Scramble Intersection, Yonge and Dundas

Scramble Intersection at Yonge Street and Dundas Avenue

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's the first day.

The Long Version: Scramble intersections aren't new; they started in Vancouver and Kansas City back in the 40's. The idea has finally come to Toronto at our intersection of Yonge and Dundas, the extremely busy epicenter of advertising. It's planned for three more intersections in the downtown core, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. I've seen these elsewhere in the world, and they're as effective as they are entertaining.

Scramble Intersection at Yonge Street and Dundas Avenue Sign

The sequence is: north-south, east-west, all-way scramble, and repeat. (I remember the sequence as "NES", which some may associate with a primitive home computer.) A normal pedestrian scramble crossing would not permit pedestrians to cross any time except for the scramble period, but since no turns of any kind are allowed for vehicles, there's no reason to keep people off the road during the traffic phases. But the designers didn't quite think all of the implications through. There are now amusing and irrelevant 'don't walk' phases when the pedestrian signal is about to turn back to 'walk' in a few more seconds. The good news is that pretty much everyone ignores the walk signals at this intersection anyway.

This is a pair of firsts for me: the first video I've ever posted on-line, and my first time crossing diagonaly across an intersection in Toronto. Legally. It was entertaining.


Sigma 150mm f/2.8 Macro in Four Thirds (Olympus) Mount - The First (and Second) Month

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Time heals all wounds. I hope.

Updated 25 September 2008: My lens has come back from service, and Sigma has confirmed that there is an incompatibility between this lens and the Olympus E-3. Depending on the individual lens, it may require a firmware upgrade, performed at the service centre, or it may require a new main board. In my case, that took almost two months. Apparently the boards for the 4/3 mount are lovingly handcrafted out of pure mithril.

Updated 7 February 2009: A longer-term review of this lens can be found in part two.

The Sigma APO MACRO 150mm F2.8 EX DG HSM is clearly a lens to be taken seriously, and I'm not going to make any claims at having a full or representative experience of its quality or performance. But I did find some significant compatibility issues when this lens is used with the Olympus E-3, so if you're planning on buying this lens in 4/3 mount, read on.

There are several rigorous and reputable sites that review lenses, so if you're reading this with a serious intent to buy, I'll assume that you're already familiar with its reviews on slrgear.com and photozone.de for both Canon and Nikon mounts. They're both useful sites, and lots of people write about the ones that they own. But Sigma lenses in 4/3 mount are rare, and lenses don't always work the same way from one system to another.

For Lease was shot with my trusty and reliable Olympus E-1, which was the subject of my very first review, and the camera and lens worked very well together. The files are nicely detailed and have good tonal range, but are a bit softer than I would like to see. Physically the lens itself is very nicely built, and the "EX" finish that marks Sigma's premium lenses isn't as conspicuous as I had feared.

Here's how the lens looks on an Olympus E-1:

One of the biggest surprises with the Sigma is just how slow the focusing is. To be friendly, I'll say that it's on the relaxed side of leisurely. Now, the E-1's no speed demon when it comes to any auto-focusing, but this combination deserves special mention. It's even slower than the E-1 with the 50mm f/2 macro, which was my previous benchmark for what "slow" means. This is NOT a lens that will replace the Olympus 150mm f/2.0 for sports, photojournalism, or crawling babies. If you're thinking that the only tradeoff with this lens is that it's just a stop slower than the $2400 Oly lens - but with the bonus Macro ability - well, TANSTAAFL. But I've also tried the Sigma 150mm in EF mount on a Canon 5D, and my subjective impression is that the 5D spanks the Olympus for focusing speed. Even having used the lens on the faster-focusing E-510, I'd give Canon the advantage here. I'm looking forward to being able to try them side-by-side, along with the lens on a Nikon, and will include that in a later review.

In the meantime, here's how the Sigma 150 looks on an Olympus E-510:

A nice design feature of the Sigma 150 is its removable tripod mount. This has a simple cam-locked release that can be undone with a simple twist, allowing the collar to swing open and come off of the lens without having to dismount the camera. Very handy. It doesn't add any more bulk to the collar, and looks much nicer than the shiny silver dots that are left behind on the Olympus lenses when they're being used al fresco. The hood is well built and doesn't act like it's planning on falling off. It also comes with a souvenir lens case which is nicely built and well padded, but I'm still not quite sure how I'm supposed to use it.

Here's how the lens looks on an Olympus E-3:

You may have noticed that the lens looks a little different this time around, and that's because it acts differently. On my E-3, this one particular lens had a problem with intermittent-but-consistent front-focusing. The camera body works fine with my eleven Olympus lenses, so after one frustrating week of considering my options and testing every possible combination of factors, the lens went in for service. It's been there three weeks so far, and there's no estimate of when it will be "fixed" - where fixed means "works the way it was supposed to from the very beginning". Right now it's waiting for parts, which isn't part of Sigma's commitment to 48 hour turn-around for its professional-grade EX series lenses.

Now it's quite possible to say that this is an isolated case. But my 150 Macro worked fine - but perhaps a little soft - on my other two bodies. That suggests to me that there's something new a different about the E-3's focusing system, and that there's a fundamental disconnect between the top-grade Olympus camera and the top-grade Sigma macro lens in four-thirds mount. So in the name of research I've sought out other's experience on a large and popular forum for Olympus-using photographers. The tally was six different E-3's have been tried on a total of seven different Sigma 150mm Macro lenses, and every single one has had front-focusing issues. Three of those same lenses were also used on other E-System cameras, and each functioned properly. Another 150mm Macro lives happily on an E-510 without any problems at all. I think the conclusion pretty much draws itself on this issue.

My first month with my Sigma APO MACRO 150mm F2.8 EX DG HSM has been frustrating, disappointing, time-consuming, and very educational. My conclusion so far is that I won't be buying any more Sigma lenses because the danger of them not being inherently compatible with future Olympus bodies, while slim, is very real. I haven't quite gotten to the point of wishing that I hadn't bought it - but then my credit card bill only just arrived - because the results that I've seen from "fixed" copies of this lens have been spectacular. I'm eagerly awaiting its return from the service bay, because it really is an excellent macro lens that will help me in my business, and it suits my style of general photography perfectly. But I certainly can't recommend that anyone else buy this lens unless they're willing to experience some complex and multi-layered buyer's remorse.


Continue on to Part 2, in whihc our hero finally has his 150mm Macro working properly on an Olympus E-3 by clicking HERE.

The incompatibility between Sigma 150 Macro lenses and the Olympus E-3 can be fixed by upgrading the firmware on certain lenses. Since this review was originally written, Panasonic and Olympus have introduced the ability to have their lenses' firmware updated on each other's bodies. Sigma is at least a nominal participant in this project, but at the time of this update (25 October 2008) has not posted anything to the joint firmware update service. You can check this link to see if the situation has improved.


Canada Post Permanent Stamps

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: The UK got to it first.

The Long Version: Canada Post's Permanent Stamps are almost two year old, and have been a tremendous improvement over having to add those annoying 1-cent stamps every twelve months. Canada Post printed some 430,000,000 of those little cheapies in the six years before they went to the new system.

Known generically as a "no-value indicator" stamp, these little gems make life so much easier. Envelopes look better without a gaggle of little ones tagging along, and I get to forget all about how much our current postal rate is when I find a few stamps hidden at the back of the drawer. Canada Post gets to print far fewer stamps, and everyone wins.

Good ideas spread: the same basic system can also be found in a couple of other countries, like the United States, Singapore, Finland, Israel, Belgium, France, Norway, Monaco, and Sweden.


Remington Liner-Lock Pocketknife

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It cuts stuff--is anything else about it important?

The Long Version: This Remington pocketknife is very small at only 5 3/4 inches open, but poses less of a 'grip' problem than other small knives due to the rubber coating on the handle, which I believe was pre-printed in the camo pattern before it was applied.
Larger knives in this series have partially-serrated blades and pocket clips. I would have hated the former but welcomed the latter.

All are between a $15 and $20 retail, so I was surprised at the high quality you get with these inexpensive tools.
Opening is a one-handed but two-stepped affair, with the blade started out by pressing on the serrated fingerguard then flipped open easily with the thumb button. The first step gets you past a ball-detent's resistance, which is a smart little detail that holds the blade securely in the closed position.

The liner lock is actually a bent part of the back side of the handle, and while it's stiffness makes closing the knife a two-handed affair, it also simplifies construction and makes the knife extremely solid when locked.

The black phosphate blade finish (also called Parkerizing) is attractive and durable, as are the Torx head screws that put it all together. I'm also fond of the blade's shape and the added safety of the finger-guards.

It's a nice little knife.
I may get a bigger version for more serious jobs now that I know how well-made they are.


Food Court, Toronto Life Square

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's the second-best in the area.

The Long Version: This isn't a review of Toronto Life Square itself, which its patron, Toronto Life magazine, called "Suburban Brutalism" and "one of North America’s largest series of billboards". The food court – take-out restaurants with a common cafeteria-style 'dining' area – on the third floor is all I'm concerned with right now.

The decor of the building is an interesting take on industrial-institutional minimalism. There's some effort to keep it as a flexible and open space, with most tables being bolted down contrasting with a section that's able to be re-arranged. The mechanical systems are left exposed, and about the only true decor is the patterning on the floor. The whole feeling is that the design choices were based on what will best endure the riot, but perhaps that's because of it's similarities to the design of the food court at the Scarborough Town Centre - before the renovations.

Even after being there many times, I still can't quite make sense of the map. My impression is that it's very generous in its perception of space; the walkway between the two escalators is so narrow that when it gets busy - if it gets busy - there's bound to be problems with people waiting for food and people passing through. Both groups can get impatient and grumpy, so this doesn't seem like a great mix. It won't help that the escalator down is so hard to find that they've used decals on the floor to show the way to it, and now a large banner hangs over it. The overall result is an odd mix of open space and claustrophobia.

Even at its peak, I've never seen the food court more than half-full. I've never had a problem finding a table, and there's never much of a line for food. Yet somehow the volume level during the lunch rush is always at a dull roar. I've measured it as between 76 and 79 decibels over the course of about half an hour, and the spot that I took the readings from is where the yellow paper is on the nearest table in the photo above. According to those arbitrary and imprecise charts that float around, this is something like eating lunch next to a running vacuum cleaner or dishwasher. Ordering food is difficult, and conversation is a challenge. It makes spending time in the area unpleasant, even more than the uncomfortable furniture does. Even when the food court is deserted, the mechanical systems are a strong addition to the ambiance of the area. I suppose sound-absorbing treatments wouldn't endure a riot.

Updated December 2008: Since I wrote this review, the food court has become more popular, and they've had less need to run the A/C on full blast. So it's now less noisy in the off-time, and a little more crowded during the peak times. And as the days have gotten shorter, I've gained a new appreciation for the little area that has extra lighting. It's either set up as a study area for students from Ryerson, or as a way to discourage non-studying teenagers from loitering where they're secluded. Either way, it's a nice touch that I appreciate, and I've bumped the execution rating up to a solid average to reflect that.

I've also had a chance to sample more of the cuisine; Subway is good but usually too crowded, Opa has become less of a personal favourite, California Thai is a favourite for myself and my co-workers (try the Ho Fun and/or green curry), and Caribbean Queen is also decent. Look for more reviews in the future.

Updated Again, January 2013: Four years later this food court has become quite popular, and there are times when I need to circle around to find a seat. Part of its activity is because of the university that surrounds it on two sides; it's not uncommon to see students camped out for what must be hours at a time. Still, I do prefer this capacity reduction to having security guards patrolling to evict loiterers.

I've added an audio recording of the lunch-time ambiance to my sound blog: Robertson Sound - Food Court.


Giottos Rocket Blower

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Price is a difference, but not the only difference.

The Long Version: They look like a gimmick. The little stand-up feet that give the Rocket its name come across as silly, but they do stop it from rolling and reduce the amount of space the blower takes up on a shelf. And far more important than its passing resemblance to a Nerf football, it has let a second-tier manufacturer of photographic accessories brand something that would otherwise be generic.

I don't normally worry about dust, since my Olympus SLRs are fairly resistant to it, and my shooting style doesn't bring it out. But it is nice to be able to clean off lenses and my rarely-used filters before using a microfiber cloth on them, and every six months or so I do dust out my cameras just to maintain some fellowship with my Canon-using colleagues. And there's nothing better for clearing off slides before I put them through my scanner.

I have tried other dust-removal methods. Canned air is a bad idea: even the 'dry' type can introduce more problems than it solves. I also frequently use a no-name blower bulb, and it's not as strong as the Giottos and the nozzle wobbles when the bulb is squeezed. Just blowing on something is risky for camera sensors - spittle kills - and is too much like work for everything else. I've even tried a turkey baster that needed a new career, and it just didn't do the job.

If you need a blower bulb, and practically everyone does, spend the few extra dollars on a Rocket. If nothing else, at least you can think to yourself: it looks like a Nerf football.


Nintendo Wii & Wii Fit

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Wheeeeee!

The Long Version: Nintendo saw the writing on the wall. Back around 2005, they decided that since they couldn't win against Sony's Playstation and Microsoft's xBox, they would play a different game. Grand daddy Nintendo, the pioneer of the game system, decided that it was going to play smarter instead of harder, and took a tremendous chance on being able to build a new market.

It worked. If you've ever thought that owning a video game system might be fun, and bought one only to discover that it wasn't, the Wii is for you. Nintendo has targeted adults, especially parents, and you'll probably never need to know what FPS stands for. The motion-sensitive controllers - sometimes called wiimotes - are quick to learn and bring an entirely new experience to 'playing video games'. The whole thing feels like an Apple product designed after an Anime convention, and it's just a lot of fun.

The controllers are clever and allow a lot of good things, but it's the balance board that comes with the Fit package that is the pinnacle of wii-ness. They're so hard to find that I was half expecting them to come with a free Cabbage Patch Kid, but having finally brought one home I understand their demand. While the Yoga-class-in-a-box aspect has its appeal for many people, there are some really neat games that are included with the board that everyone will play. Imagine skiing by shifting your weight from side to side instead of punching buttons. The Wii controls makes other systems look primitive: by the old standards even television is "interactive". You push buttons, the screen changes. What fun.

The Wii is still new to Penny and I, so maybe wii're still in the initial infatuation phase. But so far wii've both been enjoying it and using it nightly, where it has replaced watching DVDs and surfing the internet. Wii've also found (sorry, that's the last time) that by being active by playing it's easier to get other things done, so our personal work and interpersonal lives have benefited as well. It's been all positive with no down side except for the small dents it has left in our credit cards, but compared to the cost of a gym membership and a few seasons of Due South, it's an excellent deal.


The Nature of Photographs, by Steven Shore

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's an excellent replacement for The Photographer's Eye.

The Long Version: First of all, I like Steven Shore's photographs. Not everyone does. I like what he has to say with them, and I like what he says about them and many other photographer's photographs in this book. Not many people - even most photographers - are going to be as interested in this kind of introspection.

It's impossible to look at The Nature of Photographs without also seeing the influence of The Photographer's Eye by John Szarkowski. They both deal with photographs as objects and as the results of decisions, and Shore wrote his book as an extension of a class he taught at Bard College that used The Photographer's Eye as a 'text'. Szarkowski's collection of photographs requires a great deal of inventiveness on the part of the viewer to determine why they were included - or perhaps a good instructor to guide the student would be ideal. Steven Shore must have taught a great class, because his book provides useful insights and instruction without stifling the viewer's own insights.

The book opens with the question: "How is this photograph different from the actual scene that Robert Frank saw...?" Teaching the viewer to answer that question for themselves - it isn't provided - and understand more about photographs as objects and as interpretations covers 125 pages and includes the work of over sixty photographers. Some photos are provided simply as further examples, but many of them have small notes about what they have been included to demonstrate, and they are collected into chapters detailing different aspects of an image. The influence of The Photographer's Eye is unmistakable, but the execution rises above its predecessor.

The Nature of Photographs is a book about photographs more than photography as an act, and as such it's more intellectual than instructive. It certainly isn't for dummies. But for photographers who have moved past the technical instructions, and for others who are interested in an esoteric branch of media literacy, this is a book that's worth owning.

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