Ridley Scott's Robin Hood

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Sir Ridley doesn't make bad movies.

The Long Version: I hate the term 'prequel', so I won't call Ridely Scott's 'Robin Hood' one, even though it's the story that happens before his days as an communistic outlaw. Like the recent "Alice in Wonderland", I walked into the theatre with no expectations about what I was going to see, and in both cases they were exceeded. The latest take on the band of merry men is well thought out, well told, and as always with a Ridley Scott film, its execution is nearly flawless. The Australian Russell Crowe seems perfectly suited to play the soon-to-be-famous outlaw, and I found it far more convincing than his attempt to chase the Acheron around the Pacific ocean.

At no point in the movie is there an exchange to rival the classic "You speak Treason!" and comedic style of Errol Flynn. I can't see this new story being incorporated into the culture in the same way as that landmark interpretation; it will never match the societal impact of Scott's dystopian interpretations of Dick and technology. But I'm not an historical purist, especially where folk tales are concerned, so if there were any anachronisms or missteps – beyond the idea of soldiers being able to read, or the notion of 'rule of law' - they didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story. It was well worth the time and expense to see it in the theatre.


Method Laundry Detergent

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's hard make money from affection alone.

The Long Version: Method Laundry Detergent (manf) is one of those instances where the the great idea doesn't depend on the product. What they've done is get rid of the screw-top and cap, and replaced it with a pump that puts out a metered amount of detergent. It didn't go over that well for toothpaste, but it works for laundry soap.

There's an interesting phrase floating around. At the time of writing, Google was returning 112 hits from an exact match search for the phrase: "As highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Americans continue to overuse laundry detergent." (That article, almost never properly cited, is here.) The tendency for pouring detergent is to use too much, either by over-filling the deceptively large cap-cups or by pouring it directly into the machine. Highly concentrated detergents just make matters worse, since a little bit too much is a lot more than anyone really needs.

While there's nothing stopping the detergent makers from putting pumps on huge half-gallon bottles, Method's using it on a detergent that's so heavily concentrated that they recommend using only four pumps per load. That makes it practical, since the little 300ml bottle is easy to handle but is still rated for 25 loads. Doing the math, that works out to less than a tablespoon each - not nearly enough to be psychologically satisfying when poured, but the little pump makes it alright. And that amount is what the swimming-pool sized top-load washers need; front-load washers use far less water and need far less detergent. My Asko washer-dryer might be a dog, but I've been very happy with only one pump per load.

Another interesting little tidbit from the WSJ article can be found at the end: "Seventh Generation's co-founder, Jeffrey Hollender, wonders why more people haven't stumbled upon laundry's big, dirty secret: "You don't even need soap to wash most loads," he says. The agitation of washing machines often does the job on its own." It's a good question, but I've never felt the desire to test it. I'll just continue to use a tiny little bit of the Method detergent instead.


Callpod Fueltank Uno

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: It does work.

The Long Version: The Callpod Fueltank Uno (manf) is the mid-air refueling tanker of the smartphone world. It's a rechargeable battery with a port to charge it and a port to charge something else, with a few LEDs in between. The casing is an uninterrupted translucent grey plastic; the charge light and power level indicators shine through it with plenty of oomph. The point of the device is that it can be relied on to give a boost, or a full-dose recharge, to small devices that can't otherwise make it to a wall outlet, car charger, or other source of power. It can't help out something the size of a laptop, but with care, it can more than double the running time my Blackberry Bold 9000.

Callpod's Fueltank comes in two sizes, the Uno and Duo. The Duo has twice the capacity of the one that's named after the popular card game, but I picked the smaller one that's easier to carry. It will be enough to get me through a couple of days where I won't have guaranteed access to power, and because I'll never be in one place for very long I can't risk being without web access and my trusty GPS. For the past couple of weeks I've been testing the Fueltank, and it works well for what it says it does. It does a full charge without any problem, and if I don't leave it connected overnight, I can usually get a second charge out of it as well. That's plenty for a weekend away.

Naturally, the Fueltank needs to be charged so that it can do its thing. It comes will a wall-wart adapter with a mini-USB cable permanently attached, which plugs into the port on the battery pack. While not all USB-style power supplies put out exactly the same power, I've never experienced any problems when I use them for different devices. (Caution: your milage may vary; your device may catch on fire.) So if I'm able to charge my fueltank, then I'm also able to charge my phone. There is a certain irony there, but being able to keep the booster fed from the same charger that handles everything else is a huge benefit for traveling. Three cables and one little power brick can handle my Blackberry, Penny's Palm Pre, our family of iPods, my portable photo hard drive, and the Callpod Fueltank. I love ubiquity and commonality - it makes life so much easier. And with that thought in mind, the happy part of my review ends right now.

Turning the Fueltank over, we see the port it uses to charge other devices. It's a proprietary 8-pin connector that looks like - but isn't quite - one of those tiny little micro-USB jacks. This means that the common cables that we all already have for our various devices won't work with the Callpod. So now we need to carry the cable to charge the devices directly as well as a second one to use the oh-so-handy backup battery. And if that unique cable gets lost, good luck finding it in stores. Best Buy - the store named after an expiration date - is the big retailer that sells Callpod products, but currently doesn't even list the little adapters on its website. They're only available directly through Callpod's web store. We'll get back to that in a minute, but first let's take a look at the adapter cable itself.

This is one of the two cables that Callpod includes with the Fueltank Uno, with the standard mini-USB connector on the left and its nasty custom plug on the right. You might notice that it's labeled 'TOP' - to make it easier to insert into the nearly-symmetrical charging port - so it's clear that someone in the design team knew that they had a problem, but couldn't think of any other way to fix it. The result is lazy, sloppy, and inadequate. Using a custom and proprietary connection is fine if there's a good reason for it and it's well executed, but this has neither attribute in its favour. The connection itself is unreasonably difficult to use, even worse than the various USB plugs, and since Callpod chose this one all on their own it's completely their fault that it's so badly designed. Using a standard USB-A jack would remove a whole lot of the fine print from Callpod's claim that the Fueltank is "Compatible with 3,000+ Devices".

Two photos ago we saw the port that the adapter plugs into, and this is the business end of Callpod's chosen connector. Quick - which way does it go in? Now imagine having to plug it in in a dark hotel room, on a moving bus, or trying to connect it by feel in your carry-on bag at your feet because there's not enough room on the plane to bring it up to your lap. These are exactly the conditions that the Fueltank is useful for, and it falls down badly because of this nasty little cable that solves nobody's problems. The only good thing that I can say about it is that at least it's so short (3.25", 82mm) that it can't tangle up, and doesn't stick out when I strap it to the side of the Fueltank. I keep it there with a velcro cable organizer because if I lose it, the Fueltank is useless until I get a replacement mailed to me - exactly what I want in a travel-ready emergency backup.

I mentioned previously that the Fueltank Uno comes with two adapters: the mini-USB and one for Apple's iPod variants, such as the Mini, Classic, and Telephone. It also includes a voucher for a 'free' (read: cost built into purchase price) adapter cable just in case your device needs a different connection. The Palm Pre that Penny uses has the industry-standard micro-USB charging connection, so that's the one that I ordered. If I had done more research, I would have seen that Callpod does offer a female USB-A adapter - search for style USBA-0001 - that would make the Fuelcell compatible with any standard cable. If nothing else, it proves that there's no practical reason not to have just included the female USB-A port right in the battery pack from the very beginning. That only leaves a non-engineering, non customer-service reason: the absolutely massive profit margins on cables. Callpod sells their custom cables for $10 without needing to discount for wholesalers, and if it costs them more than a dollar each, I'd be staggered.

Fortunately, Callpod includes 'free' USPS International mail for customers who are redeeming a voucher. And it seems like I've finally found a company likes dealing with UPS even less than I do. For the Worldwide Expedited service, which is one of the 'service levels' that includes the massive hidden fees, they want $114.13. That's not a typo - or at least, not my typo - they want ONE HUNDRED and fourteen dollars. To put that in perspective, B&H Photo will ship me a Nikon D3x and 70-200/2.8 mkII, ten thousand dollars worth of heavy camera gear, for an even hundred via the same service. But at least Callpod's UPS prices aren't completely out of whack, since their charge for sending an envelope through the "UPS Express Saver" service is $122.48, which aligns to the $114.75 that shipping my dream camera system would cost. For buying a Callpod cable outright, their cheapest shipping option remains USPS International, but at the time of writing it costs $6.66. And yes, I have a screenshot of that, too. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

There are several things that I consider when I choose a rating. If I like something enough that I can't stop talking about it when someone asks, that's worth a '3'. If I dislike something enough to rant about it when someone asks, that's a '1'. That combination is where I find myself with the Callpod Fueltank Uno: it's a great idea, the product does exactly what it says, and it works for what I want it for. It has some strong features, including a good power reserve at a reasonable size. At the same time, the need to use a badly designed custom and hard-to-get cable ranges from a mild but ongoing nuisance to a critical failure that leaves the Fueltank unusable. I'm happy to have it, but if mine gets lost or stolen tomorrow, I wouldn't buy another one without taking a long, hard look at my other options.


Coca-Cola's Gold Cans - 2010 Edition

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Is it the thought that counts?

The Long Version: Coca-Cola, the American brand that dominates the soft-drink market of almost the entire world, loves to support the home team no matter where it is. To celebrate the 2010 Olympics, they issued a small number of gold cans. There wasn't much promotion that I saw, no ads or special markings on the cases, and I haven't seen them in the stores. The distinctive gold colour of these cans surprised everyone who saw them: "How old is that thing?" being the overwhelming response. They look like they've faded from been left in the sun too long.

The fine print on the cans reads "Congratulations Canadian Olympic Ice Hockey Team on Winning Gold!" It's a nice sentiment, so I know this will sound churlish, but my question is: Which one? As usually happens, both the Canadian hockey teams - Men's and Women's - won gold medals. So either they've missed the pluralization, or they missed an entire event. I hope it's just a grammatical issue, because otherwise someone's been snubbed, and I doubt it's the NHL players.

For what it's worth, 'Team Canada' also took twelve non-hockey gold medals, and I really don't think that team sports like hockey should be part of the Olympics in the first place. So perhaps I'm just snippy at a multi-billion-dollar corporation congratulating a select group of millionaires while neglecting the rest. Call it youngest-child syndrome. Even though these cans are listed on eBay for almost two dollars each, mine are gone and I have no regrets.


Panasonic DMW-RS1 Remote

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's worth having.

The Long Version: Panasonic makes two different wired remotes - the RS1, the subject of this review, and the more sophisticated RSL1. The "L" stands for 'locking', which allows bulb exposures; the simpler remote is just a push-button on a cable. The huge difference in features means a huge difference in the price, and they're both compatible with the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds bodies that use a 2.5mm jack.

The RS1 is a lightweight remote, with a thin cable and simple connector. I never quite figured out why the Nikon MC-30 needs ten pins to do such a simple job. But the best part is that it costs about $30 at B&H, which is still a bit `spensive, but not nearly as bad as it could be.

The back of the remote has a little clip on it. I use it to hold the cable, which is about all I ever use pocket clips for. Actually using it to clip to clothing is just inviting tragedy - or comedy, depending on whose camera it's plugged into. Attaching it to a camera strap, or using it to loop to itself around the tripod, is safer and still quite handy.

For those who want to photograph star trails, this isn't the one to pick, but for me losing the ability to take 'Bulb' exposures is far less significant than losing the extra twenty bucks to buy the more expensive remote. All told it's quite a useful accessory, and makes the camera much easier to use on a tripod. Given how the live-view LCD makes it quite natural to use the m4/3 cameras from a distance, this just makes the whole thing better. Macros, portraits, home-made sound blimps - there's all kinds of reasons to get away from the camera so that we can actually see our subjects. Having a decent cable release makes it work.


Pizza Pizza (Bloor and Spadina)

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's safe and unsurprising.

The Long Version: Pizza Pizza is the McDonald's of the flat-meal world. It's predictable, it's consistent, and it's not exactly famous for its fine cuisine. It was a staple of my high-school nutrition plan, but once I finished grade fourteen, we drifted apart. I started ordering entire pizzas, and almost always from other restaurants. It wasn't a conscious snub; more of a life change. But during Toronto's one recent attempt at winter storm, the intersection of Spadina and Harbord was just too far to walk, so I hit the Pizza Pizza at Bloor and Spadina instead.

I got the 'all meat' pizza slice, since it was the one with the least-glassy cheese and didn't have curled edges. I was surprised - it was slightly cheaper than I expected, much smaller than I was used to, and not very good. In the interest of fairness, I went back a second time for the gold standard of pizza takeout, the pepperoni slice. I wasn't overly impressed with it, either.

Pizza Pizza uses cute little trays for its slices, while the two at Harbord use paper plates. Just for fun, I put a slice from Papa Ceo's on top of the Pizza Pizza tray - the red shows the part of the pizza that you don't get from the chain store. The one big thing that Pizza Pizza does have going for it is that it has a great track record on the City of Toronto's Dinesafe website. Papa Ceo doesn't have a spotless record, and the whole rat carcass thing has put me off of Cora's for a while. Pizza Pizza is nothing to get too excited about, but that works both ways and isn't always a bad thing. After all, if I wanted really good pizza, I'd be calling Regina's anyway.


Thewsreviews: Year Number Two

Concept: _ out of 5
Execution: _ out of 5
Yeah, but: It's still too early for a retrospective.

The Long Version: This website turned two yesterday. It's been a big year: we've gone to a new design, a new URL, and gained a new author. In the past twelve months, we've had another thirty-seven thousand hits, and sixty-five thousand page views. This is post number one hundred and eighty, so we're averaging about two posts per week. The word cluster at the top is generated from just the 27 reviews posted so far this calendar year.

Of course, a lot hasn't changed. Camera gear remains the most popular subject, getting the most interest from regular readers and search engine patrons alike. The Olympus 35-100mm review is a medium-size fish in a small pond, accounting for about a tenth of the site traffic. My first look at the Xootr Mg scooter, written exactly two years ago and currently the first result on google.ca for 'xootr review', remains very popular even though its traffic has been eclipsed by my 2009 writeup of the Xootr Swift folding bike. In honour of that bike, which I just brought out of winter storage, here's a photo of it that has never been published before:

If nothing else, that photo shows that there is a minimum quality standard that needs to be met before I'll use it. I do enjoy taking photos for these reviews, and I take far more than I've used. Some were ideas that never quite blossomed into prose, others were ones that didn't add anything to the review. Sometimes I'll write an entire review simply because I want to use a particular photo, but usually the idea comes before the illustration.

In the past year, I've stopped using most of my Olympus equipment, and even sold both the 35-100/2 and 7-14/4 lenses. (That still astonishes me.) I've added two entirely new camera systems, four new cameras, and ten new lenses to my collection. Some of those have been mentioned here before, and some are still on my 'to do' list. I continue to look for interesting things to review, and more importantly, keep trying to write about the things that interest me instead of trying to anticipate what will get more traffic. After all, I first thought of writing this blog as a personal creative outlet, and never imagined that anyone other than family and friends would ever read it. (For the record, absolutely nobody in my family reads it. Apparently I have a very healthy ego.) So even though I know that nobody's likely to care what I think about dishwasher detergent or a light switch, I'm going to keep writing about them and things like them. When I initially thought about the concept behind the blog - while riding the Spadina Streetcar - I thought I'd eventually review a day of the week. Tuesday's been on my shortlist for a while, but it hasn't happened yet.

So, for everyone who reads this, thank you. You've taken the effort to include my thoughts in your day, which just completely blows my mind. Thanks also to Keith and Bill, my co-authors who add so much to this site and keep it from being completely self-indulgent. This is far more fun than I had any right to expect.


Electrasol Finish Powerball dishwasher tablets

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Who names these things?

The Long Version: There are two good things that I can say about this detergent - I haven't had any reason to complain about it, and it got rid of the gunk that the last stuff left. Really, what more can I ask?

The dishwasher detergent itself comes in little rectangular tablets that are designed to be pretty as well as water soluble. They remind me of the fancy striped toothpastes, except that toothpaste doesn't come in individually-portioned plastic packets. While that does give me a bit of an excess-packaging twinge, it's better than having a lumpen mass of unusable detergent that ends up in a landfill. It's still not a great choice overall, so I'll likely look for something else next time, but when I bought them they were the best type available.

But really, "Powerball Finish"? C'mon. I'd love to know how much the macho-male dishwasher detergent market segment is worth. Even the officially-sequenced "Finish Powerball" is still an awfully suggestive name. I'm sure that most everyone will think that I'm reading far too much into this, but there are some mighty clever people working in advertising. When it comes to multi-million-dollar industries, I don't think that much happens by accident. Sex, after all, sells.

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