"Karate Dog" Squeaky Toy

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Is this thing really meant for dogs?

The Long Version: Like certain high-concept baby toys, this is a "dog toy" that seems like it's designed to appeal to tall people rather than the ones who will actually be using the product. Not that there's anything wrong with that - after all, neither dogs nor babies are known for their disposable income.

Back when I was a kid, we didn't have dog toys with fancy electronics; all they did was squeak. Dogs liked them back then, and a simple squeaker is still the best way to go. This plush toy, Karate Dog, has an electronic squawker that makes a bunch of different sounds, all of which are likely to freak out an actual dog. But that's really not who this one is for. The looks, the sounds - this thing is the funniest 'dog toy' I've ever seen. I even named my Mac's hard drive after it. Just look at this photo, and tell me that it doesn't look like I'm one arm's-length away from a solid whuppin':

The toy on its own is funny, but the sounds add a certain essence. It makes five vaguely martial-artsy sounds, and the sixth is a rapid-fire collection.

So it's not really a dog toy - but if they like it, it's a bonus.


LaCie Rugged Triple Interface HDD

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Just one word: Plastics.

The Long Version: LaCie is an established maker of hard drives, computer displays, and accessories. Their displays are noted for being hard-core high-end devices, and their accessories are stylish with frequently good industrial design. You would think that their storage division would get the best of both worlds, and produce hard-core drives with good industrial design - and sometimes you'd be right. Unfortunately, the Rugged drive really isn't all that impressive.

Designed by someone who quotes the wikipedia entry about himself for his bio page, the Rugged drive does look very impressive from afar. Rubber bumpers and a silvery case looks very resilient, and its 2.5" (laptop-sized) drive makes it portable despite its padding. But the silvery case is plastic, not heat-dissipating metal, and I've seen one of these drives with its case bowed inward from heat.

I have no doubt that LaCie knows a whole lot more than I do about laptop hard drives and heat management, so I'm not worried about the construction from a long-term reliability standpoint. A metal casing might be prone to bending if it does get dropped, while plastic can be more resilient. But considering the robustness of the other LaCie drives that I've seen, and its compact metal-bodied competitor from G-Tech, it's a disappointment just the same.

(As an aside, the sticker says that the warranty is "Void if Broken". I'm sure they mean it's void if the sticker is broken, not the drive....)

This Rugged drive is the "Triple Interface", which means USB, Firewire 400, and Firewire 800. Firewire is the fastest, but since it's designed to be a portable drive, it's nice to be able to connect with a printer cable if I need to. It draws power from the computer, so there's no A/C supply needed, which is another major advantage for portability. For laptop users this is perfect, and it's a great way to shuttle files between multiple computers. But for people with a single desktop computer that does most of the work, there are other (better/cheaper) options out there. For mobile users, there are also other (better/pricier) options as well.

By my own criteria, I'm not someone who should be using one of these drives, but I bought two of them. They're my "In Case of Fire" backup disks, so it's important to me that it's easy to grab in a hurry, I can fumble it on the way out the door, and then plug it in anywhere. A second Rugged drive lives somewhere safe off-site, and I switch them every month. These do the job even if they don't leave me inspired, and I suppose that's enough.


Sony CKL-PCMD50 Case for the Sony PCM-D50

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's perfect for someone, but maybe not for me.

The Long Version: Sony makes a couple of cases for the PCM-D50 digital field recorder: there's the widely available LC-PCMD50G, which is a clam-shell style, and the CKL-PCMD50 model that was originally only available in Japan. It's since become more widely distributed, and it's the one that I bought with my recorder.

The CKL case is the audio equivalent of the ever-ready camera cases that used to be popular. Like a never-ready camera case, it attaches to the tripod mount and flips around when the recorder is being used, but doesn't get taken off of the device. It also comes with the wrist-strap that you see in these photos, which is nylon with leather, and a soft grey fabric bag that's big enough to add extra scuff protection to the whole assembly.

The case is designed to double as a stand, which it does reasonably well. The photo above is its 'high' configuration, and it's held in position by some magnets that are built into it. As you can see, the leather case is quite stiff, and provides ample protection for the recorder. For carrying around to interviews, recording sessions, and for ENG I can see it working quite well - any situation where the recorder can be put down somewhere clean and conveniently near the sound source. For 'stealth' recording, put the Sony D50's mics in the wide stereo position, and the case doesn't even need to be open. Naturally, you can't reach the front-panel controls, so start it going and then toggle the 'hold' switch on the side (to prevent the 'stop' button from getting pressed - I learned that the hard way) before closing the case.

The tour of the CKL flip-case ends at the back, where you can see (from right to left) the snap-button clasp, the coin-activated attachment screw, and the belt loop. That's really the first thing that seems like it isn't very well thought out; the belt loop has a simple snap to attach it, and doesn't seem particularly secure. I would hesitate to use it to actually carry the recorder, but it does come in handy for holding the wires on my earphones. For carrying the recorder hands-free when it's being used for field recording/ENG with an external microphone, it might be perfect - but people who plan on using a decent external mic probably aren't using the PCM-D50. I could be wrong, and probably am, but adding an overlapping snap for security certainly wouldn't hurt.

Personally, I haven't quite settled on how I use the PCM-D50, so I also haven't decided whether or not I like this case. It's great for carrying it and setting it down on tables, but I don't often do that. I'm much more likely to be hand-holding the recorder for environmental sound gathering, and for that I need to be really careful because the self-noise that the leather case generates is far worse than the handling noise from the bare recorder. And for serious sound recording, I need to remove the case completely so that I can use the D50 on a tripod - and then I need to make certain that the heavy leather wrist strap doesn't hit the stand. It's not cheap, so think about how you use the recorder before you go out and buy one - but if it's right for you, then it really is a great case.


Sigma 180mm f/3.5 Macro in Nikon Mount

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: If at first you don't succeed...

The Long Version: Sigma makes five macro lenses, and they all have the "EX" rating marking them as the best they make. In Canada, that means a 10-year warranty and a 48-hour service commitment - if they have parts in stock. I ran into that qualifier with their 150mm Macro lens in 4/3 mount, which I started reviewing over a year ago. (Parts one and two). But despite my mixed experience with the 150 macro, I was still impressed enough with its optics to buy its big brother for my Nikon D700.

Compared to the 150mm 2.8 Macro, the 180/3.5 is longer and heavier, but has fewer lens elements. The 180 does have a slightly more impressive MTF chart, and a working distance that's 8cm/3" longer, but aside from that there really doesn't seem to be much difference between them. While I own both lenses, they're in different mounts and feeding very different sensors, so there's no point in a head-to-head comparison. That isn't going to stop me from wondering why Sigma has both lenses in its lineup, but until I get a chance to play stump-the-sales-rep, I don't think I'm going to have an answer for that question.

For what it's worth, and for the three people to whom this will matter, the 180 macro has an aperture ring while the 150 does not. Otherwise I'd say that you should pick the lens you need based on their size and working distance, since any difference in sharpness or brightness is going to be inconsequential in actual use. (amended three months later: now that I'm starting to understand just what a big deal micro-4/3 cameras are, the aperture ring may be the 180's unique selling point. Putting one of these lenses on a G1 or GH1, with their dense sensors and articulating screens - via an F-to-m4/3 adapter - would make an especially awesome macro setup. I'd suggest that Nikon users should look at the 180 instead of the 150mm simply for this potential, even if they don't yet think that a m4/3 camera is in their future.)

Complaints about poor sharpness are rarely heard about any macro lens, and the Sigma 180 is at the top of this particular category. I'm not going to dwell on it too heavily; I've used the lens on a solid tripod and have absolutely no complaints. The photo above is a reduced section - not 100%, but larger than I'd use - of the area that I magnified for manual focus, and was shot at f/16 with my D700. I find it completely acceptable. Naturally, depth of field is extremely shallow, which makes a single photo just a starting place for jewellery photography. After processing many photos shot at subtly different distances, the finished result looks something like this:

The image above is very nearly the entire frame, so it shows both the amount of magnification that the D700 gets at 1:1, and gives some sense of the size of the previous sample. If you're planning a macro kit from the ground up, don't assume that a bigger sensor is a better idea. A 1:1 ratio is reality:sensor, so a bigger sensor means capturing a bigger part of the world. A reduced-frame camera's smaller sensor with denser pixels makes for a powerful combination.

But just because a lens can focus on small things doesn't mean that it shouldn't get to photograph large things. At 180mm and f/3.5, the Sigma is a useful medium-to-long telephoto. Canon and Nikon both make 180mm and 200mm prime lenses, and they alternate between f/2.8 non-macro and slightly slower macro lenses. So there is a strong precedent for macro lenses and prime lenses in this focal range, and of course the plentiful 70-200mm lenses for both major manufacturers also speak to the focal length's suitability for all kinds of photography. Telephotos are easy to shoot with, flatter most subjects, and can give the subject/background separation that Serious Photographers want to prove that they weren't shooting with a Coolpix. While the Sigma 180mm Macro isn't a small lens, I do find it very useful for general photography.

Looking at my images taken with the 180/3.5, there's a fun little game that I play called "guess the aperture". I've gotten good enough that I can usually spot the difference in vignetting between f/4 and f/5.6, which are my two favourite apertures for hand-holding this lens. A crop-sensor camera will avoid most of this - which is why they were invented - but since I'm using a camera that uses the entire image circle, I'll be building some Lightroom presets to take care of the problem. For what it's worth, the image above is shot at f/4.0, and the photo below was taken at f/5.6.

The 150mm and 180mm macro lenses both use the same tripod collar. It was one of the highlights of my experience with the shorter lens, and it's just as good on the 180. Instead of being a solid collar that slips over the back of the lens, it's split with a hinge and secured by a cam-lock. This lets it unclip from the lens without taking it off of the camera, which is great for on-again, off-again monopod sessions. A lens this long without image stabilization really does benefit from the extra support, but it's also bright enough to get away with shooting hand-held when perfection is overkill. It's nice to have the choice.

People who have read my reviews of the Sigma 150mm in 4/3 (aka "Olympus") mount might be surprised that I haven't mentioned the autofocus on the Nikon-fit 180/3.5. That's because it's simply not an issue with this lens - it's certainly not the fastest, but it is very quiet and reliable. The photo above shows a bit of camera-shake blur and a bit more Jack Russel blur, but is the only time I was able to catch the dog in motion (as if there's another state for a JRT) with anything approaching presentable sharpness. This isn't an action-photography lens, but it would be fine for normal movement, which is far more than I can say for the Olympus-mount version that inspired me to buy this one.

The Sigma 180mm f/3.5 macro lens leaves me with no complaints, except for its vignetting, which is apparently something that's not unusual for full-frame sensors and the lenses that are designed for them. I'd prefer not to see it, but it can be fixed fairly easily. But I keep coming back to my earlier question about why Sigma has both a 180mm and a 150mm macro lens in its lineup. The longer working distance of the 180mm is nice, but for my product photography it isn't as important as it would be for nature and critters. Essentially, I bought the 180 size only because I already had the 150 in 4/3 mount, and even I can't bring myself to that level of techno-redundancy.

From what I know about the 150, and after using the 180, I'm left without any strong reason to recommend one over the other, but can endorse them both. Just try them out and see which one you like best.


Architectural Digest's Architecture Issue

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: With my best Gob imitation: C'm on!

The Long Version: In October, Architectural Digest publishes a special Architecture Issue. (The 2009 table of contents is here, a 2008 copy is for sale here, the top photo is my copy from 2007.) I'm trying to come up with a reaction that's beyond "what, seriously?" but I'm having a hard time being original on this one. For what it's worth, I haven't really noticed much difference in the content versus their non-architecture issues, so perhaps they're just giving some of their editorial staff a month off.


Joby Gorillapod SLR

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I did, eventually, manage to break it.

The Long Version: The idea of the Gorillapod is very clever, but I have to admit up-front that I wasn't originally filled with confidence in the strength of its all-flexible legs. On the other hand, it does seem to inspire other manufacturers, since there are similar products being marketed by Sunpak and Optex. I decided to try out Joby's Gorillapod SLR model, and I have to say that I've been pleased with everything about it so far.

Joby seems moderately conservative with its ratings, and so am I, which makes the SLR a good match for my SX20 and audio recorder. With a rated weight capacity of 800 grams, I wouldn't dream of hanging one of my bigger SLRs on it, but there are two stronger models available. Check out the Joby website to pick the right one, and try not to be too surprised by the price on the Focus. It is made of shiny metal, after all.

My use for the Gorillapod seems to be pretty typical, with the exception that I rarely use it with a camera. It's a quick and easy way to get my audio recorder into unnatural positions and places, and has helped me gather sounds ranging from lapping waves to a paper shredder. It's quick to adjust to a broad range of different positions, and within the limit of its small size, the camera/recorder can be positioned pretty much anywhere I want it to go. As Joby's website shows, I've had mine propped up on sloping rocks, and I've even had the gorillapod firmly supporting the Canon SX20 while wrapped around a table leg. It does what it says it can do, and it's a lot of fun to play with as well.

The SLR is the largest Gorillapod with a built-in quick-release plate, and it's a slim design that holds well. Everything is plastic, except for the screw, but it does its job. My venerable Yashica GSN rangefinder comes in right at the SLR's weight limit, and it had no problem with some unconventional holds.

The Joby isn't going to replace my full-sized tripods, but if I ever need to, I can wrap the Gorillapod around them.


Iogear USB Hub & Card Reader GUH286

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads!

The Long Version: I wouldn't have thought that it would be this hard. Having a reader that can handle all of the various memory card formats and also lets me plug in my iPod and printer's USB cables shouldn't be a big request. After all, multi-card readers are cheap and plentiful, and USB hubs are cheap and plentiful. But no matter how much I looked, I couldn't find a combination one for sale in Canada.

Enter my semi-annual odds-and-ends order from B&H. They sell the Iogear GUH286, which is a useful product with a decidedly unappealing part number. It can read just about anything with electrical contacts, and has five USB ports. Two are on the front, three face the side, and there's also a short cable with a mini-B USB connector on the back that can connect to suitably-equipped devices. It even has an auxiliary AC power adapter to charge any connected devices even when the computer is off. It does absolutely everything I want it to, adds a couple extra ideas on its own, is well built, and costs less than $35USD.



Cheeseburger, Gateway Marine & Storage, Killarney, Ontario

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: Far, far better than it looks.

The Long Version: It's a small town thing, I'm sure - next to the boat launch in Killarney, Ontario, is Gateway Marine & Storage, which is also a restaurant and a bakery. It's on Channel street, in the heart of the downtown core: not only are there plenty of boat slips nearby, there's also the local LCBO and the best fish & chips truck in town. Gateway certainly has the authentic small-town charm, with cheeky signs on the wall and fairly basic fixtures. It also serves the best cheeseburger that I've ever had.

The hamburger patties are home-made, and it's served with cheese and a slice of peameal bacon. The buns are also fresh - it is a bakery, after all - and make a huge difference. For $7, it doesn't include french fries, but in the interest of a well-rounded diet I spent the little bit extra. They're from a package, but the way they're cooked makes them remarkable as well. Granted, it was after 3pm, and I'd spent the morning tromping through the woods after a moderate breakfast, so I was pretty hungry. It's still the best meal I've had in ages.

The next day I took a gamble - I came back and had another cheeseburger. It was a risky move because if it didn't live up to my memory, it wouldn't just be disappointing, it would retroactively diminish the burger that I'd already had. But I worried for nothing, and the second one that was prepared during the lunch rush with only limited electricity was just as good as the first. The three friends that I was with had caught my enthusiasm and also had the cheeseburger, and none of them were disappointed. Other people that I heard from raved about the strawberry-rhubarb pie, sticky buns, and garlic bread.

The next time I'm in Killarney, if the bakery at Gateway Marine is closed, I just won't eat.

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