Timbuk2 Messenger Bag (Large and Custom)

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Choose which of your children will inherit it.

The Long Version: Timbuk2 has been making messenger bags for a while now, and they've gotten pretty good at it. I've liked their bags for some time, but I needed to work my way up to buying one. The deciding factor was that Penny and I have this running competition to see who owns more bags, and this one really put me out in front. A large customized T2 counts for double.

Seriously, I ran into some difficulty with my Seal Line Urban bag, which I now consider my 'summer' carryall. It's very nice, but when slush season came I needed something large enough to carry a pair of indoor shoes. The theme of needing a bigger bag than the one that just barely fit my stuff wasn't a new one, and when I needed to solve this particular problem for my camera gear it worked out rather well. So I applied the same logic and went for a really big bag. A really, really big bag.

This is the "Large" size, with a rated volume of 35 liters. To give a sense of scale, that's an American-sized office chair that the T2 bag is sitting on. Inside is a week's worth of supplies, including a box of 8 frozen 6oz steaks,two kilos of rice, and a 2L bottle of laundry detergent. It's actually been a challenge to find things that won't fit; I've used this bag to pack enough clothes for a four-day trip. The lunch bag that fits nicely in my 16L Seal Line bag will fit sideways in this one, with enough room left over to carry my winter boots and two water bottles, along with my flashlight, sunglasses, and little camera. The double-wall construction has a waterproof liner under the ballistic nylon outer shell, but it's flexible and will change its shape to fit awkward stuff. Its size is almost a liability, as it can be hard to get into it past the large semi-floppy lid. (Lengthening the strap when I need to get into the bag makes all the difference.) When emptyish the bag is very form-fitting, and when full it's quite bulky, but I've never felt like it couldn't do what I wanted it to do. The only caution is that there's no padding in the bag, so I needed to learn how to load it to prevent things from poking into my back.


I used the Build Your Own Bag option to get a custom colour scheme as well as a couple of other options not available in stores. My colours are Navy-Copper-Navy, with the logo also in Copper. You'll notice that the logo and the centre panel don't quite match, which is not unreasonable considering that they're completely different materials. Other additions are the grab handle at the top of the bag, which is only standard on their computer messenger bags, and the badly-named Center Divider. In the Large bag this is a pair of fabric panels that are stitched into the seam along the back of the bag; the panels are joined in the middle by a velcro spot, giving two thin full-length 'slots' to put things. It doesn't divide the width of the main space or cross the centre of the bag, but it does provide a place to put books, papers, or other items to keep them separate from the main cargo area. In short, it's the back panel visible at the back of the bag in the monochrome grocery shot above. I also chose a light blue liner to go with the Navy exterior.

The other build-to-order option that I chose is a left-handed bag. This took a great deal of puzzling for me to figure out, and I'm still not quite sure I wasn't just lucky to get what I did. The website's description is: "Right Handed: Design the bag to be worn over your left shoulder / Left Handed: Design the bag to be worn over your right shoulder". The picture of the bag on the T2 BYOB page doesn't change when the choice is toggled, and there's no explanation of what the difference is.

I eventually chose the left-handed option, and got it right. The left-handed/right-shouldered choice puts the strap's cam-lock length adjustment on the side of the bag that faces forward when the bag is worn on my left hip - the side with the logo. This makes it easy to lengthen the bag while I'm wearing it, which is essential for easier access, as well as snugging the bag up for a more comfortable carrying position. The T2 website (and my Seal Line bag) both have this adjuster on the right side, so I suspected that this was the 'normal' configuration. I wear messenger bags on the opposite shoulder from most people that I see, so I figured that I needed the other one from the default setting on the BYOB page. Whether it was a brilliant insight or just luck that led me to get the correct one is irrelevant: the 'handedness' of the bag makes a difference, and the BYOB process doesn't make it very clear.

Of course, I could have just asked Timbuk2 my questions instead of risking getting an expensive and non-returnable bag wrong. The customer service team (let's call him Tim) was awesome when I had a question about shipping, getting me exactly what I needed to know and then going beyond that to do my follow-up research for me. He was very quick and friendly, and actually read my e-mail. (You wouldn't think that's remarkable, but the one time I needed support from the vaunted B&H Photo, they were snippy and clearly couldn't be bothered to read, let alone answer, any of my questions.) I continued to be impressed by how quickly the bag was put together and shipped, and when it arrived the colours looked exactly like I expected it to. That's a significant accomplishment even in a printed catalog, and while I do have a colour-calibrated monitor, it was more than I expected from web colours.

The other add-ons I chose was a fancy-scmancy Tough-Tek strap pad, which adds some cushioning to the strap and grips very well on my jacket, but doesn't stop the bag from being able to be slid into position. I picked up two cell phone holders, one for me and one for Penny, because these are the only ones that I've seen that are designed to attach in-line with the strap. The one you see in these photos is the Medium in Navy, but I've used an orange marker to make the grey logo into closer match to the one on my bag. I also bought the Medium sized Two-Way gadget holder, which also attaches along the strap, making it perfect for carrying my P&S camera or a larger phone that may arrive when I finally drop my current service provider and the nasty little Motorola Razr V3 that I loathe. But I digress.

Buying my T2 bag was the result of a loud snapping sound: I wanted the mother of all bags, one big enough to do anything I wanted it to, and tough enough to last until I was too old to wear it. I don't drive, so my kick scooter, walking, and public transit are my chosen ways to get around the city, and this means that I need a good bag to replace a trunk and glove box. I'm also making an effort to reduce the number of plastic bags that I use - millions of square kilometers of the world's oceans are covered in plastic garbage - and having a bag with the phenomenal flexibility of the Large T2 bag has really helped that. After more than a month of solid and varied use, I don't have a single complaint about this bag.

The T2 website does seem to change on a regular basis, so if there's an option that you want but don't see, wait a bit or send them an e-mail to ask about it. I would have taken the signature reflector tails on my bag, but only the tabs were offered when I ordered. They also seem to like having promotions and sales, so it's great for impulse shoppers. While I don't imagine I'll need another bag for a very long time - I'm trying to ignore the "want" possibility - it seems like there are many people who like their T2 bag so much that they start collecting them. That's all I need - more bags.

Incidentally, Timbuktu is a city in the Republic of Mali, a country in West Africa. It's also spelt Tombouctou, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with several significant mosques, and the BBC says that its weather ranges from 'medium' to 'extreme' discomfort due to heat. For more fun, click on this map and just keep zooming out. Now imagine what sort of bag you'd need to get there....


Toronto Taxis

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: They're a mixed blessing.

The Long Version: I don't normally take cabs. I can go for months or even years without getting in one. But over the past month I've used them four times, so I thought it was a good time for a review.

Twice I've used cabs for my typical need - getting to other transportation, such as planes, trains, or buses, with too much luggage to take on the subway or streetcar. The other two times have been to get furniture-sized boxes home without waiting for delivery. So there's a definite cargo-carrying one-way theme here: I live, shop, and work downtown, I don't drink, don't go 'clubbing', and am happy to use public transit or walk to just about anywhere I want to go. So finding taxi drivers that can find an obscure address half-way across the city when I can't put two words together has never been an issue for me.

Taxis in the downtown core are very common, but there's not nearly as many as Chicago (when I was there) or in New York (when I watch a crime TV show). The ones in Toronto are all painted in their company's colours, so there's never the sea of yellow that other cities enjoy. The cab companies argue that the differentiation helps customers choose between taxis, but I can't identify the company by the colour scheme and wouldn't care if I did. I just look for the lit dome on top that tells me a cab is available, and I suspect that's pretty typical. All of the ones that I've taken have been in good repair and were driven well and directly to my destination. So when I want to take a taxi, I appreciate their speed and availability and don't worry about the details.

The problem comes when I don't want to take a taxi. I don't subscribe to the view that they're bad drivers, because anyone who spends that much time on the road must know a thing or two about it. I do think that taxis behave erratically and occasionally recklessly. Now that I've moved out of the suburbs, taxis doing something unwise and (frequently) illegal maneuvers have replaced SUVs wielded by inattentive drivers as the biggest threat to my personal safety. I have noticed that cabs with passengers are much more patient and courteous with the other people that they share the streets with, but I'm not really sure why that would be. Odd, isn't it?


Elmer's Tri-Fold Foam Display Board +AirHogs Apache

(clickable thumbnail, so you can read the data)

Concept: 4 out of 5 (for my intended use)
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: A little lumpy

The Long Version: I got this neat foamcore presentation board a few days ago and finally tried it tonight.
I like how it is more compact when stored than it's total area, and is bigger than the poster board I previously used for product/macro photos which allows larger items and more generous cropping.
It's very well made, sturdy, and most importantly is free-standing on floors and tables and even on carpet.
And the wings can be used to block your side light sources from hitting the background, which is great.
For tabletop use you can turn it 90 degrees and use one wing underneath smaller subjects.
I'll be getting a white one soon, and looking at the other color choices next time I visit Office Max where I got this for half of it's $14 MSRP due to a savings card.
Pretty sure it's also available at Office Depot, Staples, and other stores of that type.

Let's look at my initial results:

My new AirHogs™ Apache helicopter is flying fairly close to the Elmer's background here, and the light is coming from a flash suspended just above and in front of it, which is the worst case scenario for any background material.
You can also see one of the "hinges" quite plainly.
Seamless paper it isn't, but neither is the price.

With an extra foot of subject/background separation there is much more smoothness due to the background blur nature of zoom lenses used in this range of close work.
(I was using a Sony 18-70mm 'kit' lens on my Alpha 300 DSLR, and was zoomed to various points in the middle of it's range while at approx. 2 meters from the background for all photos--the copter's distance varied).

I knew I would like this product, and all testing thus far confirms it.
A horizontal test will be performed soon.
Hopefully a big lawn/leaf garbage bag can be used to keep it free of dust and scratches when not in use.

If the remote controlled Apache helicopter has caught your interest, a full review can be found on my main photoblog:
Views Of Texas
The middle photo over there shows the 'copter even closer to the camera for an even smoother background.
There is still some texture visible but I attribute this to the angle of my off-camera flash--the Elmer's background's surface is much smoother than cheap poster board although it's definitely lumpier than standard foamcore.
But it's bigger and more convenient to use, so just light it more carefully.


"Garfield Minus Garfield" (The Book) by Dan Walsh & Jim Davis

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Marshall Mcluhan was right.

The Long Version: I reviewed the Garfield Minus Garfield website last summer, and was excited when I learned that there would be a book version. I was surprised to find that it wasn't that expensive, and even more surprised to learn that it's in stock at most major bookstores. Once the Christmas crowds had cleared, I ventured back into a bookstore to buy the printed copy.

My final surprise was at the difference between the book and the website. It sounds dumb, I know, but I didn't really expect it to be a Garfield book. It's the same size and shape as the books I grew up with. It starts with a five-page introduction by Dan Walsh, the creator of the Garfield Minus website, and is followed by the edited strips in colour, paired with the smaller black & white originals on the same page.

Sometimes removing Garfield doesn't change very much. All he adds to many of the strips is a little catty comment that's implicit or otherwise obvious. Other times Garfield was the key to understanding the strip, but that can make his removal even funnier. The strip "You'll never take me alive" (last one in my website review) is completely changed by Garfield's presence: the final frame shows him looking back into the house, not out the open door. I had always 'read' this strip as if Jon had actually been taken.

A few of the strips have been more heavily edited. One shows a frustrated Jon tapping his finger, then exclaiming "I can't stand the noise!" The original was "I can't stand the boredom" - making Jon seem much less disturbed. Others have had some of the monologue removed, or the last panel changed to one that shows a quieter moment. There's also one instance where Garfield leaves a visible hole in the rest of the strip. It reminds me of The God of Small Things, where author Arundhati Roy writes "there are no black cats, there are only black-cat-shaped holes in the universe." Perhaps that's exactly the literary allusion that Walsh was looking for; perhaps not.

I said before, and I'll repeat it here, that Jim Davis is one of the coolest guys around for not sending copyright lawyers to shut down Garfield Minus. Instead he's the one who has published this book, including a couple of pages of his own thoughts and about 25 of his own de-catted strips. (Well, they're all his strips, but he de-catted these ones himself.) His choices are much more active strips, with the humour more likely to come from a punch-line than pathos. It's an interesting second look, a chance to see the creator's re-interpretation of someone else's creative interpretation. At a poetry reading that would be terrifying, but in a cartoon it's just funny.

One of the ideas that I took away from the text in the book is this: when we're kids, we want to be Garfield - lazy, witty, sassy - but when we grow up we realize that we've turned into Jon Arbuckle. Even if that's not true, it's easy to empathize with him, and that's a big part of the humour of the new strip. I'm glad to have found this book, both to support the idea of its creation, and because it really does add some humanity that the website doesn't have.


Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm the last person to ask.

The Long Version: I feel a little silly reviewing music or a band, since I'm definitely the least-qualified reviewer on this blog to do it, and while my musical tastes are varied I have no actual knowledge of the subject. But if I let things like skill, qualification, and knowledge matter this time, where will it end? It's a troubling precedent.

I found Dragonette when they were giving a free concert for Toronto's Cavalcade of Lights -- the start of bright-christmas-tree season at City Hall (reviewed) -- on December 13, 2008. They had an hour-long show, but I have to confess that I missed half of it. What I did hear was interesting: lively, energetic music that falls somewhere between pop and electronic, and maybe a few other influences mixed in as well. The crowd was also mixed, with ages ranging from infants to their parents, and was having a good time. To be fair, I didn't check the reactions of the people who were just there to skate.

With the magic of the internet, I was able to go on iTunes and find Galore, which is their first and so-far-only full-length album. The songs' lyrics tend to be edgy verging on explicit, and the ones that I added to my iPod aren't ones that I'd play when my mother-in-law is visiting. It also isn't music to play when you want to sit and savour every subtle acoustical nuance - that's what Blue Man Group is for. But it's great for anything active, like a dance club or housework.

Dragonette's lead singer is Martina Sorbara, whose last name will be familiar to many in Ontario. Her father, Greg, is the former Member of Provincial Parliament for York Centre, where I lived at the time, and also served as Finance Minister. (His name was also mistakenly included on a search warrant or two involving a real-estate development company coincidentally called the Sorbara Group.) Dragonette's drummer is Joel Stouffer, Will Stapleton plays guitar, and Dan Kurtz plays keyboards. He's also married to Martina, which makes her motivations in the video to "I Get Around" seem a little suspect - but I digress.


Olympus 7-14mm f/4.0

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: I balready bink bat Ben Bockwell is a bitiot.

The Long Version: The Olympus 7-14mm is one of the most remarkable lenses of the last decade. It's still the widest lens designed for a small-sensor digital SLR, and its rectilinear 114 degree angle of view is only matched by the Nikon 14-24 or the Canon EF 14mm prime on their respective full-frame cameras. (The Sigma 12-24, which was bad on a film camera, doesn't count.) This is an exceptional and exotic lens. But don't take my word for it, Olympus Themseves summarize it thusly: "The great hishakai of field and unique perspective effect make you experience extraoridinary expressiveness." I'm not sure what that means, but it's certainly promising.

The ability to see wider than a right-angle corner, or all four walls in a room, is astonishing. Remember that the angle of view is measured diagonally, so even lenses with an equivalent focal length of 17mm in the 135 film format only barely do this. The 7-14 is the only lens for 4/3 that can accomplish it, as its squarer format gives more height and less width than the legacy film 3:2 ratio. So even before we look at optical quality, this Zuiko Digital lens is one of a small handful in the world that is capable of doing what it does.

When we start to look at optical quality, most other lenses fall behind. The nearly-as-wides for cropped cameras, like the Sigma 10-20 or Nikon 12-24, typically have more barrel distortion, softer corners, and/or more vignetting. Even the Nikon 14-24/2.8, which is unquestionably one of the best wide-angle lenses ever made, has greater barrel distortion than the Olympus 7-14/4. The only competitor to the 7-14 that I haven't had a chance to compare it to is the Canon 14mm f/2.8L mk2, but as a prime lens the Canon is significantly less versatile than its zoom competitors, and the price is higher than the Nikon or Olympus lenses.

One of the most frequently heard criticisms of the 7-14 is that it can't take filters. To quote a popular Internet writer who's talking abstractly but with great authority about something he has never used - not that there's anything wrong with that - "I'd personally go for the 7 - 14 mm ... One big problem though: the 7 - 14 mm lens doesn't take screw in filters, so I really can't use it... so you see how simple little features render the Olympus system of no use to me. Whoops!"

While he doesn't mention which filter he desperately needs to bring his photos to the don't-suck level, the only one that changes images in a way that Photoshop can't is a polarizer. But look at the shot below, which has the sun about 90 degrees to the camera: really wide lenses already give a polarized look to blue-sky images. Adding a C-POL filter would just make this even more severe. The 7-14 doesn't have the power of a polarizer to cut glare and reflections, but that's rarely why people actually use polarizing filters.

The 7-14 can't take a 'Protective' or UV filter, either, but I have yet to hear of a single incidence of that large front element being scratched. Given how complaint-happy the internet is, I take that as a very strong testament to the adequacy of a protective attitude over a protective filter. So if you've been boycotting this lens until Uncle Oly adds a filter ring, this is a great time to reconsider. Alternatively, the 9-18 and 11-22 both have filter rings, so if out-of-gamut blue gradients and cheap screw-on scratch protection is your thing, you may be happier with one of them.

My compatriot with the thought-experiment review of the Olympus lenses also writes that "These are expensive. I'm not jumping to Olympus because the same lenses from Canon or Nikon cost much less." (He does not later write 'So take that, Olympus, nah-nah-noodie-nah-hah!', but it's implied.) So you can imagine how chagrined he must feel now that the Nikon 14-24 is being sold by B&H for more than the Olympus 7-14. It's the same argument that's been dogging Apple computers for years: they're not actually more expensive, they're just better than everything else. When there's a direct competitor with the same quality and ability, the prices align quite nicely. Neither the Olympus nor the Nikon are cheap, but they are awesome. It's unfortunate that they cost as much as the do, but at least the Oly lens can be used on much cheaper bodies.

But there's no such thing as 'perfect'. Detail in the corners can be smeared, although I'm not clear on whether this is a lens aberration or just the inherent perspective distortion of an ultra-wide field of view. It's visible in the snow-and-tree photo above, although it's also worth knowing that the camera was less than a foot from the ground when the shot was taken. The 7-14/4 shows slight barrel distortion at all focal lengths, which is generally fixed with an adjustment level of '3' or less in Photoshop's Lens Correction filter, and vignettes slightly until it's stopped down to f/5.6. (Reality check: this also describes the excellent Canon 70-200/2.8L IS at 70mm.) Flare is impossible to prevent in a lens with so much glass and so little hood, but it still does a good job of keeping it under control. The snapshot below hasn't been adjusted or corrected for anything.

Like almost every Olympus lens that costs more than $400 - the exception being the ultrawide 9-18mm - the 7-14mm is fully sealed against dust and moisture. This is better in theory than in practice, because it's impossible to shield the large front element against rain, and snow can actually accumulate on the shallow petal hood. I managed to get some decent ultrawide Niagara Falls photos only by using a soft cloth to dry and protect the 7-14's front element between shots, but even this water-specked shot is better than the ones that people didn't take because their camera was safely buried under their ponchos. The 35-100 f/2 (reviewed) remains my favourite lens for harsh duty.

This isn't a lens that will reward casual efforts; the words "learning curve" apply to the 7-14mm more than any other Olympus lens. As my photos show, getting the most out of this lens takes skill that I don't particularly possess. The difference in size and scale between the foreground and the almost-always-in-focus background makes finding suitable subjects somewhat challenging. The foreground is vital, as anything in it - even if it's nothing - will dominate the photo. And forget about being able to blur out that pesky litter in the background: at f/5.6 and 7mm, when the lens is focused just one meter away, anything from a half-meter to infinity falls within the depth of field.

In many ways the 7-14 is the exact opposite of the 35-100, having extensive depth of field and an exotic focal length, and it produces my lowest percentage of photos that don't suck. But as I said in my review of the 35-100 (gratuitously linked again) this is the other lens that really sets the Olympus E-system apart. To say that it's a specialized lens is a bit misleading. True, I have a hard time coming up with legitimate needs for such a radically wide-angle lens, but they do exist and I'm glad to be prepared for the day when I actually see one. It's an exceptional lens and it deserves to be the second ultra-high/top-pro lens in any Olympus or Panasonic equipment collection.


Mars Pods

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Ingeniously crunchy, diabolically limited distribution.

The Not Very Long Version: These things are awesome. They're probably my favourite candy/chocolate, combining a cookie shell with various fillings made by Mars. There's a few different varieties, with the Twix being my personal pick, but they're all good. And unfortunately they're all only available in Australia and New Zealand, or at very high prices (plus shipping) through the magic of the internet.

Oh, well.


Comparison: Gitzo 2941 and Manfrotto 679 Monopods

Manfrotto: 2 out of 5
Gitzo: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Choose the one that will get used.

The Long Version: A group review of these two monopods seems appropriate, since they're both made by the same company, and they're both the only ones that I own. It would be impossible for me to review one without referencing the other.

Except for the one-leg extendable camera support attribute, these two are completely different ways to solve the exact same problem. The locks, colour, cost and material give some significant differences to choose from. Naturally, they're also both discontinued, making this comparison useful in only the most general terms. But they both support the same amount of weight, weigh about the same, and are about the same height when collapsed and extended.

Meet the Contestants:

The Manfrotto 679 is a little bit taller, and only compares to the weight of the Gitzo 2941 because it has only three sections, making it longer when collapsed as well. The aluminum-coloured aluminum 679 has been discontinued in favour of the black-coloured aluminum of the 679B, which B&H lists for $45.

The Gitzo 2941 is part of the 'Basalt' series, so it's lighter than metal and cheaper than carbon-fiber. The new model is the GM2942, which B&H has for $200.

Colour: I highly prefer the black of the Gitzo, but Manfrotto also has black versions available, even though the camping gear store where I bought mine didn't. I prefer black for its subtlety, not least because it doesn't reflect as much in windows.

Locks: The Manfrotto has flip-locks, while the Gitzo uses twist-locks. Neither system is hard to use or slow, but I do find the Gitzo's system faster to use and doesn't loosen over time. The flip-locks are bulkier and close with a snap louder than a Sony Alphas' shutter. While a lot of people seem to think that the Manfrotto's system is an upgrade over twist-locks, they're only an improvement over bad twists. Gitzo's system does not fall into that category.

Material: Some photographers forget that they're not buying racing bicycles, and look for the weight-savings of carbon fiber and other exotic materials. The reality is that the weight reduction of one's wallet is usually much greater than the weight saved by going with the different tube materials. But unlike ABC detergent, price isn't the only difference - there are real advantages from stepping up to a non-metal monopod. They transmit less vibration, giving a more stable support, and they're much more pleasant to use in a Canadian winter.

Cost: The basalt Gitzo tripod costs over four times what the aluminum Manfrotto does, making this an easy decision when cost is a primary consideration. The 679 (and its four-section friend, the 680) is a real workhorse, able to add stability and sharpness to just about any camera/lens combination. It needs no excuses.

Verdict: The Gitzo is made of a better material, with locks that are a matter of personal preference, in a colour that's also available from Manfrotto's 679/680 family, and the difference in cost is enough to pay for round-trip Greyhound tickets to an interesting and photogenic place. Spending the extra money seems silly, but what can I say? I use the Gitzo when the Manfrotto sat at home.

If the equipment isn't going to be used to take better photos, then it's a waste of whatever money it costs - even if its a great product and a great value. There's certainly nothing wrong with the 679, except for the solvable silver colour, and the rest of it comes down to personal choices. Either one will make your photographs better. Neither one will make your photos better than the other. Get whichever one you'll use.

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