Kirk Gleason

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: My excitement must be clouding my ability to judge comedic hyperbole.

The Long Version: "Kirk" is the character played by Sean Gunn on the long-running TV show "Gilmore Girls". He's clearly a good idea that occurred to the creative powers just a little bit late; his first appearance is in the second episode as a walk-on character who's installing a DSL line. At that point he's called Mick. Gunn's first appearance as Kirk is when he gets into an altercation with Miss Patty in Doose's Market, where he's working as an Assistant Manager. The conflict arises because Kirk doesn't know who Miss Patty is; later in the series Kirk has transmogrified into a life-long Stars Hollow resident who used to study in Miss Patty's dance classes.

Kirk Gleason appears in 137 out of 154 episodes, making him one of the most common minor characters. But even his important roles tend to be fleeting; Paris and the Grandparents are seen in fewer episodes but are always significant characters. Poor Kirk is never in control of the scenes he's in. Instead he spends his time filling quiet moments, adding character, providing transitions, and occasionally being a plot device, and yet somehow he manages to do every odd job in the entire town. On our last run through the seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, Penny and I kept track of his different jobs:

DSL Installer (as 'Mick')
Bird delivery (credited as 'Swan Man')
Assistant Manager at Doose's (first appearance as Kirk)
Flower Delivery
Video Store Cashier
Skincare product developer ("Haythere")
Waiter at Weston's Bakery
Beauty Supply Store Cashier
Hockey Announcer
Daily Topical T-Shirts
Pizza Delivery
Mold Inspector
Skydiver (paid $20 by Taylor)
Alarm Installation, Star's Hollow Security
Custom Mailbox Salesman
Dog Walker
Pedi-cab Owner
Mailbox Store worker
Doose's Market Cashier
Wedding DJ
Firewood Delivery
Movie Theatre Worker
Handbill Distribution - "Lunch at the Dragonfly!"
Bath and Shower Adhesive Decals salesman
Twickham Souvenir Sales
Tow Truck operator
Estate ring salesman
Kirk's Doggie Daycare
Real Estate Agent Trainee
Owner, Yummy Bartenders
Owner, Kirk's Diner
Gift Wrap salesperson
Official Town Sash Maker and Presenter

This list isn't counting his roles that were probably volunteer positions, like being an historical war reenactor, playing Joseph in the Christmas pageant or being the tallest person in the children's production of Fiddler on the Roof. He also has roles in every town event or scheme that Taylor has going, so he's the one handing out maps from the Historic Star's Hollow booth, and Kirk's the one in the hi-viz vest when the red-light camera goes up. It also doesn't count his hobbies, like being the Asaad Kelada of Star's Hollow. Next time we watch the series - all seven seasons are on DVD - we'll keep at least a couple more lists.

TVTropes.com has a few opinions about Kirk as well, thinking that he fills the Village Idiot role, as well as being the one who never has anything good happen to him. They also point out that his mother is one of the 'ghost' characters who's often mentioned but never seen. (Gilmore Girls has a few of these - Lane's father, Mr. Kim, is occasionally mentioned but there's never any evidence of him, and East Side Tilly has the inside scoop on all the gossip but never makes an appearance.) His other distinction is that he may be the only character on the show who speaks at a normal speed.

Kirk is in no way a central character in the Gilmore Girls world, but he'd be missed if he went away. His inclusion in the cast is one of the better ideas that they had - and as with most things, late is better than never. If someone decides to go all Tom Stoppard on him, and creates a spin-off show in the spirit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I'd be all over it. There would be so much great material to work with - and he's the only one who could pull it off. Like Rory said, he was always a cat person, he just never had a cat.


eBay E46 Hood & the Panasonic 20/1.7

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It works, it's cheap, it's aluminum.

The Long Version: When I was looking at the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens, I wished that there was a hood available. Flare is really not an issue with the 20/1.7, and having a hood won't stop those rare instances of ghosting - I was simply looking for something to replace a prophylactic clear filter. There are rubber shades out there, but protective hoods need to be at least a hard plastic, and I really prefer metal. I've been spoiled by the classic screw-in hoods from Nikon and the modern bayonet ones from Zeiss, which makes eBay an odd place for me to end up.

I blame Mike Johnston. He had a post on TOP - essential reading, by the way - that casually included a photo showing an 'E46' hood from the `bay on his GF1, so that's where I went. I've heard the name "jinfinance" get positive mentions around the forums, so when I found him/her selling this screw-on metal shade online, how could I not order it? After all, it's not even ten dollars (US), and that includes worldwide shipping. The hood arrived so quickly that I had forgotten that I ordered it - I had mentally filed it under 'Early September' and it caught me by surprise when it showed up a week earlier than that.

I picked the vented style as an aesthetic conceit; its function is identical to the standard design, but it's a better spiritual match to the rangefinder gear that will most often be joining the GH1. The inside of the hood is lightly ribbed, and the whole thing is painted matte black. As usual it screws on to the filter thread of the lens and isn't threaded itself, so it has to be placed on top of any other filters. The tight interior means that there's no chance of using the original Panny lens cap, although a centre-pinch style would be fine. Using a cap with this bad boy attached is mildly missing the point, but maybe there are some rare conditions that would need both.

The hood doesn't obstruct the lens or cause any vignetting, which is fairly fundamental to its success. Also important is that it looks cool, and this one delivers on that as well. My only complaint is that the white '46mm' painted on the hood doesn't end up centred on the Panasonic lens, but I can hardly blame the anonymous factory in China for that. Next time, I'll just look for one that doesn't have any markings on it at all. All things considered, this metal hood does its simple job very well, and I would have paid two or three times as much if I saw it in a store. Not too shabby.


Concrete Toronto: A Guidebook to Concrete Architecture From the Fifties to the Seventies

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a very dense book.

The Long Version: "Concrete Toronto: A Guidebook to Concrete Architecture From the Fifties to the Seventies" is the second book I've bought from Coach House Press, the small but vital Toronto institution located on the charming bpNichol lane. Like HTO: Toronto's Water, this is a collection of essays written by a range of experts, discussing a specific and overlooked section of Toronto's physical environment. And before I put anyone off, Coach House publishes a broad range of subjects, including fiction and poetry, and it's well worth looking through their catalog. It just so happens that I love their dedication to local subjects, and Concrete Toronto is exactly the kind of book that appeals to me.

Concrete is possibly the least-sexy building material out there, and yet it's ubiquitous. It makes our roads and bridges possible, and it's the ground that we walk on in our cities, but it is to aesthetics what powdered mashed potatoes is to cuisine. Toronto's skyline is dominated by poured concrete buildings, but it's mostly associated with the broadly-unloved Brutalist style, which even takes its name from its love of exposed concrete exteriors. A book titled "Concrete Toronto" is clearly facing an tough battle just to get picked up off of the shelf, but it's well worth it. Inside is a huge collection of essays, illustrations, and photos.

Naturally, the prominent Toronto landmarks are well covered. The CN Tower, the Manulife Centre, and the New City Hall are all presented in considerable detail, and the book almost persuades me to like that particular government building. Less prominent buildings are also discussed, including many in the University of Toronto and Annex neighbourhoods that I see daily, and it really has given me a new way to understand the unremarkable - I can see Tartu and Rochdale from the balcony in my `70's concrete condo - and appreciate the ambitious, like OISE, Robarts, and 44 Walmer. But the book isn't just a tourists' guide to specific structures: history, preservation, technology, and city-building are all within the scope of the book. The buildings I've studied in, the suburb that I grew up in, and the highways that I drive on are all in here. And while most of the book is specific to Toronto and the area around it, who wouldn't be interested in an essay on 'The Rise of Parking Garages'? It sounds trivial, but this is the stuff that shapes our cities.

I really only have one criticism of the book: the type can be tiny. While most of the text is simply very very small, sometimes they designers have had to fit an inhuman amount of text onto a page, with a result that makes the fine print in a credit card ad seem luxurious. This isn't one to read while swaying around in bad lighting on the subway, even if you are approaching Eglinton West station on your way to Yorkdale mall, both of which are featured inside. A minor quibble is that the lack of colour photography leaves the book relentlessly grey, but I suppose that's partly the point. After all, one of the typefaces used is 'Slate' - I've always suspected that the people at Coach House have a subtle and sophisticated sense of humour.

Clearly, it's people with an interest in Toronto and its architecture that are going to get the most out of this book. I wouldn't suggest that anyone in Barstow, California should head over to Amazonto buy a copy, unless they were originally from here and were feeling an unusual variety of homesickness. But for those who like concrete architecture, cities in general, and Toronto's history and development, it's definitely worth checking out. The mix of different perspectives, the reasonable length of each essay, and the broad range of subjects within its narrow scope makes Concrete Toronto a surprisingly engaging book. I know I'll be picking it up and re-reading it, in both idle moments and dedicated sessions, for a long time to come.


Zeiss Ikon (First Impressions)

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Five years old and still not obsolete.

Let's all take a minute and think back to the beginning of 2005. It's a very long time ago: Canon has just released a follow-up to its MSRP-revising Rebel 300D, the Nikon D70 is a really big deal, the Olympus E-300 is only the second SLR in a new all-digital format, and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker has just been rediscovered in Arkansas. Konica-Minolta is about to announce a technology sharing agreement with Sony, and Leica is on the verge of financial collapse. This was what the world looked like when the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder first appeared - a strange and slightly scary place, but with faint foreshadowing of what is to come.

So now we're in the middle of 2010: digital cameras are firmly established, Canon has brought out five more 'Rebel' models, and the remaining manufacturers look like they'll still be in business in the next few months. The irony, of course, is that ten years into the digital era, film photography has never been better. The Nikon F6 is the finest automated camera ever made, and Leica has both the mechanical MP and the electronic M7 available for the well-heeled purists. The diversity has dwindled and the selection has been savaged, but the remaining films and cameras are exceptional.

With the Zeiss Ikon, there's always the question of 'why not just buy a Leica'? Part of the answer has to be very simple: it's far less expensive than the similar M7, and far more capable than a used M6 for about the same money. Plus, I like it better - and it has no difficulty standing on its own merits. The aesthetics and the idea of the Ikon really appeal to me; with all due respect for Leica's sensibilities, the Zeiss Ikon is the pinnacle of rangefinder design without the undue burden of its history. Its creators clearly love photography, love cameras, and have a tremendous respect for the Leica tradition, but the Zeiss Ikon moves beyond it. It's electronic, it's much lighter than its German counterparts, and it has its own distinct personality.

In my formative years, my hobby was archery. It's a contemplative activity that depends on precise timing, and is not unlike photography in many ways. A friend of mine used a beautiful wooden longbow, and we both scoffed at the hunters with their compound bows sporting fiberglass pulleys and elaborate sights. That wonderful wooden longbow - tradition unhampered by progress - is a good parallel for the Leica, and wunder-plastik is universal, whether it's found in a weapon or a digital SLR. In a tellingly prescient move, I used a scoped crossbow. I still have it to this day, but I digress.

Take a look at the flight deck of the Zeiss Ikon. This is an inherently electronic camera that cannot function without its battery, and it's perfectly designed for auto exposure. But unlike the "Green Idiot" auto modes of digital SLRs, 'auto' in this context simply means 'aperture priority', which is always set directly from the lens. Exposure compensation can be set by moving the "A" indicator from -2 through to +2, in thirds-stop increments, with a firmer detent at the neutral position making it easy to find without looking. Whole-stop shutter speeds are also available for those who think that doing basic math is a creative endeavour. (If I wanted to make a hobby out of chasing a needle, I'd take up heroin instead of photography - but that's just me.) Film speeds are set by lifting this same dial and selecting the appropriate number, and once again thirds-stop positions are available. And unlike some rangefinders, there's a window in the back to show the film type for the forgetful.

The shutter release is electronic, with the power / lockout switch underneath it. There's a film plane mark resting demurely underneath the film advance lever, and the frame counter window is both magnified and protected by a raised metal surround. It's hard to get more elegant than that.

Aside from the previously mentioned aperture control and focus ring, both of which are on the lens, the only other photographic control is the silver exposure lock button that's located below the accessory shoe. And that's really all there is to it. The film door has a secure slide-and-push latch that can be opened one-handed, and the rewind crank has been relegated to the bottom of the camera where it belongs.

Ah, the viewfinder of the Zeiss Ikon. It deserves a sentence all to itself, like poetry. Bigger than on any Leica that I've tried - 5, 6, 7, 9, and MP - and far superior to any SLR on the market. The area covered by the 50mm framelines is only a little smaller than the view through the Nikons D700 and F100. With my glasses scrunched tight, I can see almost all of the 28mm framelines, but that's still not quite all of the viewable image. I was initially worried that I'd forget to use the framelines and try to compose with the full view, but that's simply not possible. It's huge and bright, with a completely different experience than the world-in-a-box of a black-framed SLR's window. My first sunny-day outing with the Ikon had me using it at the same time as the GH1, and the experience of going back to the latter camera's electronic viewfinder was crushing.

I've also used my Ikon alongside my Nikon F100, burning the same type of film in each, and come to an interesting conclusion. I've long suspected that I have a mild case of the yips, because I'll often jerk the camera very slightly when I press the shutter. It may even be my hyper-sensitive flinch reflex - I'm the youngest of three brothers - reacting to the experience of the mirror sound and blackout. Regardless of the actual cause, I found that of the 15 essentially identical images that I took with both film cameras, the Ikon's composition was stronger in seven of them, while the F100 was better in only five. The SLR should have had a much stronger showing than that, but I found that many of the SLR images show a slight rotation to the right. That was something that I had to fight with my D700 as well, but with the rangefinder's uninterrupted view, it simply isn't an issue.

The experience of film is very different from using a digital camera. Gone is the attitude of "shoot them all and let Lightroom sort it out." Exposing 36 (really, 39) images with care and consideration is as tiring and time-consuming as taking a couple of hundred digital photos, but my 'keeper' numbers remain about the same. And with the lower throughput, the cost of film is hardly an issue: exposing a full roll of film means I've had a very productive morning, but the cost of buying and developing it barely exceeds that of the lunch that I'll pick up on the way home. If I get into DIY-developed black and white films, then the cost of a roll is about the same as the round-trip bus fare to somewhere interesting - and I mean Scarborough, not Chicago.

Digital and film cameras really are in different worlds. When I'm out with my Ikon and see someone on the street with a D3x and 200mm f/2 lens, neither one of us cares what the other is carrying. Granted, I already have a D700 and a GH1, so there's no shortage of great digital cameras in my life, but now I've opted out of the whole newer+shinier=better perspective. The next big thing doesn't appeal to me any more, and it's a nice feeling.

Of course, I can hardly finish up without mentioning a couple of the points that the many other excellent reviewers have raised before me. (Johnston, Elek, Ripsher, Roger & Frances, Puts, even K'rock.) The first is the shutter speed indicator in the viewfinder. I can't see it without losing sight of the rangefinder patch, and while shutter speed is typically irrelevant for an AE camera, I would occasionally like to know ahead of time if I'm overexposed or risking camera shake. The other issue isn't with the camera, but with the people who think too much instead of taking photos: the camera is made in Japan by Cosina. Cosina, of course, also makes their own rangefinder cameras under the Voigtlander name, causing derisive air-quotes - "Zeiss" - among those who can't imagine why swing-back film loading is a good idea. As even a quick look at the battery compartments of the various Nikon Coolpix cameras will tell you, contract manufacturing is quite common. The Ikon is a beautifully built Zeiss product exactly the same way that the iPods and iPads are distinctly Apple products.

On paper, there's very little reason why I should use a rangefinder camera. I have no background in film photography to fall back on, and already have a full slate of digital gear. I'm not a 'street' photographer, don't want a fashion piece, and my current style depends on flat space, regulated geometry and active framing. But I've grown tired of the whole digital camera market, with the rapid replacement and depreciation of digital SLRs, and ever-decreasing quality of the compacts. Instead of being a limitation, having the Zeiss Ikon has been a liberation. A wise person once said: "if you don't like the answer, choose a different question." The Ikon is a wonderful step away from the pace of the digital world, is immune to (further) obsolescence, and will only get better with age.


Gary Fong Collapsible Lightsphere Packaging

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: Just the wrap, man, just the wrap.

The Long Version: Gary Fong is the Ken Rockwell of lighting modifiers. And that's fine - this review doesn't have anything to do with either one of them, or even the actual product that's in the Gary Fong Lightsphere® Collapsible™ box. It's not even about how the hell someone managed to trademark the word 'Collapsible™'. And for the record, yes, the Gary Fong Lightsphere® Collapsible™ does what it says it does. Two ping-pong balls taped to the top of your flash would also do what the Gary Fong Lightsphere® Collapsible™ does, but that's not the point. This review is just about the package that it comes in.

The box itself is thin black cardboard with a sticker that carries all of the text, graphics, and photos. This is a cost-effective way to create the multi-lingual packaging that's needed for international sales, and the box follows the current trend of keeping it as small as possible. It does fall down a bit by having plastic shrink-wrap around it, but that may add enough integrity to let them use a lighter grade of boxboard. There are also some style points involved by having the actual Lightsphere® Collapsible™ wrapped in coloured tissue paper instead of more unnecessary plastics. But that's hardly enough to motivate a review: the photos are where things start to get interesting.

We see an attractive model in the advertising version of the classic Comedy / Tragedy masks, known as the 'before' and 'after' photo. The one labeled "Without" shows a woman who's rehearsing for her passport photo, while the "With" looks like she's just heard a funny joke from a good friend. Sure, it's a blatant and obvious attempt to manipulate the viewer, but it's so clumsily done that it's impossible to take offense. Besides, given what these things look like when they're stuffed on top of a speedlight, I'm sure that lots of people really do laugh and smile when they see them. But let's look closer, shall we?

Here's the "Without / Sans" photo. It's a pretty standard straight-blast flash photo: the hallmark of novice camera users and really abysmal wedding photography. Nothing too remarkable here, so let's move on to the "With / Avec" image.

It's a huge improvement, verging on school portrait quality. It's so good, it's almost impossible to believe that a single on-camera flash could possibly create these results. Take a good look at the catchlights in her eyes in this photo, and compare them to the "Without / Sans" image. It really is impossible to believe that this was taken using a single on-camera light source, no matter how artfully it's bounced. In fact, the soft caressing shadows look even better than in the similar images on the Gary Fong Product Page, where our attractive model has only one catchlight reflected in her eyes.

Fancy that.

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