Think Tank Glass Taxi

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It does exactly what it's meant to.

The Long Version: Think Tanks's Glass Taxi is a backpack designed to hold a camera and long lens, with room for a small number of extras. There's no room for anything else, though, with only a small mesh pocket to hold accessories. The pouches on the side are tight to the side of the pack to securely hold a tripod or monopod, but do not stretch to hold a water bottle or have elastic to retain small items.

Build quality is very good, easily matching or beating the construction of my various cases from Domke, Petrol, Manfrotto, and Crumpler. The self-locking zippers are a brilliant design feature, and they and all of the metal load-bearing hardware have a dulled finish that's understated and will wear well. The included tripod straps have a velcro section that mates with hidden velcro underneath the side lash points, holding the straps securely in place even when the snaps are undone. Think Tank also includes far more dividers than are shown in the photographs on their web page; there's certainly enough to use this backpack to carry a complete system of small lenses and accessories if you choose to.

My typical load for this backpack is over 10Kg of camera, lenses, and tripod, but it carries it well. It doesn't counteract the effects of gravity, but during a six-hour shooting hike the pack never became an issue. Its long and narrow profile doesn't interfere with movement, it's easy to move through crowds or hand-carry on public transit, and it sits upright when it's put down. Comparing this pack to my other backpack is an extreme contrast: I love my Glass Taxi as much as I don't love the Lowepro Micro Trekker.

I may have my bag under-loaded. Because it's designed to hold very large lenses, it's boxy and deep. This means that there's a lot of movement when a tripod is attached to the side of the bag. I've solved this by adding one of the monopod straps (which don't have the snap buckles of the tripod straps) to the carrying handle at the top of the bag.

The only real flaw in the design of the pack comes in an unexpected way: insufficient velcro. Think Tank makes extensive and intelligent use of this material everywhere except for the small mesh accessories pocket on the inside of the lid/front panel. This is the only place to hold small items -- large ones won't fit in the flat pocket -- such as spare batteries or cards. However, when the bag is laid flat and the lid is completely opened to remove a secondary lens, the opening of this pouch is upside-down. There's only one small patch of velcro to secure this pocket, leaving plenty of room for the contents to slide out. I've solved this problem by keeping a second bag inside this pocket to hold my small items, but there's simply not enough room to spare for this to be an effective long-term option. Given the thoughtful design of the rest of the bag I have to assume that there's a good reason for this deficiency, but I don't see what it might be.

I'm not sure if this is my favourite bag; my Domke F6 has a special place in my cupboard after it faithfully got me through a three-week world tour. But after a tragic purchasing decision, I've spent a lot of time looking for something better before I bought the Glass Taxi based on the strength of Internet reviews. I wish I hadn't wasted my time and money and had just bought this one at the very beginning.


Spadina Subway Station

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Dance with the one that brung ya.

The Long Version: Subway stations don't need to accomplish many functions: they connect people to trains, surface transit, and the street. Somehow Spadina station manages to do it all the hard way. The streetcars come right to the mezzanine level, which is unique to this station. It's an unexpected convenience, and when the streetcars are running properly it flows very smoothly. On the other hand, when something goes wrong, it takes only a few minutes for the whole area to clog. This just emphasizes the other unique feature about Spadina station: except for the streetcar, there's nothing much else going on.

There is also a bus that runs from Spadina station, still using the surface loop that the Shuffle Demons made famous. It's hard to find, as the exit to the loading area and street is cleverly hidden around the corner and - in rush hour - behind the crowds that are waiting for the streetcar.

There's a second exit to the street level at the Bloor end, which is at the end of an unpeopled annex concealed behind a row of pillars and an abnormally large ATM enclosure. The ultra-diligent will also find the walkway to the north-south tracks here. Spadina subway station is the least-used transfer point in the Subway/RT network, and for a very good reason: it's much easier to transfer at St. George where the tracks are literally right on top of each other.

From the University-Spadina line there's another set of exits that are half-way to Dupont station. Traveling from these exits to the exits at the far end of the Bloor line's station creates the longest trip you can take on foot after paying a TTC fare. There used to be a moving sidewalk to connect the two distant halves of the station, but it was taken out and tiled over to save some money. It wasn't an unreasonable decision -- hardly anyone uses it, after all -- but I really miss it and docked an Execution point for it.

Spadina Bus - The Shuffle Demons


Lowepro Micro Trekker 200

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Some people actually like it.

The Long Version: Lowepro makes many, many backpacks, ranging from the massive and expedition-worthy to this cross between a camera carrier and a child's book bag. In September of 2007 I had an acute and decisive need for a camera backpack, and bought the MicroTrekker200. I thought that since I couldn't buy the one I love - Think Tank's Glass Taxi - I'd lug the one I was with.

What you see in the photo above is how I load my MicroTrekker. On top is an Olympus E-510 with the 35-100 f/2, and on the bottom is the Olympus E-1 wearing the 7-14 f/4. The empty space is big enough to squeeze a really small lens, but nothing else. Lowepro's own description of this bag says it will carry "SLR with attached 80–200mm f/2.8 lens (most makes) plus 3 more lenses," so while my equipment is pushing it, it's not completely unreasonable.

There are two different styles of camera bags: access bags and transporting bags. A bag that I'd choose for frequent access is a shoulder bag like the little Domke F6 or the larger Crumpler 6M$H, which carries just as much as the MicroTrekker. Backpacks are a poor choice when good access to the gear is essential, but they make up for it with the ease that they carry gear over long distances.

And this is where the problem starts. Despite its diminutive dimensions, it's possible to pack some serious weight. The backpack is built very well and shows no signs of wear or distress, but the very thin and barely padded straps are not up to the task. To make matters worse, at six feet tall, I'm far larger than the smurf that this backpack is sized for and the straps cut into my shoulders no matter how I adjust the bag. After a typical day's shooting this bag leaves me sore and with large red welts from the straps. Granted, it solved the problem that I needed it to -- getting my camera gear safely on short-hop flights when I also needed to carry on a small duffel -- but now that I'm home I don't see its purpose.

My MicroTrekker is painful to use, difficult to access, and doesn't carry more than a decent shoulder bag. Perhaps my difficulties are from the weight of the equipment that I carry, but if someone's only carrying light gear why not just use a shoulder bag? The compromised access of this backpack just isn't worth its carrying capacity. Other people disagree, which I completely understand, but I'm wracked with guilt at the thought of selling this bag because of the pain and suffering that it could cause some other photographer. When you see a craigslist ad specifying that the buyer must be under 5'6", you'll know who placed it.

Updated November 2009: I've since passed the Micro Trekker along to another photographer, who is very happy with it. There's a good reason why there's so much diversity in the type and size of camera bags available, and there's equally good reason to make sure that the one you're buying is the best one for you. Trying them in person, loaded with the gear that you'll be carrying, is far more revealing than any number of hours spent reading about them.


ROM's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal Addition

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I've actually liked it from the very beginning.

The Long Version: There's a lot that's been said about the addition to Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, which means this will be a very short review. Superficially, it's a daring and unique structure -- just like all of the projects done by Daniel Libeskind. The ROM is strikingly unique, strikingly like many other striking structures.

Jørn Utzon hasn't felt the need to revisit the theme he used in Sydney. I like modern architecture, I like the addition, and I like the way the original building has been preserved. It's just a pity that the ROM has settled for a cookie-cutter tourist attraction.

(An extra 'execution' point has been awarded for the way the dinosaurs are visible from the street.)


Xootr Mg Kick Scooter

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It might be cool, but I'm secretly afraid that it's really dorky.

The Long Version: Scooters are nothing new, but Xootr still came a little late to the party: the Razor had already dominated the market with its children's toys. This scooter is a completely different vehicle, made for adults and very high quality. Forget what you think you know about small-wheel transportation.

The Xooter Mg is named for its one-piece magnesium deck - at least thats where the Mg comes from, there's really no explanation for the "Xootr" part. It rolls beautifully, can go forever down even mild grades, and does very well over sidewalks and roads alike. (Uphill and headwinds can be a challenge.) Larger bumps, curbs, and the occasional pothole are solved by just putting a foot down and 'stepping over' the obstruction. With reasonable effort I can keep up with slow bicycles and pass people on rollerblades. I've used a GPS to check my speed, and I'm most comfotrable moving at about 15-18 km/h. Over a typical distance scooting averages out to be twice as fast as walking, which is better than it sounds since it takes just as long for traffic lights to change and having a scooter just means that I spend more time waiting for them.

An ideal scooter distance is between 1-5 kilometers. Anything shorter isn't really worth the time savings, and anything longer would be better served with a bike or public transit. It's possible to ride the scooter long distances - my personal best is 16KM - but it takes some training. I was surprised to learn that kicking isn't the hard part: it's the hundreds of up-and-down motions with the standing leg that accounts for most of the effort. The instructions say to alternate legs every so often, but I'm usually not very diligent and I'm more confident around potholes, people, and streetcar tracks when I can put my right foot down. The scooter is very quiet, unlike a skateboard which gives pedestrians fifteen minutes' notice, so expect to startle people and behave accordingly.

It's worth noting that the Xootr Mg is a lousy cargo vehicle. Any bag carried in the hand or on the handlebars will swing wildly and hit the steering column. It is also nearly impossible to ride with only one hand on the bar. This means that anything carried for moderate distances or at a normal speed needs to be worn in a secure sling pack or backpack, which means added weight for all of those hundreds of step-up exercises. This isn't the end of the world, and I typically carry an extra five or ten pounds of stuff without problems, but it's not like a bike with a rack and panniers. For quick trips close to home, I can make it the few hundred metres from Cora's Pizza or the local convenience store with something in my hand, but it's slow and awkward. And no, even I wouldn't put a basket on the front. That would look dorky.

(Updated: my thanks to Jeff who left a comment below to let me know about a basket-equipped Xootr. I still have some doubts about the look, but it's probably just fine when the scooter's being ridden. My problem is that I only see my scooter when I'm not on it. Jane H's note about the new Crossrack is also worth checking out, as it will hold a standard bike pannier.)

I highly recommend the carrying strap that you see on the front of mine. The real advantage of a scooter over a bike or rollerblades is how easily it goes away when you don't need it any more. Bikes need to be parked and locked, and are always at risk of being stolen. Rollerblades (sorry, "in-line skates") usually can't be worn indoors, meaning that spare shoes need to be carried and used. But it's a ten-second job to fold the scooter - it can be done while walking - and then the strap lets me carry it slung with no effort at all. It's a little bulky for narrow shopping aisles, but easy to walk with when I'm coming home loaded with groceries.

Xootr also sells a fender. I had it installed at one point, but took it off because I couldn't make it stop clanking every time I hit a bump larger than a crack in the asphalt. The brakes disappear when the wheels get wet, so it's not that much of a sacrifice, and I don't miss the 'rear brake'. For safety at night I've added a front light and a lot of black reflector tape.

My two complaints, besides the fender, is that there's occasionally a creaking when the deck flexes, and that after a couple of years of light use the pin that holds the folding hinge in place has stopped working properly. It's a neat design with a spring-plunger to lock and unlock it, but it's stopped springing back, and no amount of WD40 or persuasion has helped. I've ordered a replacement - $12 with shipping - and have been using my keys to pop the locking mechanism back into place until it arrives. Not a big deal, and I'm happily using it for my commute to work and any solo trips around the neighbourhood.

(Updated: The new pin has been received, after only moderate drama courtesy of UPS, and it has given the scooter new life. I had forgotten how much the ability to quickly collapse the scooter adds to its versatility. I'll use it to do a slow easy roll down the halls of Spadina Station and can go through the full-height turnstiles without breaking step. Even without collapsing the handle, folding the scooter makes it much easier to navigate through the congested aisles of the local 7-11.)

It's nearly impossible to not smile while riding this scooter. It's the same kind of feeling as when I had my first bike: freedom and speed for no effort. If something tragic happened to my Xootr, I'd buy a new one immediately - especially now that they're making the decks in different colours.

But wait, there's more! A second installment of my Xootr MG review is on-line. Six months and five hundred kilometers later, how did it hold up? Find out now!

And there's still more! I've also bought the Xootr Swift bike, and its review is also on-line. Read it here!

Olympus E-1 DSLR

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's old and has been replaced by the E-3.

The Long Version: The idea behind the E-1 was to create a totally new camera system specifically designed for digital photography. In this Olympus succeeded. The problem came when the camera hit the marketing department. Intended as a "pro" camera, the E-1's specifications were only comparable to mid-range Canon and Nikon cameras, and they were already dated by the time the camera reached the market. Reviewers in general, both those I respect and those I don't, thought that the camera system was doomed. (Some, notably those on Desperate Pixel Review, are clearly still bitter at being wrong.)

The E-1 turned out to be a really good camera. Apparently when Olympus says "pro" they mean build quality and reliability, which is always reserved for the top-tier models no matter which camera brand you choose. It just happens that Olympus's top is at an affordable and accessible price. This is the main reason why I use Olympus cameras today: a weather-sealed lens and body for $2500 simply had no competitors. Sure, I could have done what Canon and Nikon users do with their cameras when it rains, and stuff them in garbage bags (or just stay home) but why would I spend decent money for a camera that belongs in a cupboard or in the garbage?

It's also worth noting that in many ways the E-1 was ahead of the competition. Its 3 frames per second was as good as any in the price range, and Canon's 20D didn't offer a spot meter. The dust buster (sensor cleaner) really worked at a time when other manufacturers scoffed at the idea, and it's still better than the systems those same manufacturers now offer. It has many little quirks and ergonomic flaws, and the resolution and auto-focus systems are now outdated, but it still stands as one of the best digital single lens reflex cameras ever made.


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