also listen to almost every release—ahem—of Savage Love, after a recommendation a couple of years ago from my wife, and CBC's Spark is a regular too.)

Here's why I find both Planet Money and Reasonable Doubts un-missable: They're about the right length and frequency—around 20 minutes several times a week for Planet Money, less than an hour every week or two for Reasonable Doubts—that I can stay caught up without being overwhelmed (a problem for Leo Laporte's ever-increasing and ever-lengthening stable of shows on his TWiT network).

Both of my favourite podcasts are well-structured and excellently produced, telling compelling stories in an interesting format. Most importantly, I learn a lot about subjects that previously didn't interest me much at all: business and religion.

Clarity and economics? Really?

Before Planet Money came along, I found most business journalism about as interesting as a fishing show, or the farm report that used to come on TV before cartoons in the early mornings when I was kid: in other words, so dull it was physically painful. But when the team that would later create the standalone Planet Money podcast produced the "Giant Pool of Money" episode for This American Life in 2008, I was hooked. A single show somehow managed to explain the global economic crisis of that year, and the American housing-market meltdown that triggered it, clearly and concisely, without dumbing the subject down.

Planet Money takes a similar approach to all sorts of topics in economics, global finance, and other business subjects that I'd never normally want to delve into. Yet it fascinates me every time. This week, for instance, I learned about how Brazil changed its currency to stave off runaway inflation in 1994. Yawn, right? Not when the show has a title like "How Four Drinking Buddies Saved Brazil."

Religions explained and criticized

Reasonable Doubts doesn't emerge from a professional radio network like NPR. It's a labour-of-love amateur effort by three academics in Grand Rapids, Michigan (or "the clasp on America's Bible Bra," as they like to call it): philosophy professor Jeremy Beahan, psychologist Luke Galen, and English and mythology teacher David Fletcher. All three were raised as fundamentalist Christians, but found themselves "de-converting" in adulthood. So they bring a particularly well-informed approach to talking about, explaining, and in the end debunking the tenets of various religious traditions.

There are plenty of podcasts about rationalism, skepticism, atheism, humanism, critical thinking, and similar stuff, but many of them spend a lot of time taking apart conspiracy theories, UFOs, New Age woo, ghosts, psychics, and pseudo-medical quackery. Those are all fine, but as an atheist myself since childhood, I find that I don't know much about the religions that influence most people around the world. And the Reasonable Doubts team talks about them: Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox), Islam (Shiite, Sunni, and other sects), Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and more.

It's not just cheap chat and atheist dismissal, either. I've learned about Christian dispensationalism, Buddhist dukkha, and the philosophical debates around determinism and free will, for instance. The hosts are careful to explain the subjects they address as carefully and completely as possible, so that their analysis and criticism make sense. And they're pretty funny in a nerdy white-guy way that appeals to me.

Keep learning

I like these shows for the same reasons I enjoy the science essays and books of Stephen Jay Gould, the TV series of James Burke, or radio programs like "Quirks and Quarks." They teach me things I didn't know before, and point me in interesting directions to learn even more.

In the modern world, we're always encouraged to keep learning for a lifetime. My favourite podcasts make that easy. I'd encourage you to give them a listen too.

I wonder if Pixar will ever make a bad movie, or even a genuinely mediocre one. Okay, maybe Cars wasn't fantastic, but it still had Paul Newman and was a fun time. The company could probably release a film with no clues to its subject, just "New From Pixar!", and we'd all still go see it.

After Toy Story 3, I certainly would. While I might give its 1999 predecessor a slight edge on a better intro, marginally better villains, and funnier end credits, this might be the best of the trilogy, and quite possibly Pixar's best movie yet—which makes it a great movie, period. Disney had planned on making a third film in the series by itself before it bought Pixar (Disney had the rights). Luckily that earlier attempt was shut down, because in less deft hands a computer-generated, animated story about plastic toys could easily have been profoundly lifeless.

This story of toys is far from that. My daughter Marina, who's 12 and getting pickier about movies, said in amazement, "There were no boring parts!" All five of us who went today, ages ranging over four decades, were happily teary-eyed at the ending. And I'm always impressed with how thought out Pixar's plots are, even for brief moments. The toys, returning home, make sure to wash themselves off with a garden hose to remove the detritus of their many adventures, for example. Not as impressive as Woody's arm becoming re-damaged in the second film, but still, a detail worth noting because rendering time is expensive, but the filmmakers knew that detail needed to be there.

The Toy Story series, like Pixar's other work, defies the stereotypes of work done by committee. I guess all you need is a brilliant committee. A second sequel that improves on its excellent forbears is rare in big mainstream pictures, and in films generally. I'm tempted to say that Pixar should leave well enough alone and keep it a trilogy, a hat trick.

But you know what? If they decide that another Toy Story deserves to be made, I'll trust their judgment. They've earned that trust.

By the way, the opening short film (traditional with Pixar releases) does something I've never seen done with 3D before. Don't miss it.

Zoom zoom

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And here it is, Air's Mazda3 GT with five-speed Sport Mode automatic transmission and power moonroof:

Air's new Mazda3!

It's even nicer than expected. My wife has excellent taste in cars.

Now, being a technical writer and all, I just have to go through the five-hundred page (!) Mazda3 owner's manual.

Today we're bringing home a new car, to replace the Toyota Echo we bought in 2004, almost exactly six years ago. There's nothing wrong with the Echo, but my wife Air, who drives it, was finding it a bit bare-bones, with its manual windows and locks, and—most crucially—lack of air conditioning. (As our kids say every summer, "Why did you buy a black car with no AC?")

Extra features like a sunroof (which every manufacturer calls a moonroof now, I guess because long ago, sunroofs didn't include glass) and cruise control were also on the menu. We were looking in the small-sedan market, one step up from the true econoboxes like our Echo, with enough options to put the price over the $20,000 Cdn mark, but not into the $30,000 range of true mid-size cars.

2010 Kia Soul 4UKia Soul

The small-car market is certainly competitive. At times we wished there were fewer choices so the decision would be easier. At the recommendation of a few friends, including Steven and the Biehlers, we first looked at the Kia Soul 4U, which I suppose you'd call an "urban crossover" vehicle. I think it might still be my favourite, but while Air liked it, she prefers sedans over the Soul's more truck-like stance, engine sound, and slightly quirky look. (The quirky look is probably why it appeals to me.) It certainly offers the best features for the money, and the longest warranty.

2010 Toyota Corolla LEToyota Corolla

At the extremely non-quirky end of the scale is the Toyota Corolla LE, pretty much the definition of the basic family sedan for the past few decades. Toyota seems to have pushed the Corolla into slightly more luxe territory recently, with the interior of the LE model including very Euro-style faux-wood paneling, keyless entry and push-button starting, a spacious trunk, and a remarkably quiet and smooth ride compared to its competitors. But it's not an exciting car. Still, for Air, it was top of the list almost to the end.

2010 Suzuki SX4 SedanSuzuki SX4

I expected to be impressed with the Suzuki SX4 sedan, but the company seems to be overcharging for what it offers. Even without the all-wheel drive from higher-end SX4 models, its price fell into the same territory as the other cars here, but without the same level of fit and finish. It's also a genuinely small car, more in line with the Echo we have already, and not very inspiring to look at or sit in. I didn't even test-drive it. By comparison, Suzuki's new Kizashi sedan is a beautiful machine, but is also several thousand dollars out of our price range.

2010 Honda Civic SportHonda Civic

For me, the Honda Civic Sport sedan deserves its place as Canada's best-selling passenger car. It looks good, drives wonderfully, and has a space-age interior with a sexy but functional two-tier dashboard display. Alas, despite all the available adjustments, Air didn't find the driving position comfortable. The current Civic also lacks stability and traction control, which are standard on most of the other cars we tried, and will soon be mandatory in Canada anyway.

2010 Ford Focus SEL SedanFord Focus

We already own a Ford Focus station wagon, from 2001, so it made sense to check out the current Focus SEL sedan—although that's not what I wanted to do. I visited our local Ford dealer to see the new Ford Fiesta, prominently advertised on the company's website. But the Fiestas aren't actually arriving for a few weeks, so a Focus test drive would have to do. The car was perfectly fine, an improvement in ride and power over our wagon, but less distinctive in appearance inside and out. Not in the same league as the top contenders, in other words. Despite a full-court press from the salesman, I left the lot somewhat underwhelmed.

2010 Madza3 SedanMazda3 - the winner

I was completely uninvolved in our final purchase decision, but I'm still happy with the result. While driving our friend Steven home from a visit to our house, Air dropped in to see the Mazda3 sedan, and she loved it. My cousin and my friend Paul already own older models of the same car, and the 2010 version looks slightly sportier still. Air got a better trade-in for our Echo than other dealers were offering, and added some higher-end features such as Bluetooth connectivity and a six-CD changer for a similar price. Oh, and tinted rear windows.

One thing I found universally annoying: car company websites use way, way, way too much Adobe Flash—especially in places where it's entirely unnecessary, like spec sheets and build-and-price applications. As we webby types have known for years, while often pretty, the overuse of Flash makes it impossible to bookmark or link to specific pages, uses more processing power on my computer than it should, and is entirely useless on devices like the iPhone and iPad that don't support Flash. As those devices become more popular, I expect the design houses that the car makers hire to build websites will be forced to change soon enough. I can't wait.

Anyway, Air and the kids are off to pick up the car as I write this. Unfortunately, I'm still recovering from my latest chemotherapy treatment on Tuesday (at least I'm awake today), so I'm still popping Gravol pills, and don't feel well enough to spend an hour at the car dealership. I'll wait to get my first look at our new vehicle when she brings it home. We'll post pictures, of course.

Say EverythingLast year I reviewed Scott Rosenberg's book Say Everything, which is a (very good) history of blogging. It's now coming out in paperback, and has a new postscript, which you can read in full at the book's website.

It's a sign of the Internet's speed of change that this book, less than a year after first publication, needs an update like that. But I think it's wise of Scott to write it, because he fits the latest "blogging is dead" topics in with older ones. The new supposed blog-killers are Twitter, Facebook, the Apple App Store, and so-called "content farms," where online articles are written specifically to generate search revenue, without any concern for whether anyone would want to read them.

He makes a reasonable argument that while these new platforms all affect blogging, none of them replace it. I've certainly noticed that in my own writing online. Short links and comments I might previously have posted on this blog tend to appear in my Twitter stream instead (though I'll occasionally collect some of the better ones here for posterity). I interact with a lot of people on Facebook, where we might previously have commented on one another's blogs or emailed each other.

Yet neither of those have stopped me from writing here almost every day. Often things I find out on Twitter and Facebook are what inspire a new blog entry, in fact.

The App Store? At first I had trouble imagining what it had to do with blogging at all. But then I realized that there are people in old-school publishing who like iPhone and iPad apps that once again charge discrete prices for written material—or, as Scott puts it, "a genie-bottling move that might allow them, once more, to package and sell media products the old way."

That has no impact on me whatsoever, and whatever effect it might have on blogs would be, perhaps, on those published by major media outlets that might turn their efforts to the App Store instead. I guess. Whatever.

As for content farms like the not-very-useful eHow, they're essentially another form of Internet pollution, like email and comment spam, splogs, and so on. We'll learn to work around them in time. Scott's take:

...there is little evidence that the material produced by the content farms holds any value outside of Google. These articles are good at generating click-throughs from search results. But, having clicked on the story's headline, is anyone ever happy to read the body?

It took me a long time to think of as a blog. I preferred to consider it a website, and blog software as an easy way to update it and maintain an archive. Indeed, that's what I highlighted about it in my very first post close to ten years ago. Whether blogging survives in the long run as something we call by that name is irrelevant. I'm more interesting in preserving interesting, useful writing online—and making whatever small contribution to it that I can.

From my perspective, good writing online doesn't seem to be going anywhere. There's more of it than ever.