NBC Studio Tour @ 30 Rockefeller Plaza

Concept:  2 out of 5
Execution:  1 out of 5
Yeah, but:  Spotting NBC talent is rare, but not impossible!

The Long Version: When the ticket-taker said "wait there" and waved indistinctly down a hallway that curved out of sight, I should have realized that we were in trouble. True, disinterested and unhelpful people abound in New York in general, and its service/tourist industry in particular, but I shouldn't have been so jaded that I missed the warning signs. So perhaps in some way I'm responsible for what came later, but even while standing unattended behind a rope I still didn't see it coming. What happened next was the NBC Studio Tour, and yes, the fact that I can't link into its website in a way that avoids the animated intro should be yet another warning. But it's too late now, so let's proceed.

The NBC tour at 30 Rockefeller Plaza starts with the tour group shuffling into a small auditorium to watch a promotional video. While inside, we're told of the many upcoming delights of our visit - like no bathrooms, anywhere inside the NBC complex - and are sternly admonished to turn off our cell phones. "Not vibrate, not silent, not airplane mode: OFF." There's also Strictly No Photography, because everything we're about to see is "highly copyrighted". (That's the exact phrase that appears in their FAQ web page, which I can't link to.) I wasn't aware that copyright comes in different levels, but since NBC was recently fined millions of dollars for pirating someone else's intellectual property, maybe they know what they're talking about. Or perhaps, like some other image-based companies, they think that adding a superlative to the correct term will impress people.

With fifteen minutes of our hour-long tour now past, we were marshaled into a long queue for our security screening. Blogger Bob himself would be proud of its combination of intrusiveness and unpleasantness; if anything, the TSA screeners are more friendly and personable. The studio prohibits anything that the FAA won't allow on an aircraft, so forget about bringing that toner cartridge, but they also ban children under the age of six "for security reasons." I never realized that a preschooler could actually be used as a weapon, which must have some pretty serious ramifications for Disneyland.

Once cleared through security, the next challenge was the elevators. Our sizable group used two of them, which explained the two tour guides, and this was by far the most crowded I'd felt in the entire visit to New York. On the positive side, doing head counts and trying to squeeze everyone in provided the biggest spark of genuine enthusiasm that I saw from our guides throughout the tour. I don't know if this is because there's a betting pool going on in the staff room, or if there's a precedent of people sneaking off - I wasn't inclined to ask, and both options seem plausible.

The tour doesn't follow any established route, so it's impossible to say where it goes next. As the unlinkable FAQ points out, the building is "a very active working environment", so the tour is sent to whatever area has the least likelihood of having anything interesting happening. Not surprisingly, that turned out to be the stage for Saturday Night Live. More specifically, it turned out to be the glassed-in corridor above the bleachers for the live studio audience - but at least the hall was lined with photos, so there was a chance of seeing a publicity photo of someone famous as we hustled past. This explains why that wonderful FAQ page says that "spotting NBC talent is rare but not impossible" - although I doubt that they meant it as a double entendre.

Back through the elevators again and we're rewarded by being able to look through the glass of a dimmed control room, get shown an outdated video loop about makeup for SNL, and then the tour concludes with an audience-participation exercise involving a mock broadcast and some painful moments with a teleprompter and green-screen. There's also the mandatory souvenir prom-photo moment, with prints and DVDs available for purchase at the end of the tour.

We both felt a little stunned as we walked away from the NBC Studio Experience. I was certainly thinking it, but Penny was the first to say it out loud: "Thank Gosh for the New York Pass." That's the flat-rate tourist pass that we were using to see the city, and it meant that we hadn't actually handed over $20 - each - for the tour. I still think about all of the other things we could have done with the time, but at least that's all we were burned for.

But who knows? Maybe other people loved it; maybe it's the perfect moment for someone out there somewhere. Just because it wasn't right for me, and just because I can't conceive of who would really find this tour worth its time and expense doesn't mean that it couldn't happen. If this sounds like you, then please, please, please add a comment to say so. And never let it be said that I'm not an optimist.

last updated 29 dec 2010


Radio City Music Hall Stage Door Tour

Concept:  2 out of 5
Execution:  4 out of 5
Yeah, but:  I may just be really lucky.

The Long Version: I'll admit that a tour of the Radio City Music Hall wasn't high on my list of things to do while on my honeymoon in New York City. I recognized the hall as a landmark when I walked by, and have some idea who the Rockettes are, but otherwise wouldn't have gone out of my way to see the interior. What a mistake that would have been - and her wanting to do the Stage Door tour is yet another example of how my wife is smarter than I am. I have no problem admitting that.

I know that I'm lucky, and in this case we were able to take the tour with a very small group. Our guide, Shannon, was exceptional: bright, interested, and involved in the life of the theatre. There was never that horrible reading-from-a-cue-card feeling, and she cheerfully answered any questions that our small-but-enthusiastic group had. I felt like I saw a lot of the building, and came away with an interest in its history that I never would have considered before. When Penny and I go back to New York, we'll probably make it just a little later in the year than our last trip just so that we can go back and see the Rockettes perform. After meeting one of the dancers in person, and getting a glimpse of their rehearsal, how could we not?

Photography is permitted through most of the tour, but I really don't have anything that captured the magnitude of some of the interior spaces. The tour itself lasted over an hour, but I can't say exactly how long because I was never inclined to look at my watch. Instead I just enjoyed myself and wandered along in amazement. After a crushingly bad experience elsewhere in the Rockefeller Center, the Radio City Stage Door tour restored much of my faith in the whole guided-tour tourist experience. Seeing a show at the Music Hall will be mandatory for the next time we're in New York, and we'll probably take the tour again as well.

last updated 28 dec 2010


MoMA Ball Bearing Key Chain

Concept:  2 out of 5
Execution:  3 out of 5
Yeah, but:  If it hangs on a wall it’s a painting, and if you can walk around it it’s a sculpture.

The Long Version: Ball bearings are nifty things. The MoMA store - Museum of Modern Art, New York - is also nifty. Its website is where I first found the Mighty Wallet, of which I now own seven, and it also features the Ball Bearing Keychain. When I was in New York MoMA was one of my obligatory stops, but I hesitated before spending the not-insignificant cash to buy one of these iconic keychains. Eventually I rationalized it as a souvenir that I would use every day, but I have to be realistic: it's shiny, mechanical, and pointless. How could I resist?

The keychain itself is quite substantial, with a very heavy split ring to attach the keys to. One of my keys has a squared-off hole in the bow that binds on the ring, making the spare-no-expense build into a little too much of a good thing, but it hasn't been enough of a hassle to get me to change it. And while it may seem strange to say, this is a working ball bearing, so it's free to spin and move as it was intended to. It was a little stiff straight out of the box, but it loosened up after just a few days' use. The shaft diameter for the inner race is 15mm, making it just slightly smaller than a 4.25 ring size. Sticking a finger through it and twirling the keys around and around is surprisingly entertaining; I'll also toy with it and flip the inner race and cage around in those quiet moments when I'm idle but there's nothing interesting on my blackberry.

The polished stainless steel has been surprisingly difficult to scratch; while it does show a few marks, the keyfob in these photos has spent six weeks jostling around with lose change and other pocket items in addition to the keys that it carries. It's also quite heavy, which lets it bully its way to the bottom of a jacket pocket instead of getting tangled up in the gloves and toque that I invariably carry these days. That means that there's much less chance of launching my keys into a snowbank - a very good thing. With lighter summer clothes the weight might not be quite so welcome, so I predict that this keychain will need to be put aside when I'm not wearing a jacket.

The ball bearing keychain is an executive toy that's disguised as a tribute to an important machine with a fascinating design, but without the MoMA connection it would have been much harder to justify its cost. While I'm glad that I bought it after a happy afternoon in the galleries, I wouldn't buy another if something tragic happens to this one. But I'm not in any way dissatisfied: it's almost impossible for me to leave it alone when it's sitting on my desk, even when I have an important review to write. Never underestimate the entertainment value of things that are shiny, mechanical, and pointless.

last updated 18 dec 2010


Berlebach Report 3032 Tripod

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Perhaps all tripods are vaguely annoying.

The Long Version:  It's hard to miss: Berlebach tripods are made out of wood. Well-seasoned ash hardwood, to be precise, stylishly accessorized with black hardware. They have a look to them that speaks of tradition and perhaps a little willful stubbornness. When I went shopping for a tripod to put under a monster medium-format film camera, it seemed like a good fit.

Choosing wood came easily. I swore I'd never buy another metal tripod after I used one in the winter, but the price of a carbon tripod that's sturdy enough for a ten-pound SLR - my beloved Fujifilm GX680III - would have me living in a tent. Wood is strong and resists vibrations very well, so after a lot of thought, the Berlebach Report 3032 came home with me from New York. And yes, I declared it, and it just happened that the customs agent was a photographer as well. Air travel really has made the world a smaller place.

Many Berlebach tripods have a built-in levelling ball with thirty degrees of travel; for a camera with a rotating back or a lens with a tripod collar, that's likely to be plenty of movement. The 3032 has a spring-loaded camera mounting screw instead of a centre column, and has only two leg sections, making it very long even when collapsed. I've given up a lot of convenience in exchange for strength by picking this particular model; there are other models that are less extreme and/or more practical. But where's the fun in that?

The 3032 is rated for twelve kilograms and weighs about seven pounds, which is almost twice the weight of the Gitzo carbon legs and ballhead that can handle the same load for four times the price. The aluminum Manfrotto 028 'triman' leg set, which is about the same bulk as the 3032 but with a geared centre column, weighs a kilo more and has the same carrying capacity. Every tripod offers its own set of compromises, making direct comparisons difficult, but as a material wood needs no excuses.

The levelling ball and easy-attach base were two of the features that most appealed to me about the 3032. But alas, not everything has worked out the way I hoped it would. While the levelling ball is strong and works very well, I have never particularly liked ball heads. I was hoping this one would win me over, but I constantly miss my Manfrotto 410 head with its ultra-fine gear-driven adjustments. Attaching the camera directly to the tripod without a quick release is very secure, and the spring-loaded tripod screw does make it very easy to attach a lightweight camera and lens - like a D700 and 105VR - but it just runs and hides when I try to finesse my ten-pound rollfilm SLR onto it. There are clearly some compromises in my future: either I'll need to relearn how I use a tripod or change how this tripod works. Most people, especially those without my love of complicated solutions to simple problems, will probably be quite happy with the tripod right out of the box.

My favourite tripod leg-lock design is Gitzo's excellent twist mechanism, which is fast and easy to secure. The best thing about them is that, unlike the cams of flip-locks, they're self-correcting: when they're tightened, they're tight. The screw-lock legs on the Berlebach are slower to use, but also give a positive lock and are perfectly suited to the material. If the wood expands or contracts, it just needs a few turns more or less to compensate. And the speed that I lose to the knobs is easily regained by having ruler-like indices on the legs to help set them all to the same length. I don't know why this isn't mandatory for all tripods.

The feet for the Berlebach are a hard plastic that screw down over spikes; the platforms on the metal end caps are to help drive the spikes into the ground. The hard plastic feet are excellent on concrete, but are too slippery to use on smooth surfaces. There's also no detent or locking screw that will hold the plastic feet down over the spikes, so hardwood flooring is a bad surface for a couple of good reasons. My little basalt Gitzo 1930 was clobbered by the Berlebach when I trialled them outdoors in strong winds, but the stability situation is reversed indoors in the classic camera-store press-and-wiggle test. Having to add industrial carpet to my studio isn't exactly what I had planned when I wanted to get the sturdiest tripod that not a lot of money could buy.

Another interesting quirk with my 3032 is that the leg pivots have very little friction. I usually carry my tripods by only one leg, but doing that with the Berlebach results in it unfolding itself. I've solved that problem by wrapping a strap around its ankles; it's a reflective one that I have for my bike, and is clearly visible in the lead photo. Ultimately it's not that big of a deal: it's just one more little thing to keep track of, which is part of the fun of photography. Because of the length, weight, and bulk of the wooden tripod, I'll use a tripod bag with handles and a shoulder strap when I need to transport the Berlebach any significant distance.

The leg locks on the Berlebach have three positions: roughly 20 degrees, 45 degrees, and 'off'. Theoretically the spikes or feet can be used to set the legs at any angle, but in practice I wouldn't want to put that much faith in them at anything lower than the (lockable) 45 degree setting. That gives the 3032 an effective minimum height of just over two feet, so there's no low-level benefit from not having a centre column. The tripod legs can also pivot beyond 90 degrees - except for the one that's blocked by the tension knob for the levelling ball - so the 3032 won't even provide a stable support when it's completely splayed out on the ground. Not that any of my tripods that lock at eighty degrees are worth anything in that position - there's far too much spring in the legs for that. But they don't claim that they have a minimum height of 3.5", which might be technically true for the 3032, but it certainly isn't useful.

There's a small subset of photographers who are genuinely "Tripod People", but I've never been one of them. I find them all - tripods - vaguely annoying and rarely worth their inherent inconvenience. By that standard the Berlebach compares quite favourably: somewhat annoying, physically and photographically inconvenient, but also tremendously strong, relatively inexpensive, and not metal. It does exactly what I bought it for, should last for decades, and has caused more conversations with complete strangers than any other tripod I own. Despite the way this review consists of little more than complaints strung together with stilted prose, I can recommend a Berlebach tripod to anyone who's looking for their combination of features and price. Just be aware that it behaves a little differently from the other tripods out there, and has its own learning curve. I can't say that I've become best friends with mine, but we're working it out.

updated two years and nine months later: One of the biggest nuisances about the 3032 is that its plastic feet are too slippery to grip properly on hardwood floors – they just skate along on any smooth surface. Today I fixed that with a $3 roll of hockey tape. Now the tripod is rock solid and is vastly more useful.

For non-Canadians: hockey tape is adhesive fabric tape that wraps around the blade of the hockey stick. It's designed to grab the puck, so its surface is both durable and grippy, and not at all bouncy the way shock-absorbing tape for a hand grip would be. I haven't yet seen how it will hold up on concrete, but ultimately it doesn't matter. A lifetime supply of tape costs about three bucks. They even make it in different colours.

For Canadians: hockey isn't our national sport. Get over it.

last updated 5 aug 2012


Opinel #8 Knife

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but:  It has a certain maturity.

The Long Version:  It's hard to review a knife that predates the invention of the zipper. Its form is simultaneously refined and very basic, with a minimum of parts and an elegance that has endured for over a century. The Opinel knife is very simple, consisting of a blade and wooden handle joined with a pivot and locking collar. I bought the #8 size - 8.5cm blade, about 3.25" - to have something small and cheap enough that I can always have one in my bag for when I forget to bring a better one to work with me. I chose the carbon steel blade for better performance, but there's also a stainless version for lower maintenance.

While the knife wasn't razor-sharp right out of the package, especially toward the tip, it can easily take and hold a fine edge. But what makes the blade so useful is that it's very thin with a gentle convex grind. This isn't some ├╝ber-strong knife that could split firewood, but instead its slender profile makes it perfect as a light utility knife. Picture a scalpel, x-acto, or box cutter: knives that really need to be sharp are thin. For slicing plastic and cardboard the reduced drag through the material makes for a much easier cut. I mostly use my working knives to split tape and break down cardboard boxes, and the Opinel easily slips in between the side flaps and box top, which a thick blade simply can't do.

Opinel's simple design has a rotating collar that can be used to lock the blade open, and in more recent knives, can also lock the blade closed. They can't be opened with one hand, don't have a pocket clip, and really aren't fancy in any way. They need a certain deliberation to use, and convey almost no "attitude", which can be far more useful than titanium liners and serrated blades. No, I wouldn't want to go into the woods for a week with just this knife to get me through, but for me carrying a different knife would be solving the wrong problem. There are bugs and stuff out in the wilderness - I'll stay in a motel instead.

When I bought the #8, I thought it would be the knife that gets tossed into my work bag and forgotten about, and I was only half-right. It weighs almost nothing and is cheap enough to be a spare, but it's also good enough that it's the one I reach for instead of my heavier knives. Not all the time, of course, and not for every task - but often enough that I'm planning on adding a couple of the smaller #6 size to my collection as well. There's a lot to be said for understated simplicity and the charm of an enduring design.

added: after writing this review, I've gone on to buy the #6 and #10 sizes as well. While I'm not sure that it makes sense to like something enough to want others that are similar but different, that's what happened here - and they're cheap enough that the set of three still cost less than what many 'basic' modern knives would run. Now that I've had a couple of months with them, I've written a new review that can be found by clicking here.

last updated 18 feb 2011


Wendy's "Natural" Fries

Concept:  2 out of 5
Execution:  1 out of 5
Yeah, but:  Even I can't believe I'm reviewing a potato.

The Long Version: Fast-food burger restaurant Wendy's launched their New And Improved french fries almost a month ago in Canada. For those who aren't familiar with them, French Fries (aka "Freedom Fries" for my American readers) are narrow strips of a nutritionally deficient beige root vegetable that has been turned into candy by cooking it in one of the least healthy ways possible. So right off the bat, Wendy's efforts to attach connotations of wholesomeness by calling their new product "natural" is problematic at best.

So what's the difference between "natural" fries and the ones that they've served for the previous four decades? They're not peeled, and they use sea salt. Exciting times.

Wendy's previous favourite foodlike meal-filler were unremarkable but inoffensive; the new product has neither virtue. Thinner and stringy, they look like a 'grunge' version of the ones from McDonald's that go stone cold in the time it takes to eat a McNugget. The vaunted sea salt still has the same sandy table-salt texture, and there's far, far too much of it. A single 'medium' serving now contains one third of the RDA for sodium, up from a mere 23% for the old version.

From information gathered from their respective nutritional information web pages:

  • Mcdonald's fries per 100g - 319 calories, 15g fat, 239mg sodium.
  • Wendy's fries per 100g - 295 calories, 14g fat, 352mg sodium.

While french/freedom fries are never going to be healthy, Wendy's has moved in exactly the wrong direction on this. But even beyond the whole "real" and "natural" marketing spin, which is almost too absurd to be insulting, the results are bad. After three unsuccessful attempts to like them, I'm now actively avoiding Wendy's fries. Fortunately there are other foodlike fillers on their menu, but so far my solution has simply been to go elsewhere for lunch.

What can I say? For me, this is the straw that broke the Frosty's™ back.

last updated 6 dec 2010

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