The iSlice­

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It works as advertised, and that makes me suspicious

The Long Version: Another Christmas gift that, much like the previously reviewed Open It! household multi-tool, actually works and is worth the price.
I know, I was surprised, too.

But this little gadget really does slice open envelopes and all types of consumer packaging, with no danger of drawing blood.
Perfect for the clumsy people on your gift list.
It's ceramic blade is as sharp as an ExActo knife, but for some reason won't cut skin. I suppose if you really tried you might manage some damage but in my casual testing it's been safe.

The iSlice retails around here for $5US and I have to think that's a fair price.
Especially since the designers went the extra mile and made it harder to lose in a drawer by making the metal point magnetic.
Although shown stuck to our refrigerator (with the crooked logo and Liberace) I keep mine stuck to my desk lamp for instant grab & slice action.

The name bothers me because it's yet another example of the mindless marketing people that ape the latest craze--in this case iPods.
I'm surprised there isn't a toilet tissue called iWipe.
A few years ago everything was Mywhatever due to the MySpace phenomenon.
And in the USA, every political scandal gets the word gate tacked-on the end after the infamous Watergate break-ins of the 1970s.
Noooo, 'gate' was part of the name of the Watergate hotel, not a suffix that means scandal.
Journalists are a big disappointment because it appears they don't think for themselves. Failed ad copy writers perhaps?

But I digress.

The iSlice works, makes a nice little gift, and is worth the price.
It uses modern ceramic blade technology so supposedly the edge won't get dull.
Today I used it to slice open the plastic wrap on a roll of paper towels and it did the job without cutting into the product, which was a pleasant surprise.
With envelopes I have managed to cut through the first layer of paper inside, but then I don't get much mail and use a switchblade as a letter opener anyway.

I would probably never buy something like this for myself, but having received it as a gift find that I use it often and am impressed every time.


Seiko Automatic Diver SKX781

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: The Orange Monster deserves its reputation.

The Long Version: This is a tough watch for me to review: it's a really nice watch, and compares very well to ones that cost twice as much from brands like Tissot and Tag. But I hardly ever wear it, and I'm gonna tell you why.

First of all, the Orange Monster is a watch that competes well above its price-point. The colour, while not to everyone's taste, suits the watch and is very well chosen. Orange is tough to get right, and the designers did a good job. Seiko also has a great pedigree as a watch company; they've been making watches for longer than many Swiss brands, and are one of only two companies that can build a watch movement - quartz or mechanical - without buying parts from someone else. Their R&D puts them in the top ranks, with their Spring Drive being as important as the co-axial escapement and mechanically superior. And their high-end mechanical watches, rarely seen in North America, are worthy of great respect.

The problem for my particular Orange Monster is that it's still essentially an entry-level mechanical watch, and I also own a pair of mechanical Omega Seamasters (reviewed). It sucks being the adopted younger brother to an exceptional sailor and a secret agent. Sure, as a responsible parent I can try to love them all equally, but the Seiko Diver is just outclassed and there's nothing it can do about it. It doesn't have the fit and finish, it doesn't have the looks, and it doesn't have the reassuring weight or perfect balance of its bigger brothers.

I never expected the Orange Monster to replace my Omegas, and I knew that it was never going to be a watch for daily wear. Part of its appeal to me is as a collector; a Seiko mechanical is just something that I really want to own. Another part of the appeal is that looks absolutely nothing like anything Swatch Group makes. That's a much bigger accomplishment than it seems - and I should know, since they were my employers when I bought it. Everyone in the office could immediately spot that it was from outside of the family, including the many who had only passing familiarity with the Group's products. In a world where even bad designs are duplicated, and every other watch costing under $300 can pass for a Rolex, Seiko's accomplishment in finding a unique look that isn't seriously ugly is major.

The orange monster from the side. I have no idea where the red came from.

My favourite design features are the orange dial and hands. The face is bold and immediately legible, so it does exactly what I want a watch to do, although the luminosity isn't as bright or enduring as my Seamasters. The crown being offset from the 3 position does reduce its tendency to snag or bruise, and the bezel and case design contribute to the aggressive styling of the watch. The case is tall enough that it's best worn with short sleeves: it isn't called a monster for nothing. 

The most significant problem that I have is one that probably won't matter to most people, but it's critical for me. The Orange Monster is a mechanical watch. Its power reserve, while good, isn't enough to run for the 34 or so hours that a watch sits through when it's worn every other day. It can't be manually wound, so it can't be 'topped up' in the evenings. So even when I am in the mood to wear it, the Seiko doesn't want to play. It also has a day-date display, so when it does stop and sit for a day or two, it's a real hassle to get it set again. 

If the Orange Monster was my daily wear, none of this would matter. But the extra effort of wearing it in rotation - repeatedly getting it set and keeping it running - is too much like work, and the watch isn't one that I'm going to completely stop wearing my Seamasters for. I do occasionally put it on, and maybe use it for a few days or a week, but then it goes back into its place beside the Swatches in my watch box. But, befitting its status and pedigree, it does earn the prestigious middle compartment.


The Photograph: Composition and Color Design, by Harald Mante

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: It was going to get repeated readings anyway.

The Long Version: The unassumingly titled book "The Photograph" by Harald Mante is undoubtedly the most significant book on photographic composition I have ever read. (handy link to Amazon.com.) Its subtitle "Composition and Color Design" gives the theme of the book, which looks at the photograph without any reference to the subject matter. This is purely a book of design, something of a cross between the approaches of Freeman Patterson and The Tao of Photography, but with a more analytical eye. The photographs, all taken by the author, have the highest "I wish I had taken that" factor of any collection that I have seen. Other people may be less impressed, or less receptive to this compositional guide, but for me it's been a revelation.

The chapters of the book are The Point, The Line, The Shape, Universal Contrasts, Color Contrasts, and Using The Tools. In this case The Tools include things like selective focus and vertical picture formats - most books would take this as an opportunity to explain what a camera is and when to use the pop-up flash. While I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from looking into this book, it's going to be most relevant for those who already have a pretty good idea of what they're doing.

Originally published in German as "Das Foto: Bildaufbau und Farberdesign" in 2007, the English version's publication in 2008 must have rushed the process. I can't say that I have any complaints with the translation, but my sympathies go out to the person who did it. The language and concepts can be quite dense. I have far less compassion for the person or committee responsible for the book layout, and can only hope that they had the format forced upon them from the original work. Quite frankly, the layout and typesetting is a major impediment to understanding and appreciating the content.

The format of the book is to have photos on the top half of each page, with four columns below that will hold a mix of body text, notes, diagrams and additional photographs. There's no particular order, except that the body text is most likely to occupy the edge columns and photos and diagrams will be placed in the middle, but even that isn't particularly consistent. Text is set left-justified in a 31-character line, which is difficult to read and ugly to look at. Here's the first column from page 36, under the heading "Loose and Tight Groups of Points", but without the full effect of an adjoining column of text:

A large number of points (very
small shapes, which have a
point character in relation to
the surface area) amassed near
each other or together can form
larger visual points, often with
the effect of being textured
surfaces. In a loose accumulation
of points, each point stands
individually in a surrounding
field, and visual relations with
nearby points develop. Short
visual lines and/or small visual
shapes form. Bunching the
points, however, so closely that
they touch each other visually
or materially, changes a loose
accumulation of points into a
larger point — often with the
character of a small textured
surface. Photo 5 of tourists in
Florence shows in an exemplary
fashion the development of a
tightly compressed structure
from a loose cluster of points.

Really grokking the text is hard enough without the extra challenge from the formatting.

Align Center

Here's an image of pages 108-109. The columns of content of the lower half of the pages are: body text, body text, notes on the diagrams, diagrams / body text, blank, photograph, body text. In this randomly-chosen two-page spread, the text jumps across half the page twice, and once skips a column for absolutely no reason. The images on the page don't particularly line up with the text - it's common to have to flip pages to see the photos that are being discussed - so the only purpose to leaving blank space in the middle of a sentence must be to make the text physically run for the number of pages that the photos in the chapter require.

There's a lot to read in The Photograph, and it's a book that must be read with it lying flat. Be ready to flip pages and take time with it, both because the photos being discussed will span the chapter, and because it's very easy to lose the thread of the information. The photos that are included in each chapter aren't particularly tied to the text on the page; the spread above is pages 98-99, and includes photos #12-19. The text shown here mentions - in order - photos 1, 5, 6, 11, 2, 5, 3, 14, 15, 5, 2, 9, 19, 7, 8, 4, 16, 17, 18, and 13. This is the last page in the chapter, which is why it never refers to photos beyond this page - otherwise the photos would be even less synchronized with the text. Pages 108-109, which is the middle of a chapter, shows photos #6-12 and diagrams G, H, and I, and references A, B, C, B, A, C, 1, D, E, 2, 6, 14, 15, F, 5, 9-11, 18, 4, 16, 8, 19, 17, 8, 11, 7, 3, 4, 13, J, K. So while other books that study photographs, like The Nature of Photographs (reviewed) will tell you what to look at as a caption or text directly associated with a single image, Mante's book is more like walking through a gallery with all of these photos while the wise and insightful artist discusses what he sees in them all. Except that, unlike a gallery, the photos aren't all visible at once.

It's almost worth deciding to go over each chapter twice: once for the text, to get an idea of the theory in one reasonably-consistent pass, and again to look at the photos that illustrate the points being discussed.

The point of all of this nagging and pettiness is that this book fails in many ways. It's a very advanced book that deals with fundamental concepts, and so it requires careful and thoughtful reading. Make no mistake: I think that this book is worth the effort, and am slowly working my way through it fully knowing that I'll start reading it again as soon as I finish it. The reproduction quality is very good, the photos are useful and I find many of them inspiring. If I lost this copy, I'd buy another; if they release a second edition with better formatting, I'll buy it too.

I've written elsewhere that there is a lot of similarity between the photographer and the typographer, and I'll expand that here to include the layout and typesetter's art. Like the photographer, they add to the message and provide the interpretation, but their role should be transparent. When a technical fault or poor choice reduces their ability to communicate, or becomes problematic for the viewer, they have failed.

That a book dealing solely with the photograph from a design perspective should fall down so badly in its own design is an irony that even I don't find very entertaining.

Google AdSense & "Interest-Based Advertising"

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Internet tracking has gone from a Doubleclick to no clicks.

The Long Version: I got an e-mail from Google last night, and it's worth quoting here.

We're writing to let you know about the upcoming launch of interest-based advertising, which will require you to review and make any necessary changes to your site's privacy policies. ... Interest-based advertising will allow advertisers to show ads based on a user's previous interactions with them, such as visits to advertiser website and also to reach users based on their interests (e.g. "sports enthusiast"). To develop interest categories, we will recognize the types of web pages users visit throughout the Google content network.

What this means for you, gentle reader, is that every time you click an AdSense advertising link, Google will use its massive powers to build a profile of what you like. Should you choose to not click any links, Google will still use its massive powers to build a profile of what sort of websites you visit. I have disabled this in the AdSense settings for these pages, so it will not track your activity here, but as an internet user you should assume that this opt-out hasn't been done by any of the sites that you visit. There apparently is an opt-out choice for individuals, but I can't endorse its effectiveness - this is still Doubleclick that we're dealing with. You can visit that page here: google.com/privacy_ads.html

Incidentally, there's no direct benefit to the web sites hosting the ads - they don't get paid more or anything like that. There's a vague promise that the ads will be more tempting to visitors, and lead to more click-through, but that's all the carrot they can offer.

It's also worth mentioning that as far as a money-making device for website hosts and authors like myself, it's pretty much a bust. I started showing ads here in September 2008, and since then I have "earned" a mighty $17.71 with 61 clicks on 13,500 page views. Google doesn't issue cheques (checks, I suppose, since it's US dollars) until they break three digits. Assuming some moderate growth, that means I should be seeing some actual money by Christmas 2010. It's better than nothing, and I'd be writing ThewsReviews anyway, but there's really very little incentive for me to continue with AdSense except for how amusing I think it is watching Google try to find relevant ads for the eclectic mix of content on this site.

(As I'm editing this review, the ever-changing ads are for a Toronto IT service, digital camera batteries, a coin counting machine, and a photography school. Apparently Google has seen my photoblog.)

So websites aren't paid more for letting Google track their readers, and 99.995% of visitors (based on my numbers) will be profiled even though they aren't using the 'service'. That sounds like a perfect reason to e-mail web site owners with AdSense ads to ask them to turn this 'feature' off. Tell them it's under the "My Account" tab.

If you can't unjoin them, confuse them?

If I recall correctly, the AdSense terms of service specifically prohibit me from encouraging people to click on ads on pages I control. So remember that I've turned this tracking feature off, meaning that this advice doesn't apply here, and it is only offered as a personal anecdote. When I'm faced with data collection and profiling that I can't avoid, my preference has always been to feed it junk. I'm going to start visiting sites that wouldn't normally appeal to me and clicking on ads for products that don't interest me. Doubleclick dropped its profiling efforts because the data wasn't worth the effort, but with Google's resources and Moore's Law to help out, that might not be the case this time. My hope is that garbage in really does lead to garbage out, but even if it doesn't make any difference in the long run, it might be amusing and lead to some quirky personal results.

ThewsReviews Has No Privacy Policy

Google's e-mail also suggests that I change my privacy policy to reflect their newest endeavor. Apparently I should note the following points:

Google, as a third party vendor, uses cookies to serve ads on your site.
Google's use of the DART cookie enables it to serve ads to your users based on their visit to your sites and other sites on the Internet.
Users may opt out of the use of the DART cookie by visiting the Google ad and content network privacy policy. (http://www.google.com/privacy_ads.html)
(emphasis added. Interestingly they don't call it Doubleclick DART like they do elsewhere in their site.)

Even though I've opted out of this AdSense tracking and profiling for all of ThewsReviews, and don't have a privacy policy for this site, I should also point out that any time you visit a web site with a hit counter (and that's essentially all of them, even if you don't see one) your information is being tracked and aggregated by machines and stored electronically. I've left mine 'open', so you can click on it to see exactly what I know about my visitors. The main stats that interest me are your location (usually identified as city and country), the link or search terms you followed to get here (almost always a google search), and how many pages you looked at (so that I know if what I write is interesting or not), and what the most popular pages are. Tracking my own visits is nothing but pointless astroturfing, so they aren't included, but in the interest of fairness: I usually visit from Rogers.com, am in Toronto, Canada, and get here by a direct link which would show as "unknown" in the stats. There are also some interesting graphs and charts that show hits and page views over time, browser and OS share, and language.

Remember as you browse the internet that any website can collect this information, and probably more. The stats that I see with my free host don't come anywhere close to what I can get from my site that's hosted by godaddy.com, and they're not exactly high-end either. So if people knowing these things is an issue to you, take a look at some of the anonymizing software and services that are out there. Sure, there's the old "if you're innocent, you have nothing to hide" argument, but that's usually used by those with power to get others to surrender theirs, and is more appropriate for a police state than modern datamining and marketing. The new AdSense is showing that's there's value in knowing everything, so make your personal choices accordingly.


Sony DPF-D70 Digital Picture Frame

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Its 15:9 aspect ratio matches nothing.

The Long Version: One of the shortfalls of digital photography is that the photos never go anywhere. It was easier to flip through a box of prints from the Olden Days than it is to sort, index, and find digital images - especially when the computer's off. Since I've taken most of the family photos over the past few years, that meant that they were buried in the tens of thousands of photos on my hard drives, and Penny would never see them. The addition of this digital frame has completely fixed that problem, and makes the whole Digital Photography thing much more fun and sociable.

The Sony D70 frame cost more than the other 7" frames on the shelf, but its display was noticeably better than the others at the big-box store. It was also the only frame that supports the Compact Flash memory format - thank you, Minolta, may you rest in peace - which let me re-use some older cards instead of buying a new one. The D70 does have some decent built-in memory, but I find that it's easier to move a card to the frame than the frame to the computer. (I've been using Sneakernet longer than the Internet.) Since the actual size of the photo can be quite small, hundreds of them will fit on a memory card that's far too wee for my cameras to feed, or in the internal memory. All told the small amount of extra money was very well spent.

Being a Sony product, the digital picture frame also has a calendar and clock built in, which look great and work well. There are different slideshow modes, and plenty of options for sequencing and dwell time. The looks of the frame itself will work equally well in an executive office or a modern living room, and it's even possible to shut off the bright-white Sony logo that's lit in the bottom of the frame. Some people might like the tech-bling, but I wouldn't have bought it without the brand-neutered option.

My only real complaint about the DPF is the funky 15:9 aspect ratio. Me being me, I had to re-crop over 400 photos to get them to fill the display. All of the nine digital cameras in the house have 4:3 sensors, and if I crop them I usually recut them to the squarer 8:10 or 11:14 to match my print sizes. I suppose I could go on a rant about Sony's obsession with having a 16:9 ratio crop built into its Cybershot and Alpha cameras, and the hoax of a "Full HD" logo that they put on the camera boxes, but the reality is that pretty much all of the 7" digital frames on the market have the same ratio. It's probably just the best way to get a decently sized LCD panel at a price-point that people will buy. And once I had adjusted my photos, I've actually come to like the abnormally wide ratio.

I like photos, and get pretty serious about them. I had never taken the idea of digital frames seriously, but this Sony has converted me. I bought it for Penny so that she'd have a way to see the personal photos that were somehow never 'worth printing', but would love to have a second one just for my 'artwork'. After all, there's plenty of it that's never worth printing, too.

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