"Toronto Rocket" LED Subway Maps

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Just look at how shiny it is!

The Long Version: Toronto has been working hard on its transit system recently. Just this year the city has decided that transit is so essential that the workers who run it lost their right to strike, but not so essential that the system should actually be properly funded or given priority in transportation planning. As always, politics involves compromise.

As a way of squeezing more capacity out of a constrained system, the Toronto Transit Commission has been introducing new subways to its busiest line. Enthusiastically called the Toronto Rocket, these Canadian-made cars offer significant improvements over the previous Canadian-made models. In addition to more standing capacity and wider doors, they've tinted all of the glass so that passengers aren't distracted by being able to see what station they're in. The new subways also introduce some cutting-edge 90's technology, like computerized voice announcements, pixel boards, and LED lights in the system maps.

The LED maps use green and reddish-orange lights to indicate the stops. The upcoming stop flashes, and the 'interchange stops' – a term that, as far as I know, isn't used anywhere else by the TTC – are marked by larger lights that are always orange. In our "green means go" society, where red is used to mark hazards, it's natural and intuitive that the train has passed the orange lights and the green ones mark future destinations. However, since this is the TTC, that's the exact oposite of what the colours mean.

The TTC hasn't called a coin toss correctly in years.

One nice thing that the new "Rocket" trains have is indicators showing which doors to use at the next stop. Toronto mixes island with side platform stations, so this is good to know. This could also be shown on the system maps by replacing the station-marking dot with a bold dash. Oriented along the subway line, it shows an island platform, but drawn across the line it would represent side platforms. They could even add a subtle break in the dash at Dundas to show that it's the only station where it's not possible to change from one platform to the other.

If they were inventive, they could even make it light up.

photos updated 9 jan 2012


Drink Toque

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Quick, guess which country it's from.

The Long Version: Humour counts for a lot, and The Drink Toque makes the most of it. It's really just a can cozy, but it's knitted instead of being made out of the ubiquitous neoprene and foam rubber. It's perfect for lounging around in our typical Canadian weather.

To compliment this fairly simple idea, there are loads of colours and patterns available, and they come in different sizes as well. Mine's a small, designed for 355ml containers, but it's a touch tall for the coke cans that I usually prefer. I don't suppose that it's an accident that the website shows them on bottles, but it's easy enough to snug down a touch. I doubt that these will keep cans as cold for as long as some of the more hard-core designs, but that's okay. Humour counts for a lot.

last updated 24 dec 2011


Domke Camera Straps

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Yeah, they're hard to be excited about.

The Long Version: Domke Camera straps come in two main varieties: swivel and non-swivel. Me being me, I own both, which has given me a good opportunity to compare them.

While there's also a model that's 1.5" wide, I prefer the 1" wide strap. The centre of the strap is just like the ones on Domke camera bags, being made of heavy canvas with ribbons of rubber woven into one side for grip. The two ends of the strap are nylon that's narrow enough to fit through camera lugs, and split rings and little leather camera protectors are also included for those who need them.

The Domke swivel straps have clips that join the nylon webbing to the wider fabric shoulder section. The idea behind this is to let the camera attach to harness points on vests and backpacks, and it can also be used to tether the camera to a chair or table leg when stopping for lunch. The strap doesn't get twisted around on itself, and it's easy to reverse the fabric so that the 'gripper' rubber can be turned off, as there are times when it can be a little too much.

The downside of the swivel strap is that it has swivels on it. They add metal to the middle of the strap, where it can bump against the camera when it's put away. They can make noise, which matters more now that some cameras record video, and I suppose someone somewhere could have a story about one of them coming detached at an inopportune time. Those potential problems are solved by Domke's non-swivel strap, in which the nylon webbing is sewn directly to the same "D" rings that the swivels would otherwise attach to. With that exception, the construction of both straps are the same, which is excellent. These straps are classics for a very good reason.

If I was to see both styles of strap at my local camera store, I'd almost certainly choose the non-swivel model. But there's really no bad choice here, since both will last a long time, are comfortable to wear, and don't shout out about any particular camera brand. While I prefer my Gordy straps for ones that I normally loop around my wrist, these are my favourite straps for cameras that I typically wear from my shoulder. They're not quite mandatory upgrades for me, but it's very close.

Finally, a bonus tip: the way these straps are shipped, with strap doubled back on itself and tucked through the plastic retainer, is simply for convenience. The correct way to attach a camera strap is to run the bitter (which, for all you married people, means 'free' or 'loose') end through the top of the buckle and back down toward the camera, as if the goal is to create a loop out of the webbing instead of a strip. This neatly tucks the end of the strap in between the layers of webbing, and is both aesthetically pleasing and very secure. Nikon has a good illustration of the technique, but it works for all brands.

last updated 20 dec 2011


Helle Viking

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm admiring its vintage feel.

The Long Version: Certain things are so ugly that they're attractive. This is an understandable evolutionary advantage, as anyone who has seen a newborn baby can attest, but product designers and pug-dog breeders also put it to good use. And since I try to acknowledge good design, Helle deserves my congratulations: Volvo's been trying to make the the ugly-appeal thing work for years, but the Norwegian knife maker nailed it on the first try.

To be fair, the current Helle Viking is actually their second knife of this type; the first had a blade that was slightly shorter. It's based on a design that's literally over a thousand years old, and the same basic knife is still commonly known as a "Puukko" or "Pukko" today. But a word of warning: 'Puuko' is something very, very different.

The Viking has an old pattern but modern steel; it's a three-layer carbon blade that has just faintly-visible lamination lines. Compared to my Spyderco Caly3, the result is so subtle that I found myself wondering if I'd bought a new single-steel model instead. And no, I can't believe I just called anything about the Viking "subtle".

The Viking's blade is half a centimetre, three-sixteenths of an inch, thick. For an 11cm-long blade that's absolutely massive, and the Scandinavian single-bevel sharpening gives it a tremendous moral authority that's emphasized by not polishing off the black heat-treatment scale. This remains slightly rough, and is simply stamped "Helle" while most of their knives also have a model name on the blade.

The construction of the Helle Viking is fairly simple. It's a straight blade grind – mine is slightly off-centre – with a short choil and no guard or bolster. The thin tang passes through the one-piece wood handle and is fixed in place by being peened over the large diamond-shaped washer. The handle has a subtle teardrop cross-section and a lingering smell of linseed oil. The result is basic and comfortable to hold.

My first reaction to the knife was to be bothered by the lack of any guard, and I considered a half-dozen other Helle models before dragging myself out of the store. But over lunch, and with some subtle support from a couple of friends, I picked the Viking as the knife to own. Now that I have it, I'm really not sure what the problem was. This isn't a knife that's designed for stabbing, which is a pretty useless thing to use a knife for, but otherwise the handle has plenty of grip. It wouldn't be my choice to use with ski gloves, but if it's cold enough to need gloves that heavy, I'm not likely to be outside.

While the brand-new Viking doesn't really seem very sharp to the thumb-test, it still cuts tremendously. I was tempted to resharpen it as soon as I brought it home, but I'm glad that I didn't bother. The Viking had no problem going through a dozen layers of the nylon banding that's used to secure shipping pallets, and while its thickness makes it tough to slice down cardboard boxes, it feels like a good choice for felling a small tree.

The very dry western red cedar that I disassembled for these photos may be the woodland equivalent of styrofoam, but the knife handled it with ease. My only disappointment was that the thickness of the blade, and the steepness of the grind, made it hard to stick into the wood the way I wanted it to. I eventually resorted to hitting it with a hammer, with only limited success.

I've idly wanted a good fix-blade utility knife for a very long time; when I was a kid I'd read the Cold Steel catalog and longed for the SRK. But the fact that their Bushman has been sitting in my toolbox, waiting to be sharpened, for more than a decade speaks to just how little I need one. I do also have a short fixed-blade utility knife for tasks that don't suit a folder or a box-cutter, but it doesn't see much use, either.

So I have to concede that the Viking is something of an art piece for me. It's functional art, to be sure, but my non-camping downtown-condo-living lifestyle means that it's largely a desk toy and will never be called on to earn its keep. Regardless, the laminated carbon blade makes for an unusual knife that's a very satisfying thing to own, and it could be genuinely useful for something someday. Until then I'll just make sure that it's handy, with only the occasional glance at the rest of the Helle website.

last updated 12 dec 2011


One Weekend with the Epson 3880

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: How interesting can setting up a printer be?

The Long Version: There's not a lot that I can add to the existing reviews of the Epson Stylus Pro 3880; over the past two years it's been in solid use by people who are better printmakers than I'll ever be. All I can really report on is the experience of upgrading to it. After all, as my mother always said, "Why would I want to listen to people dumber than me?"

The Epson SP3880 makes a powerful impression right from the very beginning: the box that it comes in is a monster, and it's not filled with helium. It's manageable with a certain amount of preparation, but it's not an impulse-buy item unless you already own one of those large "car" things and found a nearby place to park it. Personally, I just strapped it to my faithful folding hand truck and walked it a mile and a half – all uphill – to get it home. With that hurdle out of the way the next task was to set it up.

The Epson 3880 can make prints that are 17" wide, but the printer itself is only an inch wider than the 13"-carriage Canon Pro 9000 mk II that it replaced. This makes the SP 3880 quite easy to live with. The biggest challenge of installing it is finding and removing all of the tape that holds the various bits in place during transit. Canon uses orange tape, and I still missed a couple on the 9000; Epson's tape is a translucent dark blue that's not blindingly visible on (and in) the black and silver printer. I count 49 pieces from mine, including the ones that hold down the spacer blocks and foam, but your results may differ.

Epson includes a fold-out quick-start guide, which I used, as well as a proper spiral-bound manual. It's great to see a printed manual these days, and while I can't remember what I checked it for, I did look at it once when I was setting everything up.

It's one thing to read that the 3880's ink tanks hold 80ml each, and it's something else to see all nine of them together. The printer contains almost as much fluid as a bottle of wine, and given that they're somewhere north of $500 for a full set, it's a mighty nice bottle of wine at that. But on a price-per-millilitre basis, that still makes the 3880's ink cheaper than any other printer that I've ever owned. It's nice to have economies of scale working in my favour for once, even if these tanks are small when compared to the bigger printers out there.

Printing with the 3880 is quick and quiet. The question of print quality has been ably addressed by reviewers elsewhere, so as a newbie all I can add is that I've been impressed without being blown away. The 3880 is a very very good printer, but that still isn't an earth-shattering upgrade from a printer that's merely very good. What pleases me is the speed and predictability of the output, with durable prints that don't have any of the problems inherent in the dye-ink printer that it replaces. As my printing ability improves, I have no doubt that I'll learn more about just how good the 3880 really is.

Given my previous determination to move to the Canon Pro 1, buying the 3880 came as something of a surprise. The biggest disadvantage of the Epson, the ink wasted in switching between the two blacks, went from critical to irrelevant when a multifunction office printer joined the family. And with that out of the way the ability to make larger prints became too tempting to pass up. The established track record of the SP 3880, and its relative popularity, also ensures easy availability of ink and broad support from paper manufacturers. But what really cinched the deal was Epson offering a $300 rebate. Despite knowing that mail-in rebates are essentially scams, it's still hard to pass up the chance to have four-and-a-half extra ink tanks for free.

last updated 9 dec 2011


X-rite ColorMunki Display

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's better than the Huey…

The Long Version: It's been three years since I reviewed the Pantone Huey, and boy does that ever make me feel old. The Huey was a seriously first-generation device, while the X-rite Colormunki Display – a bad combination of words if I ever heard one – is so much more capable that there's absolutely no comparison. I'd say that I was embarrassed to have stuck with the Huey for so long, but the truth is that I stopped using it ages ago.

The Display – I can't go through that name again – is a compact unit that lacks the cord-wrapping base of the Huey, but comes across as a much more substantial unit. In place of suction cups it uses a counter-weight to hold it in place against the monitor, and with a bit of fiddling it did a pretty good job even with a monitor that can't tilt backwards. Running the "easy" profile took only about six minutes, and the software was quite happy on both on OSX 10.6 and 10.7.

One of the abilities of the Display is that it can match a second monitor to the main screen. The Huey could never get my Samsung add-on to look like my iMac, or even remotely colour-accurate, but with the Display it was easy. And when the time comes for something a little more complex, there's also an Advanced mode that allows more sophisticated controls. This has even managed to do the impossible, and I've reduced my iMac's monitor from its retina-scorching default minimum intensity to merely being very bright.

Although I can't compare the Display to other contemporary monitor calibrators, I can give it a solid endorsement over older and inferior devices. When I say it like that I suppose that's not exactly a breakthrough endorsement, but I really hadn't expected to be this impressed with the Display. Simple to use, effective, and able to coordinate multiple monitors – what's not to like?

last updated 4 dec 2011


Generic Lens Caps

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Name-brand pharmaceuticals are next.

The Long Version: After my Zeiss C-Sonnar review I promised Bill that I'd try to avoid inspirational photography products for a while. Reviewing lens caps seems to fit the requirement, since they're one of those little usability design things that can either go unnoticed or be an ongoing irritation. Universal generic caps manage to land somewhere in between at a reasonable price.

I prefer centre-pinch lens caps with any lens that wears a hood, and given how cold the Canadian winter can get, that's just about all of them. Nikon caps are great, as are the contemporary Olympus ones, but Zeiss has been kind enough to prove that even the centre-pinch can be done really badly. The only lens caps demonstrably worse than them were recalled by the manufacturer. A generic edge-pinch ens cap snapped onto the front of a metal Zeiss ZM's lens hood is a huge improvement over the original design.

Older Olympus E-System and current Canon lens caps are good examples of bad edge-pinch designs, with the hard-to-find press points set to match the cap's circumference. This makes them slow to remove when the lens doesn't have a hood on it, and almost impossible to remove when the lens is properly dressed. These generic caps aren't any better when there's a hood involved, but otherwise they're easier to release and typically hold on tighter as well.

The usual reason for buying a generic lens cap is because the original was lost and the branded ones are just too expensive. But for any lens that I have that doesn't habitually wear a hood I find the cheaper generic options really can be a better choice, and will use them even when the originals are still accounted for.

Finally, a note on lens cap prices. The production and handling costs for a lens cap is about a dollar for generic caps, with a small additional licensing fee for branded ones. But only another dollar of the price actually goes to the camera stores. Think about it: if it wasn't for this low margin the stores would be trying to bundle in extra caps just like they do with UV filters. The shocking truth is that rest of the price is actually a hidden tax that's used to fund community college photo courses and hipster-outreach programmes. The Photography Competence Accessibility Program revenue funds the heroic effort to reduce the number of cameras wrapped in plastic bags at the bottoms of backpacks, and for that I applaud it.

Buying a dozen generic caps from A Popular Online Auction Site for $10 is only possible because of unethical sellers skirting this tax, which only serves their self-serving perpetuation of lens-cap-losing photographers. I urge all three of my readers to fight back against these cynical cut-rate opportunists by patronizing merchants who collect the PhotoCAP fees. We need to think of the children now more than ever.

last updated 2 dec 2011


Nikon 35mm f/2 AF-D

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: No, I didn't inadvertently use one photo twice.

The Long Version: I've never really liked the Nikkor 35/2 AF-D lens, but I bought it anyway. Simply for the sake of versatility I wanted something wider than my 50/1.8D for my F-mount cameras. As always with SLR lenses, price ramps up very quickly as the focal length and apertures decrease, and the 35/2D was as far as I could bring myself to go. Nikon wide lenses simply aren't as good as my Zeiss or computer-assisted Panasonics, so I knew I would need to lower my standards a bit.

This is the point where I should be saying that I've changed my mind and now have glowing opinions of the lens, but that just isn't how it's worked out. It's the best 35mm "FX format" lens – a term nearly a decade away when it was designed – that costs less than a thousand dollars, but as it stands there's a very big gap between the f/2D and the new f/1.4G 35mm lenses. It would be nice to have an option in between the functional and the phenomenally expensive.

All Nikon AF-D lenses need a camera with a screw drive to autofocus, making them duds on the cheapest bodies but they can be screaming fast on the higher-end cameras. The 35/2's focusing is very quick and has an excellent minimum distance of 25cm, or about a handspan from the camera body to the subject. There is some focusing noise, but if anyone thinks that it's objectionable then they'll probably be knocked over by the ensuing thunderclap from the shutter. Optically the results are decent, with strong centre sharpness that peters out toward the corners, but the big sin for me is its strong barrel distortion.

The salvation of the 35/2D is that digital redemption is possible with software lens profiles. Lightroom/ACR has this built in, and other programs are also capable of fixing some optical flaws. There's a lot to be said for lenses that don't need to be fixed in photoshop, but as the Panasonic in-camera processing demonstrates, it's an increasingly viable way to solve problems.

The 35/2D is a midrange film-era lens, and it shows. With film vignetting isn't as strong; sharpness and distortion is less significant on film than on those unforgivingly flat and flawless digital chips. As a lens of only minor personal importance, the performance of the 35/2D is adequate but leaves me uninspired. As a result this lens normally lives on my F100, where it's comfortable and not often disturbed by needing to be moved to my D700.

I've never really liked the Nikon 35/2 AF-D lens, but I'm glad that I bought it anyway. I almost exclusively use the 85/1.8, 85/2.8, or 105/2.8VR on my Nikons, but without the 35/2D, there are times when I would have had to leave the big SLRs at home. So even though the 35/2 is in third place – at best – on the list of wide-angle lenses that I reach for, it's the enabler lens that completes the Nikon set. And when the cameras are that good, sometimes it's okay for the optics to just be good enough.

last updated 27 nov 2011


Rain Alarm (Extended) for iPhone

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Chicken Little eat your heart out.

The Long Version: I enjoy planning. I like to know what to expect, and I like to have some idea what to do if that's not what happens. One manifestation of this is that I really want to know if it's likely to rain.

Rain Alarm is a useful little application for iOS. It taps into publicly-available weather radar and watches for precipitation around the phone's location; both the radius and the excitability of the program can be selected from its settings menu. It then ties into the Notification Center in iOS5 for messages that read "Precipitation about 5.2 km away (strength 30 of 100, area 4 of 100)". The application also shows the weather radar, and can animate the maps, making it easy to see exactly what's coming and how far away it is.

So it's goodbye to that charming forecast "50% chance of scattered showers" that sounds significant but is short on specifics. By using Rain Alarm for the past month I've been able to make better choices about when to bike to and from work, and when I'll need an umbrella versus getting by with a hat. By paying attention to the program as well as the actual weather outside my window, I've learned how to interpret the programs's strength ratings and choose the gear that I need to cope with it. Yes, I'm still caught unprepared sometimes, but that's really just part of the fun of being obsessive.

The reason why I bought an iPhone – aside from all of the accessories to dress it up in – is because I wanted a portable computer. Clever applications like Rain Alarm, that can use the phone's on-board sensors to pull useful information out of a data stream, are exactly what these things are good for. It's a fairly simple task, but it's done well.

last updated 24 nov 2011



Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Mario, schmario.

The Long Version: I don't usually review things that I haven't used for almost twenty years, but one of the lingering injustices of electronic gaming is that the 1991 Mac/PC/Amiga classic RoboSport has never been reissued for a modern platform.

I started to play Robosport on a friend's Mac SE, long before I had a computer of my own. It and Spaceward Ho! were our favourite two-payer games, because they're both turn-based and would calculate the outcomes of everyone's actions without needing to be played on two computers or a fast network. The premise of RoboSport was a near-future televised sporting event that had teams of combat robots competing in special arenas. Not too shabby an idea, especially considering that this predated the radio-controlled cars of BattleBots or reality TV.

A team could be as many as eight robots, and each one could be armed with a rifle, machine gun, heavy machine gun, or missile launcher. The rifle robot had the best armour and long-range accuracy, the heavy machine gun had the most close-in firepower but the least armour, and the missileer had much better accuracy than the grenades that anyone could throw. While the game arenas had a top-down view, it wasn't necessarily omniscient – robots had distinct fields of view, cones of fire, and can't see past walls or obstructions. There were different maps, some laid out as ruins, others as suburbs, and some as computer circuitry. I mostly played capture the flag, hostage rescue, and last robot standing, but other modes included treasure hunt, where the robots need to hunt coins as well as each other, and "baseball" where they have to run bases by reaching certain waypoints.

So far it's just a basic-but-quirky squad-infantry game, but the fun comes from needing to pre-program each robot's moves. Stand here, look there; wait fifteen seconds and then throw a grenade before rushing into the next room; call shots on specific targets or just wait for targets to appear: it became a complicated dance with everyone reacting to what happened in the last round. Sometimes it worked out the way I'd expect, but usually the results were amusing and unintended. Opponents rushing past each other in doorways to take up defensive positions in the room that the other just left, a complicated outlay of firepower aimed at nothing while a lone rifleman plinks away from an unexpected direction, obliterating your own team with some badly thrown grenades – there's nothing to do but watch the results and choose your actions to program for the next round.

Computer games don't need great graphics, just good ideas. The computer that once ran Robosport had less power than a pre-WebOS Palmpilot, and my current phone has a higher-resolution screen. If some modern advances could be brought to the same game concept – better AI, network multiplayer, colour, not crashing all the time – I would buy it in a heartbeat. What's more, if it ran on a platform that I don't own, I would buy one just to play Robosport with. The irony of having it on an Android tablet would capture some of the inherent sense of humour of the game, so that would be just about perfect. Fingers crossed.

postscript: as often happens, in writing this review I've found something else. Looking for background on Robosport led me to the contemporary game Frozen Synapse, and playing it has been enough to keep me from Twitter for almost two days. There may be a review of it in the future, but for now I can say that no matter how good it is, it's still not Robosport.

last updated 19 nov 2011


Twelve South BookBook for iPhone

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Perhaps PhoneBook is too obvious a name.

The Long Version: It's a clever gag – a classic-looking leather book-shaped object that actually houses an iPhone. Twelve South – the makers of my BookArc laptop holder – have been making their BookBook laptop cases for a while now, but the iPhone model is the first one that includes the ability to hold other things. It's intended to double as a small wallet, and is equipped with slots for credit cards and a section to hold bit of cash.

But you know there's trouble when Twelve South's own promotional video makes it look a little foolish: really, it's designed as a wallet, but it's too narrow to hold cash without it sticking out and being bent over when the case is closed? And to make a phone call I need to fold the case over on itself, which means I'm flashing my ID, credit cards, and money at everyone who walks past me on the street? It blocks the rear camera, and popping the phone partially out of the case to take a photo means that the case obscures part of the screen? Nifty, sign me up.

Despite some reservations, I bought the iPhoneBook; despite how entertaining it is, it's not the most practical product. It's a good case, if somewhat bulky, with the necessary cutouts to access all of the important bits of the phone with the sole exception of the camera. It won't block the extra sensor on the white iPhone, and the mute/vibrate switch on the 4S is accessible with a carefully placed fingernail.

The problems come with the wallet function, as the narrow width of the iPhone hurts its ability to hold cash, and adding more than the approved three cards impedes the cases' ability to close. The result is that my iPhone stays in its Ultraslim case whenever I expect to make phone calls or need more than a double-folded $20 bill and a couple of cards to get me through the day; that turns out to be most of the time. The BookBook case is funny, yes, but its $60 price makes for an expensive sense of humour.

Where the BookBook case really excels is when I need to treat the phone as a small computer. Its hard cover lets me quickly use the phone and then put it away without needing to lock the screen, so it's perfect for checking maps or other quick activities, and its added size makes the phone much easier to hold. It's great to have if I'm out with a camera, commuting via subway, or just listening to music. When I spend a weekend in a different city I'll use the BookBook case along with a normal wallet – well, a Mighty Wallet, actually – to keep cards and cash in separate places. So the BookBook can be very useful, and it is nice to have as an alternative. I wouldn't want to have only one pair of shoes, so why should my iPhone make do with only one case?

last updated 16 nov 2011


Canon PIXMA Pro9000mkII

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's meant to be low-end.

The Long Version: First of all, I'd love to meet the person who came up with the name "PIXMA Pro9000 Mark II". It's a gem. And naturally there's another printer that takes completely different inks but with a name that's only different by one character. For the purpose of this review, I'll simply be calling it the "9000", which is not to be confused with the Canon 9000F, which is the flatbed scanner that I use for documents and medium format negatives. They sit side-by-side next to my desk and make a cute couple.

The 9000 is a 13" photo printer, able to handle cut sheets of paper 19" long. It uses high-end dye inks, which are supposed to offer the same longevity as midrange pigments. I have no way of testing that, but there are a couple of lingering dye-printer problems that the ChromaLife100 inks don't solve. One is that the ink needs time to dry: prints stacking up in the printer's output tray can stick together, and they shouldn't be judged for colour accuracy for a solid day. Handy. The other problem is that, once they dry, they really don't like getting wet. The fizz from an open can of soda can cause them to spot, and forget about handling a print with damp hands. For framed photos that stay in the house this isn't a big deal, but I'd never consider selling a print with that kind of weakness. Barnett Newman may get away with applying paint directly on top of masking tape, but I am not Barnett Newman.

The shame of it is that the Pro9000 is actually a very good photo printer. The output is visibly better than the Epson R1800 that mine replaced, with very good colour output, and I've been satisfied with its ability to slowly produce monochrome prints using only its black tank. It even has the ability to print in black when a colour cartridge has run out, so even though I'm currently out of everything except for black and cyan, it continues to print email confirmations without complaint.

I have to admit that I find the 9000 quite endearing. Canon's website, and many sympathetic reviews, have mentioned how quiet the printer is when it's working. They're absolutely right – often I won't realize when the print job is finished. It's harder to miss the beginning of the run, though, since it feeds paper with a pronounced "whirrr-THWACK!" It'll make me jump if I'm not expecting it.

With the exception of the logistical issues around ink drying, I've been very happy with my 9000; it has done what I wanted it for and should have many good years of service ahead of it. It will need to find somewhere else to do it, though, since I've decided to move on to the Canon PIXMA Pro-1 when it's released. What can I say? I like its simpler name.

last updated 11 nov 2011


Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 C Sonnar

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: There's no middle ground on this one.

The Long Version: Carl Zeiss makes good lenses. In the same way that exceptional photographers can create wonderful photographs that would look like mistakes if they came from a novice, Zeiss has intentionally broken the rules. They could have created a technically perfect 50mm lens, but instead they chose to let this Sonnar be a different kind of beast.

This isn't just another lens. The M-mount C Sonnar T* 1,5/50 ZM is almost the exact opposite of the Zeiss 2/35 Biogon that I reviewed last month. The 35 is descriptive and impartial, while the 50 is stylish and opinionated. The Biogon's crisp technical abilities are normally reserved for telephotos, but the only 'mainstream' lens that I can compare the arty C-Sonnar to is Canon's 50/1.2L. It's fussy, temperamental, and demands a lot from the photographer. This isn't just another version of the typical 50mm lens any more than a fiddle is just a sexy version of a banjo. It needs to be used a different way.

But when it's wide open the ZM 50/1.5 lens looks like nothing else I own.

The key to the 1,5/50 C Sonnar is its uncorrected spherical aberration. Light from the periphery of the lens slightly misses focusing on the film plane, diffusing the peak crispness that photographers generally look for. Widely considered to be A Bad Thing, spherical aberrations are usually squashed by modern lens designs.

The spherical aberration of the "C-stands-for-Classic" Sonnar makes it behave radically differently when it's wide open versus the smaller apertures of f/5.6-16. Stopping down cuts out the light from the periphery of the optics, and turns the C-Sonnar into a typical lens with very good resolution and consistent sharpness. Wide open, or close to it, there's a gentleness to its images that becomes very apparent with high-contrast edges. The result is almost a mild soft-focus effect, giving images from the 50/1.5 a certain gentleness. That's one of two excellent reasons to use this the lens at f/1.5.

Another effect of spherical aberration is a darling trait called "focus shift". This means that the plane of sharpest focus moves farther away as the aperture is stopped down – the lens simply doesn't focus in the same place at f/1.5 as it does at f/8. So in addition to the margin of error within the rangefinder camera and user error – the typical source of focus issues – there's also a bit of willfulness in the lens to deal with. Naturally, focus shift is most significant at close distances in addition to changing its severity according to the aperture, so there's no automatic formula to compensate for it.

But in practice focus shift is easy enough to tame; I learned what I needed to know from the Photoschool review of this lens and about five minutes of practice. Simply focus at the first part of the subject that needs to be sharp(ish) and expect the DOF to fall behind that point, rather than depending on the usual 1/3-2/3 distribution to catch things in front of the focus point. While focus shift never goes away, it moves back more slowly than depth of field increases, so that trick's effective at any aperture.

My ratio of out-of-focus images is the same as with my 2/35mm. I don't use the 1,5/50mm at apertures between f1.5-5.6 unless I absolutely have to; I'm not exactly afraid of them, but within that range the lens is neither fish nor fowl. I know exactly what it looks like at f/1.5 or at 5.6 and smaller, and those two options have such distinct results that choosing between them isn't a tough decision. I also avoid using this lens at very close range, where the shift can be problematic, because the bokeh/OOF blur isn't particularly wonderful. Problem(s) solved.

But remember that focus shift isn't a defect, and there's no point complaining about it when the underlying spherical aberration is the raison d'être for the lens. There's no need for the nonsense of finding a "good copy" of a Zeiss 1,5/50 or Canon 50/1.2L. Would-be photographers who "test" these lenses by photographing internet printouts at close range – typically hand-held – simply don't understand what they're buying, and should look elsewhere for something to spend their money on. There are plenty of more suitable options: The Zeiss 2/50 Planar, Canon 50/1.4, or perhaps a nice collection of fancy goldfish.

One historical characteristic of the Sonnar design is flare resistance, and the addition of modern coatings doesn't hurt. This photo (larger) is stopped down to f/16, the C-Sonnar's minimum, while the first photo in this review (larger) was wide open. While the f/1.5 shot looks like it has veiling flare, I suspect that the effect is actually the bright sun being diffused by spherical aberration. The photo that's fully stopped down lets us count the aperture blades (ten, two lost in the bright sky) but doesn't show any ghosting. I would love to hear the thoughts of the many people who know more about this than I do, but for my purposes I won't hesitate to include a bright light within the image as long as the lens is clean.

Using the Sonnar as a low-light lens would make excellent use of its flare resistance, but all of its wide-open aperture considerations still apply. Sometimes the extra 'sonnar glow' is helpful, and can have wonderful results, but the fast aperture isn't enough to make it an automatic choice for available-light photography. I'm just as likely to choose the 35/2 Biogon, which can be hand-held in the same light, but starts with the presumption of sharpness. As with every occasion to deploy the 50/1.5, it's important to use it for the things that it will be good at. Just because Carl Zeiss's marketing department calls this a "Fast and Compact Photojournalist" lens doesn't make it true. They also say that the "C" designation simultaneously stands for Classic and Compact, and by rangefinder standards only one of those is true.

And because I can't let an entire lens review go by without mentioning it, I have to say that I can see barrel distortion in these street photos. Look at the building column on the right side, the one that has the 'don't walk' hand in front of it: the effect is subtle this far from the picture edge, but the top and base of the column aren't going in the same direction. Most reviewers would say this is "not field relevant" while I'd usually care quite a lot about it. But even for me, it seems churlish to love the 1,5/50 because of a huge uncorrected aberration but then fault it for another minor one. This is not a lens for technicians, it's for artists – both the lens and I are outside of our usual realms when we get together, so some accommodations need to be made.

Physically the 1,5/50 is similar enough to the 2/35 that I need to look at the numbers to know which lens is on the camera when I pick it up. The smaller frame through the viewfinder means that the 50 doesn't intrude much into the scene, but its slightly greater girth means that it takes a different bayonet-mount hood. Zeiss's lens caps remain their own corporate humility block, so I use a micro 'hood hat' to cover my lens when it's not in use. Following Lee's suggestion in a comment on my 2/35 review, I've also found that a Nikon 62mm lens cap clips onto the front of the hood quite nicely.

It's worth noting that the 50/1.5 has a Leica-friendly (and Rockwell-approved) 46mm filter thread, which also matches my Panasonic 20/1.7, rather than the 43mm that the 2/35 and 4/85 use. I don't use 'protective' filters – those who do shouldn't be switching them from lens to lens anyway – but it would have been nice to be able to use one set of colour contrast filters across all of my Zeiss lenses. Still, buying a 43mm yellow-orange for my architectural 2/35 and a 46mm red-orange for my pictorial 1,5/50 isn't a huge sacrifice in exchange for having the lens be exactly the size it needs to be.

As with all Zeiss lenses, aperture control is in thirds-stops, with the exception that there's only one intermediate stop between 1.5 and 2.0. The unusual f/1.5 aperture is really just a marketing echo of the 1930's design; the 2.4mm difference between the theoretical f/1.4 and f/1.5 is my opportunity to finally use the classic reviewers' phrase "not field relevant". The actual reduction in light transmission is less than what lenses with more elements or inferior coatings can lose, and only cinematographers really need to care about that.

I confess that I'm smitten by the 1,5/50, and I should be the last person to fall for such an intentionally 'artistic' lens. I'm clinical in my photos and cynical in my opinions, with no patience for mysticism and mystique with my dozen cameras. I don't do portraits. But I'm also not obsessive about sharpness and bought my film rangefinder specifically for its timeless character and exceptional lenses. With an optical design that's inspired by the best from eighty years ago, the Sonnar is the closest expression of that goal that doesn't need to be bought on eBay and then sent for a CLA.

While I'm generally opposed to the idea of needing a special effect validate a photo, using the Sonnar wide open can create an image worth taking. The effect isn't Flickr-obvious, and looks nothing like something smeared or stretched in front of the lens, but the gentle rounding of the photos adds a certain something in colour or monochrome. It's not suitable for every subject, of course, but stopping down to f/5.6 gives a lens that's as crisp as anyone could need. I'm guilty of using a three-stop ND filter in daylight, which lets me use the entire aperture range and choose which temperament I want the lens to display.

If the idea of buying a lens that's soft wide open and hard to focus accurately doesn't make much sense, don't do it. The Classic Sonnar is a lens that most photographers shouldn't buy, but there may be a few people whose eyes will be sparkling at the thought of having one of these to play with. Many of those people will already have rangefinder cameras, or at least I hope they do, because this is a rare and special gem that we're lucky to have. It's absolutely not a commodity lens and it's nowhere near the marketing dream of the minimum acceptable standard. Instead it's an example of the artistry within lens design, and must have been designed simply for the sake of creating something wonderful.

If the 2/35 Biogon was the reason why I bought the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder, then the 1,5/50 C-Sonnar is its ultimate justification. Like the 2/35, it gives me qualities and capabilities that simply aren't available elsewhere. Completely opposite capabilities, at that – how often can two similar-seeming lenses, that handle perfectly as a set, and have such well-suited focal lengths, provide such a range? The Carl Zeiss 50mm C-Sonnar is far from a perfect lens, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

last updated 8 nov 2011


Xootr Ergo Pin

 Xootr Ergo Pin, somewhat exaggerated

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Even the Mona Lisa's falling apart.

The Long Version: I've had a long and happy relationship with my Xootr kick scooter, with only one exception: the Ergonomic Locking Pin that holds locks the deck/handle joint in place.

The design of the Ergo Pin is quite elegant. There's a spring-loaded plunger that releases the pressure on two points on the far end of the shaft, which lets the pin be removed without needing to jerk it free. After all, nobody who rides a kick scooter wants to look like they're starting a two-stroke lawnmower; as Garfield once said, "cherish the pride."

The problem is that my Ergo Pin has jammed in its unlocked position. It's undoubtedly some combination of road dirt, airborne gunk, and the obvious corrosion, but despite persuasion and lubrication it's not letting go. And to make matters worse, this is a pin that I bought to replace the first one that had the exact same thing happen to it. I rode with that pin for a while despite its stickage, and just used my keys to push the plunger into place, but that's not nearly as good as having one that works properly.

So now it's the end of the riding season, and the time that I've spent on my bike – also a Xootr product – means that my Mg scooter hasn't seen much use. I'm left trying to decide if it's better to just sell the scooter as-is and be happy with the time that I've had with it, or if I should spend the twenty bucks to fix something that's become a tertiary form of transportation for me. Decisions, decisions…

last updated 6 nov 2011


Sena Ultraslim iPhone Case

 Sena Ultraslim leather case, empty

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: Sometimes a case is just a case.

The Long Version: Some things improve with use and time. Products that are designed to accept the patina of age gracefully can develop a wonderful character from scuffs and wear, and never really need to be replaced. Natural materials like wood, leather, and canvas are the best for this, but Leica has proven that even metal machines can acquire a certain charm after decades of use.

Absolutely none of this applies to cell phones.

While hardly timeless, the current version of Apple's iPhone is a beautiful example of industrial design. The layered edges where the metal meets the glass are meant to be touched and handled; the latest "4S" revision has removed the antenna problem that left the previous model wrapped in ugly plastic. But the phone certainly isn't something that will have its appearance improved by scratches, and those smooth surfaces that invite touching are also very slippery to hold.

The Sena Ultraslim case solves many of the iPhone's problems. On paper it's just a simple sleeve that's very closely tailored to the iPhone 4/S, and protects it from scratches and minor bumps. But in practice the supple textured leather is a sublime physical compliment to the iPhone. At the risk of running into dangerously yoni-and-lingam territory, the phone and case have all kinds of perfect opposite characteristics: soft/hard, warm/cold, textured/smooth, yielding/firm… and like the iPhone, it's hard to resist touching it even when it's not strictly necessary.

When it's brand new the Ultraslim pouch needs a certain technique to unwrap it from the phone, but it's easy enough to master. After just a few days the leather stretches out, and after two weeks of use mine is a perfect fit. It's showing a little smoothness on the bottom and sides, and a slight crease across the top from taking the phone in and out, but that really does just add to the leather's character.

I used RIM's leather case for my Blackberry, and like the device it housed, it was a rigid and substantial – but functional – accessory. So I already knew that I would like the Sena sleeve when I bought it, but I'm still surprised by just how much. No, it doesn't provide much protection from catastrophic damage, but if I really felt the need for an Otterbox then I would have just bought a Sonim instead. The Sena Ultraslim is easy to carry, protects against unsightly blemishes, and is one of very few cases that actually makes the iPhone 4S even better. Add in the luxurious feel of the leather, and that's a hard combination to beat.

last updated 3 nov 2011


"Info Pillar" Sidewalk Billboards

Concept: 0 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: Aren't pillars usually round and narrow?

The Long Version: It's not commonly known, but Toronto's current mayor is a shy, considerate, and intellectual man. He's even a published and award-winning poet, but writes under a pseudonym for the sake of modesty. So it's no surprise that when there's a sensitive flourish that improves our city's civic life, he's the first person that I think to thank. This latest improvement in Toronto's streetscape certainly shows his signature thoughtfulness.

This city-building project is designed to address the appalling lack of corporate participation in our public space. Crews have carefully used jackhammers, backhoes, and concrete to lovingly install a large freestanding advertising-support structure across broad portions of the otherwise uninteresting sidewalk. This neglected square footage previously served only the pedestrians and shopkeepers who make up the local community. Under the control of these short-sighted groups there was absolutely nobody looking out for the bigger picture, which is where our city government excels. Toronto's vibrant community of airbrush artists and the Idle Hands Youth Chorus are already planning their events in celebration, and I genuinely wish them well.

It's a sign of our mayor's benevolent nature and his deep love of the downtown core that these prominent billboards also consider the needs of transient visitors, a group that pays no property tax and has an even lower voter turnout rate than the city's own residents. The narrow end of this modernist edifice is used to provide tourist information to proximate passers-by. It announces itself with the large "i" symbol at the top of the post, to ensure that everyone knows that this is something useful, and proudly wears our fine city's hospitality excellence initiative program's slogan down the side. We've Been Expecting You, it boldly declares, which is far less stogy than Toronto's actual but inappropriate motto, Diversity Our Strength.

And so here's the public service announcement that demonstrates the altruistic nature of this endeavour. At the very bottom of the pillar – conveniently located at eye-level for assistance dogs – people who are new to the city will see a web site address and an exotic non-standard three-digit phone number. There's even the municipal address for the tourist information kiosk that's two kilometers away, on a different street, clear across the downtown core. The lack of directions, a map, or even operating hours provides visitors with a new opportunity to interact with the city around them and its friendly, happy inhabitants.

It's hard to put a price on this kind of civic improvement.

Part Two, added december 2011: These 'info' pillars continue to appear throughout the downtown core. Some of them now include actual maps and guides – on the end, where it doesn't distract from the forty-eight square feet of advertising display – which is an improvement over the useless information that they provided previously. On the negative side, the entire structure continues to exist. Here's an example of how they contribute to the city's streetscape and culture, shown with Mayor Rob Ford for scale:

While it's not particularly obvious, Toronto does have a "Vibrant Streets" policy, which is available as a PDF document. Section 8, 'Street Furniture and Advertising', begins with a heartwarming Guiding Principle: "Balance the quantity, size and quality of advertising with the needs of the public by integrating it into the design of street furniture elements." Some could argue that these fixtures comply with this, because they do put a pretty little frame around the billboard. However, Section eight goes on to say, quite prominently:

"The design of new street furniture must demonstrate appropriateness for its intended use, not as a venue for advertising. This means the public must be able to recognize the functionality and use of the elements. The size and scale of amenities should not be increased in order to accommodate larger advertising faces."

I can't even begin to see how these "Information Pillars" – two euphemisms for the price of one –comply with this.

This review features the ad installation on Queen Street West at Spadina, and that fixture was removed shortly after it was published. (Correlation does not imply causation: one of my favourite XKCD comics.) The new concrete slab and anchor points serves as a reminder of just how big the billboard's footprint was, and watching people walk through its ghost makes the wrongness of its location even more apparent.

But rather than seeing this removal as a victory, I think it shows that the powers behind choosing locations could be intentionally pushing far beyond the limits of what's acceptable. And setting aside the advice to never attribute anything to malice that could be explained by stupidity, if this is their policy then it's brilliant. Otherwise, how will they know what restrictions will actually be enforced?

Compared to the outrageous, the merely objectionable doesn't seem so unreasonable; by removing the atrocious, they can honestly say that they accommodate most of the public's complaints. Meanwhile, they wear down the energy of the engaged citizens and city councillors that oppose them. It's a win-win situation, and a spectacularly one-sided one at that.

Negotiations, remediation, and compromise accept the underlying assumption that these billboards have some right to exist in the first place. They don't.

last updated 16 dec 2011


Olympus XA

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: What digital compact will still be used 30 years from now?

The Long Version: The Olympus XA is small. Very, very small. More than thirty years after it was introduced, it's still the worlds smallest rangefinder camera that takes 35mm film. The XA has a non-collapsing 6-element 35/2.8 lens that covers the full 24x36mm frame, and has a built-in light meter for electronically-controlled aperture-priority exposure. The entire depth of the camera, measured from the front of the lens cover to the back of the film door, is thinner than the distance from the lens mount to the sensor plane in any 35mm or APS SLR.

While it's not an auto-everything camera that can be handed to a random local for a quick tourist portrait, it's simple enough to use that it could be mistaken for a manual-focus point-and-shoot. Compared to the pseudo-Victorian clockwork-complexity of the similarly-sized Rollei 35, which has a collapsing lens and a guess-the-distance focusing system, it comes across as a cheap plastic toy. But despite its appearance, the XA is a solid and tough little camera; while it may not equal the controllability of its bigger classmates, its capabilities are far greater than its size suggests.

For Olympus to create a tiny a six-element lens that can cover the full 35mm film frame without critical quality issues is amazing. Sharpness is very good, and it shows just a mild pincushion distortion and moderate vignetting. Unusually for a rangefinder, the lens is apparently a telephoto, which allows it to be shorter than its focal length. To make a camera like the XA with a "full frame" digital sensor is probably impossible. Its closest modern cousin, the "APS-C" Sigma DP series, are 40% thicker even with their collapsable lenses retracted, but their lenses cover less than 45% of the XA's sensor area. The Olympus XA is small.

 Caution in Red, Orange, and Black

There are downsides to miniaturization, of course. The frame lines aren't corrected for parallax, so the composition is even more approximate than usual for a rangefinder. The lens is a 35mm f/2.8, which some people will think is slow, but that forgets that an f/number is actually a mathematical ratio. Much more significantly, the compact design means that the baby Olympus is very susceptible to the rampant finger-in-front-of-lens problem that just doesn't happen with big cameras. But considering that "the best camera is the one you have with you" school of though has resulted in published books of cell-phone photos, I'm happy to have something the quality of the thirty-year-old XA tucked in my back pocket.

The Olympus XA is the cosmic answer to all of those "compensating for something?" jokes that photographers face when they use big cameras with long lenses. It's small enough to hold in one hand and has a wicked hair-trigger.

The other size concession is to have an incredibly light touch on the shutter button. Intended to minimize camera-shake for people who are used to bigger and heavier bodies, it's a nasty shock when I'm habitually looking for a half-press-to-focus action from a camera this size. If I tried hard enough, I could probably trip the shutter with the brush on my Lenspen. My first roll of 24 exposures had three accidental frames on it; I've since learned to close the cover as soon as I'm done taking a picture, but I still accidentally trip a couple of frames in the typical 36-exposure roll. This isn't a camera to shoot dollar-a-frame chromes with. What's more, I'm not entirely convinced that the featherweight shutter cuts down on camera shake, but there's no real way for me to test that.

I bought the original XA model over its cheaper descendants because it's the only one with rangefinder focusing. So it's with a certain sense of incongruity that I have to report that the XA is really easy to use without looking at the camera at all.

With the camera cover safely closed, move the focusing lever to the right (shutter-button side) until the left-hand edge of the focusing tab is pointing down as much as possible. That's 3m, which the manual recommends to have everything in focus. To refine the focus a little more, moving the tab all the way to the right is infinity, and having it square to the bottom of the camera is 1.5m/4.5ft. When the right side of the tab is pointing down as far as possible it's at 1m/3ft, and all the way to the right is the minimum focusing distance, which is about arm's-reach away, although close distances really do benefit from the better precision of the rangefinder.

The manual suggests f/5.6 and 3m (9ft on American models) as the best all-purpose setting, but I like to err on the side of caution and use f/8 instead. Without looking at the camera, slide the aperture selection switch to either end – f/2.8 or f/22. Now move it three clicks toward the middle. That's f/8. As the saying goes, all that's left is to be there.

For night photography, it's really best to keep the XA at f/2.8. The starburst patterns from the four-bladed aperture are a long way from being subtle. Exposure compensation is also a challenge; there's a +1.5EV setting for dealing with contra-jour subjects, but otherwise the only control is to adjust the film speed. While I will mess around with that kind of detail for slides or digital, with 135 negative film I usually over-expose by as much as a full stop and everything scans in just fine.

The XA is still a 'serious' camera, but not one that demands very much in return. It's easy to carry and not monetarily valuable – it doesn't cost nearly what it's worth – so there's no reason to leave it at home or in the bag. It's probably not as good a camera as my Yashica GSN, and my Zeiss Ikon and 35/2 completely smokes it, but that comparison misses the point. The Olympus XA was the counterpart to the Canon AE-1 in the same way that its offspring, the Olympus XZ, coexists with whatever Canon Rebel happens to be current this week.

Not a lot of people routinely use film any more, but for those who do I don't need to explain its appeal. (For those who don't, I can't.) I could use a digital camera – I do own several of them – and compact snapshot cameras are an obvious candidate for digital replacement. The thing is that casual film photography is still very different from digital photography; its inherent unnecessariness adds something to the results. There's a lot to be said for the surprise and imperfection of film, and this little pocket rangefinder captures the essence of it. Long may it live.

last updated 30 oct 2011

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