Frisk Mints

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: There's no cinnamon.

The Long Version: Almost twenty years ago I was introduced to Frisk mini-mints by a mutual friend. It was the Eucalyptus flavour. He got me to try them by recounting his own first time: "I thought they were like Tic-Tacs, popped five of them, and nearly passed out." They're that strong.

Frisk mints come in these little containers that are reminiscent of getting pills from a Pez dispenser. The mints are very small - more like the cross-section of a tic-tac than anything else - so the container is also nice and petite. It fits easily in a pocket, meaning that they're easy to carry and easy to pop. At 40 mints and about $3 (with tax) per pack it's not a cheap habit, but it beats smoking in just about every way. 

Eucalyptus (top in photo) was my first introduction to these mints, and it's strong enough to water the eyes of the uninitiated. Take them one at a time. The more typical mint flavour that I've tried (either Spear or Winter, I can't tell the difference) is much more mild and doesn't have the sinus-clearing power of the koala-bait. There's also the extra-strong 'Black' (second in photo), which is close to Eucalyptus in potency but not as striking. But the real hidden gem of the line is the Orange flavour, which is exactly what I remember Children's Chewable Aspirin tasting like. Since I'm in a perpetual quest to recapture the happiest parts of my childhood, this is a real win for me.


TTC Token Holder

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's actually a pill container.

The Long Version: This is a handy little thing that solves a pretty major problem: carrying and keeping track of TTC tokens. They're about the size of dimes, cost $2.25, but are worth $2.75 - the current cash fare - each. So having them handy and secure is not a trivial task.

Enter the Life Brand Pill Tote Key Ring. It has a 20mm inner diameter, which is just a touch larger than the size of the tokens, so it holds them without a lot of extra rattling. Twenty will fit in a nice neat stack, but even when the container is almost empty the plastic is quiet. It opens with three-quarters of a turn, and has an O-ring that will keep the contents dry. The jump ring is solid and it's not about to separate from the key ring and get lost. My only complaint is that the threads are fairly fine, and the container can be hard to close. A coarser thread would be easier to handle even if it needed another half-turn.

I'm still surprised that there's no product specifically designed to hold TTC tokens, and don't know what other people do. But the keychain pill fob costs less than three dollars, and it's easy to find in any Shopper's Drug Mart, which means anywhere in Toronto. It's hard to imagine anything working better than this already does, and it certainly wouldn't cost less.

(Updated March 2010: thanks to the tip from the comments section, I've been able to find the elusive purpose-built token holder. You can click to read my review of it.)


Regina's Pizza

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Great pizza. They deliver.

The Long Version: Pizza is usually fast food, but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes it can take half an hour, or maybe a little more, and sometimes it isn't $4 for a dinner-sized slice. In short, not all pizza needs to come from Cora's. There's also Regina's.

I've never actually been inside of their restaurant on College street, but it looks very nice, with real tablecloths. Instead, I was introduced to the food years ago by a very Italian co-worker who would get a pizza delivered every month or two. It's not cheap, but it's worth it and a large can feed three or four, or be stretched to a second meal. The sauce is awesome, there's plenty of cheese, and it's cooked perfectly. Penny and I get it with roasted red peppers and grilled chicken - maybe not traditional, but very nice.


Domke F1X "Little Bit Bigger" Camera Bag

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Watch your back.

The Long Version: I've already reviewed the Domke F6, which I really like, so I'll assume that people reading this one will already know that Domke bags are very well-built out of heavy canvas with no padding, except for the bottom of the bag, and use a movable lightly-padded insert to hold lenses.

Domke's canvas bags come in four different colours, and since I already have the 'Sand' colour, this time I went with the 'Olive'. Judging by the photos I've seen online, this colour is one that many people can't photograph accurately. I'm generally pretty good at getting colour right, but every monitor looks a little different, so keep in mind that this bag is more green than brown. You can use the the photo above as a colour and grey reference, and the calibration targets also give a handy sense of scale. This is a big bag.

There's a lot said about camera bags that don't look like camera bags, and usually it's not true. A boxy bag carried by a guy doesn't not look like a camera bag just because it's brown instead of black. But the Domke F1X is so far outside the norm that maybe it really can pass for something else: even a photographer that I was out shooting with had assumed I was carrying a pseudo- or surplus-military duffle bag that just happened to have camera gear in it. If I hadn't been stuffing the 35-100 'mackerel' lens into it he might never have figured it out.

Deep breath: 600-page textbook, Stylus 770SW, Olympus E-510, Panasonic FZ18, Oly 11-22mm, 1.4 teleconverter, E-300 with 35mm macro attached, FL-36 and FL-50 flashes, E-3, 50/f2 macro, 7-14mm f/4, 14-54, 14-42, 50-200mm and Sigma 150/2.8 Macro, with their tripod mounts detached, 35-100 f/2, tripod mount and hood attached, ezybalance (folded), small 'pod' beanbag, manfrotto tabletop tripod with extension, two Gepe cardsafes, and a novel. That's more than the average Olympus garage sale - it's almost my entire collection. I shot these photos with my E-1 with the 14-45, a lens that I've never actually used before.

The lens compartment has been filled. Clockwise from top left, the Olympus 14-54 is on top of the 14-42, the 1.4TC is under the 50-200, the Sigma 150 is standing alone and face-up, and the 50/f2 macro is on top of the 7-14. Quite frankly, this is a bit of a stretch, as the individual pockets aren't really large enough for the hoods on the 50-200 or 150 macro. That's why the 150 is reversed. There's also a 'wide-angle' insert available that has an asymmetrical pocket arrangement, and I plan on adding it to my collection eventually.

Now the rest of the bag is filled. The 35-100 is the big lens on the right, with its hood and foot still attached. On the left the E-3 and 11-22 are sitting on top of the FL-50. It's a pretty full bag - but wait, there's more!

It's hard to tell, but the E-510 body is in the right-front pocket, and the pod, tripod, and FL-36 are in the other one. The left side pocket already has the 770SW in it, and the FZ18 is about to join it, even with its hood attached. The E-300 and 35 Macro fits in the right side pocket. The card holders fit in two of the three mesh pockets in the lid, and the other odds and ends fit in the third. The Lightroom textbook and novel fit in the zippered pocket along the back.

And this is what a fully-stuffed 32-pound camera bag looks like. I'd be an idiot to actually try to work out of it, but the way it's arranged actually does make it possible. No important lens is buried unless an alternative is on top, there's a camera with a lens attached ready to shoot. The back pocket holds enough books to get through a week in an airport, or an executive portrait session, and I'm still not using the larger zippered pocket that takes up the entire underside of the lid. This bag can transport enough gear for an unsupported week-long shoot, or for a couple of photographers to be based out of when they cover an event, and can be carried by one person. Carried short distances, at least, and preferably by an assistant.

For what it's worth, here's the Domke F6 stuffed to its gills, with the remaining contents of the F1X left over. It's a great little bag, and a joy to work from, but the 35-100 is bigger than the bag, and it can't carry both the 7-14 and Sigma 150 Macro without choking. Since those are my three favourite lenses, that's a bit of a limitation. When I don't want to carry the heavies, the F6 is still the bag I choose. The Olympus E-3, 11-22, 50/2, and 1.4TC is a light and flexible combination: if I didn't like the 35-100 so much, I'd save myself a whack of money.

I didn't actually buy the Domke 'Kong' (my nickname for it, but its too obvious to be original) so that I can carry my entire inventory. All I really want is the ability to carry my E-3, 7-14, 35-100 f/2, and 150/2.8 Macro all at once, along with my sunglasses, wallet, iPod, gloves, hat, and any of the other non-photographic stuff that I like to carry when I'm also going to take photos. I'm tired of having bags that are just a little bit smaller than what I want to bring with me, so I went to the opposite extreme. There's no longer a need to leave anything home, so the F1X suits me very nicely. My only actual complaint is that the bag moves and conforms to its contents so well that once a lens has been taken out, it can be very hard to fit it back in. Sometimes I'll have to take the bag off and set it down to be able to re-pack the 35-100, which I don't need to do with my Crumpler 6M$H. But considering that the softness is what I love about the Domkes, and what I dislike about the Crumpler, it's not that big a trade-off.

Naturally, there are other bags that I could have bought, but I chose a Domke because of my experience with the F6, and the F1X because it's just so absurdly big and it has the four-point carrying handle. This might just be the last camera bag I buy.


510 Spadina Streetcar

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's supposed to be better than this.

The Long Version:The Spadina streetcar has a long history on my favourite street, even though the modern incarnation is less than twelve years old. It runs from Spadina Station (reviewed) to Queen's Quay (pr. 'Key'), and then across and up to Union Station. The schedule and map for the 510 can be found here.

The streetcar runs along its own private right-of-way, keeping it mostly out of the way of cars, and it uses tunnels for access to both Spadina and Union stations. These were the most expensive parts of the line to build, but gets the multi-million dollar vehicles past some pretty slow interchanges. And after all, isn't reliable and quick mass-transit the whole point of investing money in infrastructure?

Unfortunately it isn't that easy, because traffic is a political issue. The city apparently installed 'transit-priority signals', allowing streetcars to control the traffic lights and reduce the amount of time they spend waiting. Unfortunately they were never activated, and cars get to turn left across the intersections before the streetcars are allowed to move.

Like St. Clair, the other line that runs on a private right-of-way, Spadina only uses the standard 'Canadian Light Rail Vehicle' (CLRV) streetcars. I still remember Spadina before the private right-of-way was built, and it both streamlines traffic and gives the streetcar an advantage in bad conditions. It's not stopped by traffic congestion, or cars breaking down or getting bent in front of it, and the TTC swears that they can't provide reliable streetcar service on any route without one. But even though it theoretically provides an extra measure of reliability to the service, the scheduled speed of the neighbouring 511 Bathurst streetcar is actually faster than the 510 Spadina car. On the other hand, it does give emergency vehicles a great way to cut through traffic.

Most of the streetcars turn back at King street, allowing more cars to serve the more popular Chinatown - U of T portion of the route. But the choice of King as the turn-back point leads to some difficulty at that intersection, which is busy to begin with even before the 510 streetcars start turning on and off of it. Streetcars bunching up and creating gaps in the service is the big problem on the route, so this isn't a great start.

The limitation on streetcars is that they're on rails, and can't pass each other. When one gets full, it slows down. It takes longer to load and unload at each stop, and as the gap in front of it widens, more and more people are waiting at each stop. The design of the platforms, with narrow walkways and protruding shelter supports, makes loading and unloading even worse as two directions of passengers try to get past each other. Eventually three or four streetcars will be running close together, and the service goes down the tubes.

This is a problem that isn't likely to go away until the TTC gets higher-capacity cars, because the route routinely overloads the current vehicles, and there's a practical limit to how many can be added. The photo at the very start of this review says it all: shot an hour after the evening rush, these CLRVs are only one stop south of Spadina station, and they're both packed. Of course, a cynic might point out that the TTC already has larger vehicles, the extended ALRV ('articulated light rail vehicle') streetcars that serve many other routes. They're not used on Spadina because they're too long to safely run through the Union loop. Deducing how that problem will be resolved by a new generation of longer streetcars is an exercise for you, dear reader, because I can't figure it out.

Most of the stops are 'farside stops' which means that they're on the far side of the intersection. In some ways this is good, because it makes streetcar movements more predictable to drivers. It also slows down the route by making many streetcars stop twice.

If I was in charge of the street design, there are two things that I would like to see. One is real transit-priority signals, and they're needed throughout the downtown core. There's no reason why a streetcar that's loading or unloading should be facing a green light, and no reason why one that's ready to move should be stopped by a red one. It would improve speed and safety for everyone, including private cars. The other thing that I would change is adding near-side platforms to key Spadina streetcar stops to be used only for unloading at the driver's discretion.

The first streetcar in a chain could unload passengers while facing a red light, and then load passengers more efficiently at the far-side stop. The streetcars following could do the same instead of waiting for the first car to clear the platform. But here's the key bit: the first car could skip the loading platform altogether and continue up the line. This puts a less-crowded car in front, closes some of the service gap, and the passengers left waiting at the skipped stop will be quickly picked up by the following car. It's not fun to be skipped when waiting forever for a streetcar, but it's a routine fact of life on the Spadina route already. This would just let it be predicable and apply to the stops that need it most.

Of course this will never happen, because the unloading platform would take away the left-turn lane at Dundas and College streets, and possibly at other key stops as well. I'm not convinced that private automobiles have the inalienable right to turn left, especially when it blocks city-owned streetcars that cost millions of dollars each and can take a hundred cars off of the road, but that's just me. Most people wouldn't agree.

For a really brilliant selection of articles and comments on the Spadina streetcar, and Toronto transit in general, Steve Munro's Web Site is a must-read.


Pantone Huey monitor calibration system

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It does the basics, but without much more.

The (not very) Long Version: The Huey is a basic tool for calibrating a colour display, which is very important for photographers, and of varying importance for everyone else. But while the Huey is good, it doesn't really offer any control or features that make it anything more than a very basic product. It works. It's cheap. At the time it was introduced, it was the lowest price to hit the market, and I'm happy to have it. But if I was buying another one, I wouldn't buy this one - the Huey Pro includes some options for changing monitor gamma, and I'd look at it instead.

updated three years later: I've replaced the Huey with the X-rite ColorMunki Display with absolutely no regrets.

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