Photo by Graeme & Sara Bunton & Peele, used under Creative Commons license

Here’s your future

A week ago tonight Toronto was hit by rains of historic proportions. We got pounded. We got soaked. We learned to convert metric to cubits.

The story of the storm and the aftermath has been well-covered in the usual places. Torontoist had lots of great pictures, including of the overnight extraction of passengers from a hot, stranded, snake-ridden GO train.

Nellie had a bit of an ordeal getting home, but for the most part we got off easy. I know people who lost their basement or lost their car, or both. Half the people in the GTA had brutal commutes home, often abandoning their cars after they ran out of gas.

For my part I was lucky, with maybe a little farmer’s son’s weather instincts thrown in there too. I was working away at my office when, around 4:40PM, I turned and looked out my window. It just looked…wrong outside. It was too dark, and the sky was an odd colour. My window faces south, so I couldn’t see the huge cloud coming south toward us from the north. Still, my gut was telling me this wasn’t going to be just another rain storm, and I didn’t have an umbrella — the weather forecast hadn’t called for anything other than sprinkles at noon. I brought up my favourite weather site, and it said there would be no rain for 20 minutes. 20 minutes is just enough time for me to get home, so I went for it. I put my computer to sleep, grabbed my bag, and took off. I wouldn’t normally do that. I’d normally wait it out, or borrow an umbrella from someone, or just be okay with getting wet. But this seemed different.

Once I got outside I was even more sure that it was going to be heavy-duty. Growing up on the farm we could always tell when it was going to rain, but yesterday I felt that sensation much stronger than I remember feeling it before. I looked north when crossing Yonge Street, giving me a clear look all the way to the top of the GTA. I saw the biggest, blackest cloud I’ve ever seen. It actually looked like the cloud-covered UFOs from Independence Day. I hurried up.

Luckily a subway train came quickly, and a few stops later I got off. This picture was taken from the 70th floor at Scotia Plaza, probably around the time I was getting off the subway. I got to our building, feeling only a few tiny drops as I entered the lobby. 30 seconds later, by the time I’d taken the elevator up to the condo and looked outside, I saw this:

So yeah…I was pretty lucky. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, what we experienced was minor compared to the flooding in Alberta or especially the train explosion in Lac-Megantic. But I’m still glad I didn’t get caught in it.


Photo by Graeme & Sara Bunton & Peel, used under Creative Commons license

Photo by Adam Fagen, used under Creative Commons license

I couldn’t decide whether to call this post “the risin’ of Weizen” or “the Porter new order”

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a former colleague, an ex-Torontonian who now lives in England. He knows I’m a beer fan, and mentioned that a few night before, at some bar not necessarily known for the their beer selection, he’d been able to try a Le Trou Du Diable Shawinigan Handshake. Over his week-long visit he’d noticed a much more extensive penetration of craft beer around Toronto than when he’d left four or five years ago.

I’d slowly started to recognize the same thing of late, but hearing my friend’s observations just cemented it. Places like Smokeless Joe, C’est What, and Rebel House had been carrying the torch for craft beer, especially Ontario craft beer for ages, but I’d noticed a shift in the clientele of such serious beer places, especially Volo. It wasn’t the same faces, the same beer geeks, every time. We’d see people trying new beers, searching out new releases, willing to be educated. Beerbistro was probably at the front of that tide, with places like Bar Hop, Wvrst, Bellwoods, and Indie Alehouse forming the second wave.

The size and makeup of the crowd at this year’s Session Toronto was a huge indication of how craft is quickly becoming the expectation. Another is the fact that Spotlight Toronto has run a ’30 days of Ontario beer’ feature the last few years, and Mike DiCaro’s series wrap-up post does a far better job of exploring and summarizing this shift  than I’ve managed here:

“Sure there was the rare brewery making weissbier and seasonals like an imperial stout, but the vast majority of what you encountered were pale ales with an amber ale or IPA being exotic. Even though it was only ten years earlier that time feels like eons ago. It has evolved into a completely new environment for craft beer lovers today. The bold, flavourful and hop-forward American-style IPA has become de rigueur and you can find a local craft example of just about every style imaginable […] .”

My favourite example of the shift might be Triple A, for all intents and purposes our new local. Make no mistake, it was the food that drew us here, and the food that’s kept us coming back. The beer selection for the first few months was basic; the most adventurous beer on tap was Mill Street Tankhouse. For the past several months, though, while the menu still contains the PBRs you’d expect in such a lo-fi place, they also carry Kensington FishEYE-PA, Flying Monkeys Stereo Vision, and Amsterdam Big Wheel — none of them exemplary beers, but a definite step-up from their original mass offerings, and a nod to the demand out there for decent, interesting, local beer.

I, for one, welcome our delicious new overlords.


Photo by Adam Fagen, used under Creative Commons license

Tension grows and the whistle blows

I love sports. The classic match-ups. The iconic venues. The unforgettable moments.

I was lucky enough to be back in Boston last weekend for work. In between conference sessions I had a pretty good steak at Davio’s, made a return visit to Stoddard’s to meet a friend, saw the memorial on Boylston Street, and drank a few good pints of craft beer (Allagash White, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout, Ommegang Abbey Ale) at the conference’s hotel pub. But mostly I was lucky because I got to experience one of those iconic venues. I got to watch a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, from atop the Green Monster no less.

I ate a ballpark dog and drank a Sam Adams. I leaned out and touched Carlton Fisk’s foul pole. I listened to the crowd sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” and, much more emphatically, “Sweet Caroline”. I watched David Ortiz crank a 439-footer to straightaway center not a week after his hilariously inspirational speech following the bombings. I watched the Sox beat Houston 7-2 on a blustery April evening and couldn’t think of anything more Bostonian to do.

The next day I flew back to Toronto, just ahead of my parents who flew in from Moncton for a (not quite) two-day stay. We had dinner at Starfish, explored the Distillery District, and sampled some of the breakfast sausage we made last weekend, but the real reason they were here was to see one of those classic match-ups: the Montreal Canadiens vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. Nellie had somehow lucked into gold seats for the final game of the season, and gave up her seat so that my dad could watch his first NHL game in 49 (!) years and our first together.

Luckily for me, my Canadiens won. I felt bad that my dad had come all the way from Nova Scotia to watch his beloved Leafs lose, but I’m sure he felt the same way I would have had my team lost: just getting to watch such a big game together is now one of those unforgettable moments that sports can sometimes produce.

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.

Photo by Subsetsum, used under Creative Commons license

If I was in a band, "Fahrenheit Bayonet" would be the name of our next album

About twelve years ago, while visiting an aunt (and my mother, who was visiting from out of province) we did a quick side trip to the Aberfoyle Market. No, I don’t know why either. While there, I decided to buy an old bayonet from an older gentleman selling war memorabilia. It was marked ‘1903’, which I took to be the year, and seemed to have a few Arabic characters scratched into the bottom of the blade. I’m not sure why I bought it; it’s possible I was re-reading books about WWI, or was just bored and saw something at the market that seemed interesting. I held onto it for all these years too, through two or three moves, even though there was never really anywhere to put it. I just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it; there was craftsmanship to it, and it clearly had a story. I did hope it wasn’t a bloody one though. A little interwebby sleuthing tells me it was actually a British Enfield P-1903 1st Model SMLE bayonet.

A couple of weeks ago I walked into my favourite recent addition to my neighbourhood, Fahrenheit Coffee. I don’t even like coffee, but I like their coffee, and have become accustomed to drinking one of their Americanos each morning. They’re cool guys in there too — friendly and funny, and they remember my drink and mark my prepaid card for me so I’m in and out quickly. Anyway, that day a couple of weeks ago two of the staff were talking about collectibles, and one of the guys — Benny — said he collected bayonets.


A couple of days later I went back for another caffeine boost. Benny wasn’t working, but I left the bayonet with Benny’s colleague Brad. He thanked me and said he’d get it to Benny, who’d be pleased. Great. Cool. I went on my way, happy that Benny’s day would probably be made when he came in. A week or so later I was in and saw Benny behind the counter; he thanked me profusely and comped my coffee. Greater! Cooler! I made somebody happy and got a free caffeine burst. The universe works.

Yesterday I dropped in on the guys for my usual hit. I knew I’d nearly run out my prepaid card so, once they’d filled my cup, I made to buy a new card. Sameer and Brad smiled and told me it wasn’t necessary. Benny had bought me two prepaid cards to say thanks, and just not said anything. What a guy.

So yeah, I have a month of free coffee, basically. All for a bayonet that I’d held onto for years without really knowing why. The universe works even better than I thought.

Anyway, the moral of the story is to always buy your coffee from a local independent coffee shop. And to always have a spare bayonet.


Photo by Subsetsum, used under Creative Commons license

Day 0: Allons-y!

It’s finally time. Later today we’ll begin the long, long journey to Australia.

We’re ready. We are so ready. Our plans are made. Our bags are packed. We have outfitted ourselves for 15 hours on a plane as best one can without a fifth of whisky. Work is sorted. The cats will be well looked-after. Our papers are in order. We’re ready.

And as if we needed an extra nudge out the door, this morning in Toronto it’s grey, windy and a chilly 8 degrees.

Here we go.


Last night we had dinner with the esteemed CBGB. When it came time to pick a venue we provided a (rather long) list of restaurants we’ve been meaning to try, and they picked one: Lucien. It’s practically down the street from us but we’d never tried it for some reason.

It was good. Not great. Not bad either, by any stretch, but we weren’t blown away. My pork belly starter wasn’t the best I’ve had. Everyone else seemed to have the same reaction to theirs. My bison was pretty decent, but again, I’ve had better. The others all had fish, generally not something that interests me. The chocolate complex (five international chocolates) we shared for dessert was great in concept, but only good in execution. GB’s brownie was better. The wine list was pretty disappointing too…maybe three or four reds by the glass and as many whites. A single Ontario red in the bottle list.

I would never tell anyone not to go to Lucien if they wanted to try it out, but at about $250 per couple I’m not sure I’d recommend it either. Especially since GB and I were still kinda hungry when we left…we all went around the corner to Wine Bar for a cheese plate (CB), Miami short ribs (GB) and scallops (moi) along with their wine pairings. Nellie didn’t eat, she just samples all the Colaneri wine on the menu. We finished the evening back at our place with more wine: a bottle of the Shypoke Petit Sirah.