Manfrotto 454 Micro Positioning Plate

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's perfect for detail-oriented control freaks.

The Long Version: Baseball and football have both been described as games of inches, which seems pretty generous to anyone who has tried macro photography. With high magnifications and low working distances, very slight changes in camera position make a big difference to the image composition. This is part of the fun of shooting close-ups, and anything that's meant to be fun doesn't need to be complicated. But there's a limit to what can be accomplished with a flower icon. On the other end from 'fun' there's a degree of obsession that leads to tripods and worse.

The Manfrotto 454 combines a base that mounts on the tripod with a plate that attaches to the camera which can be slid back and forth with a worm drive. Gross adjustments use a lever to disengage the gears, allowing the plate to slide fairly freely. When the gear is engaged a full turn from the thumbscrews on the ends of the plate slides the assembly 5/4 of a millimeter at a time; a comfortable twist of the screws on the front and back of the slider, somewhere between one-third and one-half of a turn, translates to about half of a millimeter. For readers in Burma, Liberia, and America, that translates into slightly over one-nothingth of an inch.

Our tour of the micrometric positioning plate ends with the brass knob on its side. This is used to lock the sliding plate firmly into position. When the screw is loose, the plate can be moved back and forth, but the slight wiggle is enough to change the framing of the shot. When the plate is locked down enough to prevent side-to-side motion, it doesn't allow any movement at all. Sometimes this doesn't matter, and sometimes it really, really does.

Changing the focusing distance changes the magnification, so an effective way to work with macro photography is to set the amount of magnification and then move the camera (or subject) until the desired part is in focus. The 454 plate makes this simple, and combined with a camera with live-view magnification, achieving critical focus has never been easier. The shallow depth of field that's endemic to close-up photography can also be beaten with judicious use of software like Helicon Focus or Photoacute, which stack vast numbers of photographs taken with different parts of the image in focus. But now we're back to the problem that changing focus with the lens changes the magnification, so precise adjustments in camera position becomes even more critical. The sample photo above is from eighteen images processed with Photoacute. Slight shifts in image position don't bother that particular piece of software - in fact it can help - so the slight wiggle in the Manfrotto 454 isn't an issue.

The setup that you see in these photos isn't just what comes in the box with the positioning plate. It doesn't include a quick-release, so I've added a Manfrotto 323 QR (with a spacer made from popsicle sticks) and a 341 elbow bracket. These are compatible with the RC2 plates that I already use, and the whole assembly is much cheaper than the equivalents from Kirk or Really Right Stuff. I've noticed that those call themselves focusing rails, while the manfrotto is merely a micro-positioning plate, but I don't know if that's significant. I'm willing to accept that things that cost several times more money might be better, have less play, and infuse the photos with a magical aura, but the extra hundreds of dollars are quite comfortable in my pocket.

Despite its flaws, the 454 is a very nice piece of work. I'll be buying a second one to stack perpendicular to the first, giving me full lateral control as well as fore-and-aft movement. I've always been something of a gear-head - and already use a Manfrotto 410 Geared Head - so this gives me a phenomenal level of control. It's exotic, but it's worth it when I'm in this narrow little slice of the photographic universe.


CRKT KISS Folding Knife

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

The Long Version: CRKT - Columbia River Knife and Tool - is a company that I like. They make decent products very well, and they're not too expensive. They're also quite an innovative company, and have a lot of blade shapes that I haven't seen elsewhere. I do give them a lot of credit for being a little edgy and experimental. But when things all look pretty similar, it's usually because it works.

The KISS knife is designed to be as simple as possible. Its short blade has a single-sided chisel grind, with the chisel-front "tanto" point. When closed the sharp edge is held safely against the handle, and when it's open the frame itself forms the lock. It has a pocket clip and a thumb stud for one-handed opening. Honouring its desire for simplicity, I've actually taken the stud off and just use the really, really steep grind on the blade for an opening surface. The stud caught on my pocket too easily, and I don't miss it at all.

But here's the problem: the steep chisel grind doesn't work very well. The blade is too thick to slice through cardboard easily, and when it does, it drifts. For anything heavier than breaking packing tape, it wouldn't be what I reach for. The knife is neat, clever, and pretty; it's spawned a lot of spin-offs and imitators, but it's not a great working tool. It serves as a backup and lives in one of my T2 bags in case I forget one of my CS Voyagers, but that's about it.


DMT Diamond Sharpener

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: They last forever.

The Long Version: I've bought two of these in my life, and this is the first one. It's about fifteen years old, and while it has worn down a little, the diamond sharpener still does its job. Made by DMT, it has a plastic base with industrial diamonds embedded in a nickel-steel plate. This is the 4" version, which comes with a handy leather case. I also have a longer version that I can't find on their website, which has a handle that folds over the sharpener balisong-style. It's not as solid, so I still use it laid flat on a table, but since it's double-sided I need to put something underneath it to protect the surface. All told I like this one better.

There's nothing special about a diamond sharpener versus a regular whetstone. The diamonds work faster, but that just means that it's faster to make mistakes. Technology is no substitute for skill, so take your time and learn how to do it properly - I'd provide a link if I could find one that I agree with. (Hint: arbitrary angles for the bevel are arbitrary.) The 4" size is good for pocket knives, but are too small for my level of patience with anything from the kitchen or the toolbox. There are others available, and it is a fundamentally good idea, so if that's important then there are larger ones out there waiting for you.

HTO: Toronto's Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost Rivers to Low-flow Toilets

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Essay collections aren't a new idea, but they're great.

The Long Version: I like essay collections, local history, my neighbourhood, architecture, and typography. So when Coach House Press, a small publisher that's about a quarter-kilometer from my home, had an open house as part of Doors Open Toronto, it wasn't something I was going to miss. But before I went, I checked out their website, and found their great write-up of HTO here. I bought my copy with only the briefest look inside to check on the choice of typeface - in this case a nice one called freight - which is something I do with just about any book that I buy. The novel experience, if you'll excuse the expression, is that this time I bought the book in the building where it was produced, and after seeing the equipment that it was made on. That must be the literary equivalent of a pick-your-own farm, except without all of the hard work.

The essays are well-written, and cover an even broader range of subjects than the unwieldy subtitle suggests. But even with diverse subjects, the focus never shifts away from Toronto and its immediate area. A discussion of the Lake Ontario water levels over the past 135,000 years examines the levels of sediment in the former Don Valley Brickworks quarry. Essays deal with the Garrison and Taddle creeks, which once ran across what's now downtown Toronto, as well as Castle Frank Brook which once ran through Nordheimer Ravine (photo above), and the history and local conditions that lead to them being buried in the city's sewer network. A section looks at the discovery of the Queen's Wharf during construction of condominiums far from the water's edge, which I remember from early 2006; the changing shoreline is just one example of the extensive and ongoing landfill that has shaped the city.

The essays also look at the history of civic water in Toronto from the grand era when it was knows as 'public works' and created monuments like the R.C. Harris filtration plant, above - a popular movie and TV filming location - and the St. Clair reservoir that lies a few metres beneath the surface of Sir Winston Churchill park seen in the opening photo. It also offers an excellent overview of the contemporary infrastructure involved in the city's stormwater management plan and efforts to recover wetlands and rejuvenate our remaining rivers.

Toronto isn't actually the centre of Canada - that would be just south of Yathkyed Lake in Nunavut - so I'm not going to suggest that this book will have anything more than academic interest to people who don't live in, or come from, Toronto. But this geographic specificity also makes it easy to recommend for people in Toronto who wouldn't otherwise be interested. Not many people pick up book talking about the formation of river valleys and how they're affected by changing lake water levels in an abstract way - those are called textbooks, and students need to be threatened with failure before they'll read them. But it's also what formed the ravines that characterize the city, and that makes it much more interesting.

Coach House Press is an important resource both for Canadian publishing and for the city. It's hard to imagine books like HTO happening without them. They're a friendly bunch and clearly passionate about what they do, and I know I'm going to be looking for more titles from them in the future.


Streets Named After Saints

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: We are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style.

The Long Version: First, to be clear: it's not the saints that I have a problem with. I once lived in the northern Toronto 'community' of Willowdale, and anyone who's ever driven through there knows that it has the highest density of stupid street names in the city. Some of the gems include Moonstone Byway, Purple Sageway, Thimble Berryway, and Water Wheelway - all private roads in condominium townhouse developments. I used to live at 1 Burnt Meadoway, and to get there you'd turn onto Song Meadoway from Freshmeadow Drive. If you hit Hollyberry Trail, you've gone too far. It was so difficult to get a pizza delivered that I only lived there for about six months.

So I'll take any sort of 'people' street name without minding its origins, be they religious, historical, or contemporary. History and culture adds to the texture of a place, which I love. Really, there's nothing special about living at the intersection of Mentor and Mogul - yes, it's in Willowdale - but in Toronto's downtown even a generic street name like John is an historical reference. No, my complaint is tied to Tom Stoppard's observation about the qualities of the English language and how it's applied.

In a nutshell: who thought it would be a good idea to use the same abbreviation - ST. - where it has two different meanings? It's bad enough that English lacks style, this borders on intentionally obscure. It absolutely wasn't an international city when these streets were named, but it is now: most of Toronto's residents today were born outside of Canada. The tourist trade is also a major factor in the economics of the city, with 'vistors from overseas' spending $1.09 billion dollars here in 2008. Having Street and Saint abbreviated the same way on the same sign is a quirk of the language that's not even noticed by native English speakers, but it's a needless barrier to those who are less familiar with the language and the city. There's no excuse for making life more difficult for people who are here from somewhere else.

And while I'm on the subject, there's also no consistency to how the signs are punctuated. The ST for Saint invariably gets a period after it, which is traditional even though contractions usually aren't punctuated. I suppose the ST for Street could be either an abbreviation - the first two letters of the word - or a contraction - first and last letters - and its ambiguity is reflected in the fact that sometimes it has a period following it, and other times it doesn't. Signs on different sides of the same street may not be written the same way. Details matter: if I had to navigate by the languages that I can't read, I'd be trying to match the shapes of the characters that I see on a map or in a photograph. Being inconsistent isn't fair.

When I was a kid, my teacher awed the class by telling us how many words the Inuit have for snow. I remember it being 22, but it hardly matters since it's basically an urban myth inspired by a lack of both linguistic and cultural awareness. But it's still an appealing idea: that someone else can be in some faraway place where they see more distinction and have better insight than we do. Well, I've lived in the city all my life, and even I can tell the difference in snow depending on the temperature (wet, dry, heavy, light), traffic (packed, ice, slush) and recent weather conditions (drifts, crusted). But try as I might, I can't see that many different types of road.

We English-speakers have a lot of different words for the strips of land that we dedicate to cars. Street, road, avenue, drive, boulevard; highway, freeway, expressway, parkway; interstate, turnpike; crescent, circle, grove, gate, lane, and court. But there are a lot more to choose from. Alley, Beach, Bend, and Bypass are all recognized by both the Canadian and American postal services; Canada adds Abbey and Byway, the USPS likes Branch, Bridge, Brook and Berg. Needless to say, the list doesn't stop at "B".

I'm not going to try to count all of the different abbreviations that Canada Post and the USPS recognize for street types. I gave up when I hit 100 on the American list, and I was only about half-way down the page. The Canadian list is even more difficult, since it - like the Inuit and their words for snow - includes more than one language. I'd guess that there are at least 300 'official' words for street. Twenty-one of them are common enough that they're listed at the start of my Perly's map book.

There's no common trait that defines what designator a street gets. There are broad categories: 'Highway' is going to be a limited-access road, and 'Crescent' is probably going to be something quiet and residential. But nobody can stand on a particular patch of pavement and determine from its inherent characteristics if it's a road, boulevard, avenue, or street. There's no impartial standard that determines whether an it should be called Bob Loblaw Road or Bob Loblaw Avenue. Odonyms matter, but we need to remember that they're arbitrary.

Alliteration is great, and Saint Something Street has a nice rhythm. But street names aren't the place for style, and there's no excuse for obscurity.


The Pretender (TV Series, 1996-2000)

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It could be a great drinking game.

The Long Version: Imagine a TV show that's a cross between McGyver and The Littlest Hobo, produced during the apogee of The X-Files, and what you get is The Pretender.

And really, the review could end right now. One sentence, and that's it.

The Pretender ran for four seasons, and for at least two of them it wasn't clear if it would be continued. Once it was cancelled, there were four movies planned to finish out the story, but only two were made. So the show has never really had a proper wrap-up, and as the viewer you should feel free to stop watching it at any time. It's never going to make more sense, loose ends are never going to be resolved. Similarly, if you want to stop reading, I'll completely understand.

"The Center" in Blue Cove, Delaware
aka the R.C. Harris water filtration plant, in Toronto, Canada

The premise of the show is that there's a phenomenally brilliant man who can learn just about any skill or ability from the meagrest of sources, and he has escaped from a sinister organization called "The Center" and is now skipping from place to place, helping people in need while trying to find his family. All the while he needs to stay ahead of a gun-toting sexy villainess and her awkward IT guy while keeping in touch with his father-figure caring psychiatrist captor. Sounds like a load of horse-pucky right off the bat, even before the conspiracies break out and characters start their not-really-dead reappearing acts in the second season.

Suspension of disbelief is an important element of The Pretender. For example, we have to accept that someone who can take on any identity he desires still can't figure out how to answer to a different first name. But the character of Jarod was actually inspired by a real person who really was able to fool many people in a diversity of careers, including performing major surgery after reading about the procedure from a textbook. The Center is a think-tank styled after a shady version of the RAND Corporation, but given what's been written down in memos recently, maybe it's not so far-fetched either.

The high point of Season 2, if not the whole series:
introducing Mr. Lyle.

All told The Pretender is a good show, but one that must be viewed in the spirit of the times. In the TV era of I Want To Believe and The Truth Is Out There, it was all about conspiracies and cover-ups done by secretive organizations. Instead of four different flavours of CSI, we had psychic profilers, Y2K, and Chronicles of the Paranormal. Having a show on the air that was about someone relentlessly doing good - even if it was by burying people alive or setting them up for vivisection - was a refreshing change. There are also ongoing touches of humour and running jokes that made for good entertainment. I've never felt that the show takes itself too seriously.

But one word of warning for people who buy or rent the DVD: marathon viewing sessions really emphasize the formula and repetitiveness of the show. Michael T. Weiss could probably beat Keanu Reeves in a fewest-expressions contest, and certain catch-phrases turn into a caricature. After all, you have watched a whole DVD in one sitting before, didn't you?

Didn't you?!



Western Digital My Book Premium II RAID Drive

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm rounding up.

The Long Version: As an aspiring photographer I need a lot of data storage, but my camera-buying hobby doesn't leave a lot of money for the unsexy practical stuff. So for many years I've economized by assembling my own external hard drives from empty enclosures and standard desktop hard drives. It's an oddly PC-Clone thing to do for a longtime Macintosh owner, but for once the idea of lower cost and interchangeability in exchange for reliability seemed like a good deal. But when it came time to get a RAID drive to store some of my photos, I wanted something I could trust. I spent a little more and went with a prebuilt drive from a reputable brand name.

What I bought was a MyBook Premium II 1TB drive from Western Digital. It's a pair of 500GB drives in an enclosure with a USB/FW400/FW800 interface, and has the ability to be used in RAID 0 (striped to a single 1TB volume) or RAID 1 (mirrored to a single 500GB volume) configurations. The difference between the two settings is that striping gives a faster disk but with twice the chance of failure; mirroring has only half the capacity but its redundancy lets it survive the death of a single drive. Reliability is more important than capacity for me, so I went with the mirrored setup, which has been a very good thing. Twice.

The case is metal with ventilation grills on the top, back, and bottom. It also has a fan which is quite happy to run as much as it needs to, even if it means running all day, even when the computer is idle, and even when it's propped up on a section of souvenir rail from the White Pass & Yukon Route of Skagway, Alaska to allow airflow through the bottom of the case.

The WD MyBook is designed to have its drives swapped by the owner, and this doesn't void the warranty. The entire procedure can be done with a #1 Philips screwdriver, which isn't as good as a Robertson, but it'll do. There are only four screws to open the case, one to open the drive cage, and then four more screws to hold the drive on the tray. It's an easy procedure, and aside from the time it took to get to the local hard drive store (and the eighty bucks) it was quick and painless.

But it's testament to the customer service from Western Digital that the warranty replacement procedure is even easier. When my My Book failed the first time, I simply filled out their on-line form and they sent me a replacement unit right away, even though I live in Canada and bought the drive from America. It's a nice touch that they send the replacement before needing the defective one back, and that they replace the whole unit even when it's only a single drive failure. True, their support website is slow to load and always seems bogged down, but there's lots of specific information about the different ways these drives can fail. They even use the lights on the front of the drive to show error codes. For example, alternate flashing means that the RAID is critically overheating, and the lights chasing themselves in circles means that it's attempting to rebuild one of the drives. 

The warranty for an assembled Western Digital external drive like the My Book series is only one year; the identical SR16 Caviar Blue SATA hard drive - like the one that I bought to replace another failed drive in my Premium II product - has a three-year warranty when it's not sold assembled in a WD case. So my assumption that a drive from a reputable manufacturer would be more reliable than one that I assembled myself may be misguided. Fancy that. 

I'm sure there are plenty of good reasons to buy one of these drives, even though it means spending more money on a premium product that the manufacturer doesn't stand behind, and even though assembling an equivalent unit from an empty case with a RAID controller and loose drives is no more than a half-hour's effort. I'm stumped, but if you can think of any please hit the comments section below.

Zeiss Pre-Moistened Lens Cloths

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Your mileage may vary, but I love them

The Long Version:
I have been using this product on all of my lenses for 3+ years, and have had nothing but positive results.

Lens cleaning is something that I feel very strongly about, be it sporting optics, camera lenses or just my eyeglasses.
Spotless is the only way to go.

In my opinion, the standard microfiber lens cloths are a fine tool but they can get contaminated with lint, skin oils and other gunk that isn't lens-friendly after a few weeks.
These Zeiss lens cloths are in individual packages that are VERY convenient to carry around, and you can trust that they aren't compromised in any way.

The "Pre-Moistened" agent is high grade alcohol, so use them quickly as the drying time is short. The alcohol makes short work of filthy glass bought second-hand, and has the added benefit of displacing water when you're in rainy, foggy, or temperature-related condensation nightmare mode.
Instead of just smearing the moisture around, you can actually remove it in a few seconds.

I also make use of their disinfectant properties.
Sometimes you have no choice but to let the sketchy guy at the range put his disgusting eye to your riflescope, or allow a barskank to touch your camera.
It's alcohol on a paper towel, so I'll even use one to clean my fingers between eating fried food and taking pictures so as not to insult my camera.

When you're talking about lenses, Zeiss is a company that has a proven track record, to say the least.
Possibly the finest.
Does it bother me that I can only find this product in WalMart's optical department?
No. They work perfectly, with extreme cleaning action and fast-drying lint-free results.
A box of 50 retails for around $3US so that's just 6 pennies each.

The packaging also mentions that they are safe for all lens coatings.
No reason to doubt it from my testing so far.

The usual cautions apply: If you think there may be anything like sand, metal shavings, or chicken bones on your lens, use a blower and/or brush to dislodge them before employing any kind of cloth.
You don't want to rub something solid across your fine glass.

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