Cover photo from the Omaw website

Jed’s other festival

We spent our Thursday and Friday evenings attending parts of the Vector Festival here in Toronto:

Vector Festival is a participatory and community-oriented initiative dedicated to showcasing digital games and creative media practices. Presenting works across a dynamic range of exhibitions, screenings, performances, lectures, and workshops, Vector acts as a critical bridge between emergent digital platforms and new media art practice.

Thursday night was the opening was the launch party at Inter/Access, and while a bunch of what we saw was interesting, I was blown away by some of what we saw Friday night at Execute!  From Scene To Screen. From the site:

Vector co-founder Clint Enns curates an extraordinary screening that pays homage to the extravagant, edgy, and plain crazy history of the demoscene, a loose international community of programmers, hackers, musicians, and designers (originally involved in cracking video game copy protection) who create self-contained, audio-visual code-based works that range from minuscule visual abstractions to over-the-top epics. The majority of the work will be screened from executable files, rather than video, reframing the demo as a micro-cinema format.

He played the files using various emulators which got a little glitchy…which is part of the point. There were Amiga demos. Nintendo movies about Super Mario’s dementia. DOS animations. An unofficial video for a Grandaddy song (from The Sophtware Slump, which reminded me that I really need to re-listen to that album). Some kind of mutant hybrid where the file was both audio and animation.

There were Commodore C64 files, for fuck’s sake. And some of them made in this year. What a fascinating look into a scene that exists — somehow — out of sheer creativity and, I guess, patience. I remember C64 coding.

Also, when we left Inter/Access Thursday we had dinner at Omaw. I’d been wanting to try that place for a while, but it exceeded expectations. Here’s what came at us:

  • Excellent cocktails. Far better than the wine, frankly. If I go back I’ll stick with the cocktails.
  • Jambalaya fashioned into what looked like tiny balls of charcoal
  • A sheet of aged wagyu covered in peas and coffee succotash
  • Scallops with rice and coconut cream
  • Nashville hot chicken, basically five pieces of flattened boneless chicken covered in hot sauce. MY GOD this was good. I want it every, every day.


Cover photo from the Omaw website


Cover photo by tikitonite, used under Creative Commons license

How I eat now

It occurred to me today how differently I order food now. I used to call a number, have an awkward conversation with someone about how I would like to customize their menu, and then wait impatiently for food to show up somewhere between 20 and 90 minutes later.

Now I open an app like Foodora (nee Hurrier) or Uber Eats and order what I want, and then get constant status updates (or live GPS icons on maps) as my delivery progresses. Or I do what I did just now, and order something from a nearby restaurant using Ritual; by the time I walk to the restaurant the food is waiting for me and the suckers waiting in line think I have magical powers.

Of course, Uber seemed magical to people at first, and now it’s ubiquitous (at least in downtown Toronto) so this won’t stay wonderous for long, but for now it’s pretty cool. And anything that saves me even a few minutes is a tiny lifesaver these days.

Now pardon me while I destroy this Blazin’ Hawaiian burger from Big Smoke.


Cover photo by tikitonite, used under Creative Commons license

Hello, new phone

Three years ago I bought my first (!) real smartphone after living with Blackberries for a long time.

I loved my Galaxy Nexus and it served me well for a very long time. Through a combination of stubbornness and my perceived lack of compelling alternative I didn’t bother upgrading. For the last several months, though, my phone has gotten old and worn out, and unable to keep up with the demands of today’s apps and content. Nellie implored me to get a new phone and stop yelling at this one.

I resisted though, holding out for the Nexus 6. I waited patiently (but not really) for the late 2014 release date, then waited while it made its way to Canada. It had the speed, power, camera, and battery life that I craved, but I was always concerned about the size of the phone. A 6-inch screen would make it nearly the size of my Nexus 7 tablet (which I still quite like), not to mention heavy and awkward. I played around with iPhone 6 Pluses and, when I could finally get my hands on one, Nexus 6s. It was as I feared — too big, too heavy, too hard to use with one hand. Maybe I could have gotten used to it, but I didn’t want to chance it.

I ended up picking up a Nexus 5 before Google decommissions them, and frankly it still feels amazing to me. It’s everything I wanted from my old phone but in more or less the same form factor. It was also about $500 cheaper than the Nexus 6, so even if a new device comes out next year I won’t mind paying for it.

Galaxy Nexus, I know I’ve been angry at you this year, but you did yeoman’s work for more than anyone could have expected. You’ve earned a place in the device hall of fame.*

Anyway, out with the old and in with the new and all that. So, without further ado, here is the new(ish) hotness:


* my junk drawer

Cover photo by Elliot Brown, used under Creative Commons license

“Be quiet Eugene, nobody’s listening to you.”

Welp, it seems like the Turing test might have finally been passed.

A supercomputer running a program simulating a 13-year-old boy named Eugene has passed the Turing Test at an event held at London’s Royal Society.

The Turing Test is based on 20th century mathematician and code-breaker Turing’s 1950 famous question and answer game, ‘Can Machines Think?’. The experiment investigates whether people can detect if they are talking to machines or humans. The event is particularly poignant as it took place on the 60th anniversary of Turing’s death, nearly six months after he was given a posthumous royal pardon.

If a computer is mistaken for a human more than 30% of the time during a series of five minute keyboard conversations it passes the test. No computer has ever achieved this, until now. Eugene managed to convince 33% of the human judges that it was human.

I, for one, welcome our new Skynetty overlords.

[UPDATE: but not really.]


Cover photo by Elliot Brown, used under Creative Commons license


Photo by pgaif13, used under Creative Commons license

On buggy whips, rogues, and stoned cabbies

Anyone following my Twitter feed or spending a moderate amount of time with me lately would have seen my rant about Uber. I was intrigued by the idea because of the potential for technology to disrupt a long-standing, stagnant industry: taxis. And, as someone who’s spent a little time over the years thinking about corporate strategy, I always have a morbid curiosity to see the next buggy whip industry begin to rage against the dying of the light.

Usually, when an industry is caught with their pants down and eventually admits to themselves that they see the end coming, you’ll see a variety of tactics by the incumbents. Some companies resign themselves and try to adapt, while  others try to hold their ground, usually out of cultural stubbornness or an outright inability to make the change. In the latter case, companies will try to appeal to any existing sense of nostalgia for their products (see: Kodak). In other cases, they’ll fall back on regulation — either saying the threatening companies don’t comply, or trying to ensure they’re included in the regulation, knowing that burden placed on a small company with no industry lobby/alliance would crush them. Often the regulations are valid, but in the cases where the incumbents invoke arcane and irrelevant regulation, or make attempts at scaremongering, then you know they’re in trouble.

Hence, the taxi industry has begun railing at Uber in its various cities, saying it doesn’t met regs. Last week the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association sent a document to media outlets in Toronto making their case against “Rogue apps” like Uber. Speaking of scaremongering, note the title and subtitle of the report: words like “rogue” and “threat to public safety” are classic examples, meant to scare the townsfolk. Taxi associations in Washington, D.C. started pushing back earlier this year as well.

Really, though, the buggy whip is the wrong analogy. That was an example of an industry failing to adapt to the advent of replacement technology — the car — which quickly became the decided preference of most customers. But Uber isn’t that. The core product remains the same: a car takes your from point A to point B. There are two ways in which Uber differs from regular cabs: 1) the smart phone app used to summon Uber cars, and 2) the quality of the service itself. Let’s examine those:

The technology

Sure, it’s slick that smart phone users can summon a car from their iPhone, get an ETA, see the assigned car on a map as it approaches, easily call the driver if plans change, get an email receipt upon arrival, and rate their driver. But most of those things are nearly as simple with a traditional cab: you call a number, you give the dispatcher your address (I’ve not stumped one yet), and you can get a (paper) receipt on arrival if you need one. Seeing the car inching across a map is nice, as is getting an email receipt, but they’re not game-changers. To me, the two key features are being to rate your driver (and knowing those ratings inform future drivers, and knowing the reverse is true), and another one I didn’t mention: convenience of payment. With Uber you simply have a pre-loaded credit card that’s charged when you arrive. You don’t have to fumble for cash. You don’t have to linger in the cab while the cabbie rummages for correct change (which they often don’t have), while the irate drivers behind you honk incessantly. I like all the features of the technology, but the ease of payment is a killer feature. Still, it’s not enough to scare the taxi industry, and it doesn’t play much part in their complaints to regulators.

The service

This, to me, is the key. This, not the technology, is what creates Uber devotees. When I hail a Toronto cab, the very best I can hope for is an experience that’s not terrible. That’s it. That’s the bar. If you’re lucky you’ll get a cab that isn’t a mess, doesn’t stink of cigarette smoke (like the one I was forced to take yesterday) or something worse, runs well, and is temperature-controlled (I’ve had cabbies refuse to turn on the AC on heat-warning days). Meanwhile, Uber cars are immaculate, spacious, and comfortable. Sometimes they provide free bottled water, though I suspect that’s something the drivers pay for themselves.

The TLPA warned against the inaccuracy of the GPS in Uber cars. Personally, I’ve never had (or heard of a problem), unlike Toronto taxis where I have on countless occasions been forced to give my driver directions after he has started driving in the wrong direction, even though I live at major downtown cross-streets. Moreover, I’ve caught two deliberately taking longer routes; when I challenged them they claimed it was faster, which was patently false. Upon arrival I asked them to adjust the meter. Both times they refused; one threatened to call the police. All I could do was refuse a tip; even then, one claimed he didn’t have change. I called the cab company to complain, but the driver wasn’t displaying his medallion or cab number. Conversely, with Uber I’ve had only one incident where a driver missed a turn, got confused and took a roundabout trip to our destination, for which he apologized. When I provided my post-trip rating to Uber along with the explanation for the low rating, Uber instantly took $5 off my fare and apologized again.

Never, in my dozens of Uber rides, have I witnessed unsafe behaviour on the part of their drivers. Meanwhile, since moving to Toronto I’ve been a passenger in a taxi which drove through a red light and ran into a dump truck (I wasn’t seriously injured, but the driver couldn’t have cared less anyway; he was only interested in the damage to his car, and didn’t so much as apologize). I was never contacted by the cab company for an apology. I’ve been stuck inside a taxi as he chased a car — at higher speeds than were prudent on city streets — which had cut him off earlier, and refused to pull over. I got out at a light as he got out to confront the driver; he told me to get back in the cab as I still had to pay. I’ve also been hit by a cab driver doing a rolling right turn at a red light. He was on his cell phone and didn’t notice me on the cross-walk. I wasn’t hurt, but I fell on the hood of his car. He simply kept driving and talking on his phone. I recently took a taxi driven by a man who clearly hadn’t bathed in days. I took a cab (with my parents, no less) driven by a guy who had just smoked a joint. I could go on and on and still not recount all the poor experiences I’ve forgotten over the years. I’ve had good cabs/drivers too, but they’re the distinct exception. Like I said, the best I can hope for when hailing a Toronto cab is a not-terrible experience. When an Uber cab shows up, I expect a superb experience. And I get it. For a 10-15% premium (not the laughable 40-60% premium the TLPA claims) I’ll take that option whenever I can.

Taxi companies have begun to copy the technology side of  Uber’s offering. Interestingly, Uber now allows you call a regular cab from their app too, suggesting at least some cab drivers are willing to work for/with them. Perhaps replicating Uber’s service will be cost-prohibitive for traditional taxi companies under their current regulatory requirements, though that doesn’t seem to be the thrust of their complaints, and I’ve certainly not seen taxi companies make a move in the better-service direction. If the playing field is to be evened, then the regs should be applied fairly to Uber, not in a punitive manner resulting from their lack of  safety-in-numbers the taxi industry enjoys.

Even if the TLPA and others do manage to temporarily impose limits or regs on Uber, it won’t kill the idea. Buggy whip manufacturers likely raised issues of public safety concerning the automobile. The ice delivery industry probably declared refrigerators safety hazards. The music industry wailed and gnashed their teeth at Napster ostensibly on behalf of poor starving artists, but really on behalf of their profits. Uber found a way to deliver a better product. That scares the people who’ve made a lot of money (I mean the taxi companies, not the drivers) delivering the bad product, and so they’ll rail against the progress.

But that never lasts long.


Photo by pgaif13, used under Creative Commons license. And I was by no means trying to single out Beck Taxi in relation to my story — I just liked the picture. Beck is actually one of the better companies in Toronto…though that’s not a high bar.

I love my new phone whatever

About a month ago I got a new phone. But not really.

I’d held off on getting a personal smartphone for a long time, relying mostly on my work Blackberry and avoiding iPhones as only someone who hates locked-down ecosystems does. I knew I wanted an Android device because they integrate so nicely with Google applications (gmail, reader, docs, etc.) but was holding out for the latest Google OS. So in December, when the Galaxy Nexus came out, I held my nose on the 3-year contract and dove in.

The new hotness

Interestingly enough, I’m not using my new phone as a phone. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even given out the phone number yet. I use it as a highly portable, highly usable computer. And I don’t just mean that I’ve replicated my PC experience on a smaller screen — I mean that I’m taking advantage of the location-awareness and camera and gyroscope and all the other goodies that come with a new smartphone. Like scanning the barcode on a bottle of wine to see reviews or automatically add it to my collection. Like finding out when the next TTC bus or streetcar is arriving.

I’m not that excited about what I can do with it today — technology has basically just caught up to the efficiencies I’ve been picturing in my head for the last few years. I’m excited by fact that I’m not sure what will come next.

In absentia

My blog host had a little hiccup on Sunday, which means two things:

  1. Accented characters are displaying strangely right now. Not sure why just yet. Character code set something or other. Fix is coming forthwith; in the interim please don’t report me to the Ministry of Bilingualism.
  2. The post I’d written on Sunday about Sons of Anarchy has disappeared, as the hosting service went to last good backup, and I’ve spent more time fixing than writing, so it’s been — ye gods! — 10 days since my last blog post.

Large single-book-bound collection of stamps, anyone?

A few weeks ago my wife was watching an episode of Community and one of the characters said something that kind of made me feel old, but mostly made me realize that technology has created a gap in my vocabulary. Here’s the line:

Jeff: How old is he again?
Annie: 30-something I guess. He has a land-line and uses the word album.

So, in addition to the fact that we still have a land line — though we probably wouldn’t if our building’s intercom didn’t require one — I noticed they categorized the use of the word ‘album’ as something 30-somethings say because they haven’t adapted to the iPod generation yet and still think of music as LPs. Which I found odd. Maybe some people do that, but that’s not why I say it.

Yes, I say album.

Assuming that the writers assumed It’s not that I grew up using records. My dad did, and my brother had a few, but I started with tapes, then went to CDs, then ditched CDs for MP3s. Probably earlier than most people, actually. But I did always refer to collections of music by the media in which they were distributed…a new Van Halen tape or a new Soundgarden CD.

Yes, I listened to Van Halen.

Anyway, I stopped equating collections of music to the distribution medium once I stopped buying CDs six years ago. Without a physical medium to refer to when a band released a new collection of music, I couldn’t think of a better alternative than to call them albums. What else was I supposed to call them?

And it’s not as if the concept of releasing/purchasing music in batches went away…music is still released to physical and online stores in named collections, awards are still given for ‘best album’, and so on.

So, I’ll continue to refer to new musical releases as albums, until the day when record labels (yeah, uh…why do we still call them that?) let bands release songs one at a time as they feel like it, and the whole silly setup starts to make sense, and the anachronism dies. Like photo albums.

And yes, I used to have photo albums.