Pocari Sweat

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I have no idea how to rate this.

The Long Version: William Gibson writes something broadly called "speculative fiction," and his trademark is combining media, technology, and popular culture into a near-future mashup. His novels seem outlandish for the first fifteen or twenty years, but after that it's harder to remember what the big deal was. His fascination with cultural oddities in general, and Japanese culture in particular, shows through with some inventive product names like 'Come Back Salmon' and 'Pocari Sweat'.

Sometimes life can be like that.

The decidedly non-fictional Pocari Sweat is an 'ion supply drink' that's been sold in Canada for at least eight years, which is when I first saw it in a local grocery store. It's also relatively easy to find for sale online, where the option to get a powder cuts down on the shipping cost. As a sports drink it's essentially salty sugar water, and tastes like thin sweet lemonade but with a lingering grapefruit aftertaste. I'm not a fan of grapefruit, but the combination of sweet with tart works fairly well, and when it's chilled the flavour is subtle enough that it's easy to drink.

But it gets better.

The various product websites are full of gems. The global site is an elaborate justification of the scientificy benefits of the drink, with statements like "It is well known that sweat is salty. This proves that sweat is not just water. Since sweat is made from body fluid, many electrolytes are lost during perspiration." The english-language site for the Philippines recommends the product after long hot showers, to ward off hangovers, and when enduring bouts of diarrhea. Seriously, I know that dehydration can kill, but how many times do you see the word diarrhea in a food ad?

I imagine a pocari looking like a cute cross between a hamster and a ferret, but with really big eyes; the manufacturer, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co., hasn't actually released any photos of these creatures and doesn't comment on their care beyond their corporate statement that pocari don't really exist. But we heard that same story before the Oompa-Loompa doping scandal broke, so I can only trust that no actual pocari are harmed in the production of the beverage.

But realistically, I'll just stick with Coke.

last updated 26 feb 2011


Kata Source 261PL VDSLR Backpack

Concept:  4 out of 5
Execution:  3 out of 5
Yeah, but:  Does the world really need another acronym?

The Long Version: Kata's Source 261PL backpack is an interesting beast. It's not a typical photo backpack, and doesn't come with dozens of little dividers that can be arranged in hundreds of ways. Instead it's intended for the very small niche (rhymes with quiche) of people who use elaborate shoulder-mounted stabilizing rigs to counteract some of the ergonomic flaws of using an SLR as a movie camera. Kata has chosen the unfortunate acronym "VDSLR" to describe these hybrids – now with video! – but thankfully that only appears in the product literature and isn't engraved on the bag anywhere. As a further relief, Google shows that the term is far less common than "HDSLR", so at least it's not catching. But I digress.

The Source 261 is part of the new Kata range of "Pro Light" bags. Compared to the other bags on the shelf the weight difference can be quite striking, but the bag certainly hasn't compromised its strength or design. The back panel has a rigid plastic layer that provides a sturdy structure, and this is echoed in the semi-rigid sides that provide additional strength and crush-proofing. While the bag is still quite new, I have no doubts about both its long-term durability and its ability to protect the contents.

The main compartment of the bag is a large wedge that's shaped to hold something narrow and boxy on the bottom but broad at the top. An SLR on a shoulder mount or a small video camera should be just about perfect, although some of the projecting accessories will likely need to be adjusted or dismounted. There are also two narrow compartments on the sides, which start tall and get shorter toward the top of the bag.

There are some additional photos showing the bag with its intended gear on Kata's website, which is a good place to look for information on its typical use; I can only address my own highly atypical purpose. I bought the 261PL to carry my Fujifilm GX680 system, reviewed here, which is no easy task. This bag isn't quite perfect for that particularly demanding job, but it's far better than anything else I've seen.

The Kata 261 comes with a couple of large dividers that can span the main compartment, and I use one of them to partition off the bottom of the pack to hold my second lens and the reversible silver/black pack cover. The other creates a little pocket that holds my light meter in the left-side compartment, and my viewfinder sits below and beside it. Still in the left compartment, I've placed a couple of the small dividers to create more compartments to hold a compact digital camera, film, and other small items. These are positioned at an angle because the rigid dividers are sized to fit fairly specific spots along the tapered bag, and this lets me put them a little higher up in the narrowing compartment.

It's hard to overstate just how big the Fujifilm GX680III is, and how unreasonable my demands are on this bag. At nine inches tall, the camera is putting some stress on the main compartments' zippered-shut panel once the bag is closed. There are some pockets on that lid – one large internal pouch, and a two-slot pocket on the outside – that I can't use because there's simply no room left. There are also two side pockets that zip flat along the side of the pack; these are designed to hold small water bottles when the pockets are left open, but could hold memory cards or similar thin items when they're zipped closed. All told I haven't found a whole lot of reason for them to be there, but it's good to have options.

The right-hand side compartment holds my second film back, which is about the size of a standard DSLR, and above that there's plenty of room for my second bellows. It goes without saying that the fourteen inch length of the camera takes up the bulk of the main compartment, but it's a nice touch that there's an interior strap that's attached to the back of the pack. Designed to hold those long shoulder mounts, this keeps the camera secured even when the bag is open and keeps the weight off of the zippered lid.

Of course no backpack would be complete without somewhere to hold a laptop, and this big bag can hold a big computer. This isn't something that I've tried, since I would also need to carry a film scanner and a minilab with me, but the large compartment is where I tuck my tripod's carrying bag when I'm working. While the 261PL does come with the doodads to hook a tripod to it, this is really only practical with a lighter support than the ten-pounder that I use. The attachments can go on either side, which would leave the pack off-balance, or across the centre of the bag, which puts more weight on the zippered cover for the main compartment.

All of these Pro-Light series backpacks are distinguished by two things: their naming system, which combines a non sequitur with letters, and the extensive use of light-but strong EVA foam. The back panel is mostly EVA, while the interior panels are layered closed-cell foam and stiff plastic. The result is a light bag that's able to carry a considerable weight. When I first started using the Source 261PL I would be quite surprised to discover just how heavy the loaded bag is when I needed to take it off; the full bag is probably in excess of twenty pounds, but it really isn't objectionable when it's on.

The compromise with a backpack is that they're easy to carry but hard to work from. When I'm taking photos I'll often want to change film backs, and occasionally switch lenses and bellows as well. This means that I've really come to appreciate the big red zipper pulls on the three main compartments. Made from soft plastic, these are formed in semi-circles that are perfect for putting a finger through, and make it easy to open and close the bag. Even better, their excellent visibility make it very easy to see when the bag isn't closed properly, which could lead to tragic results with the 261's vertically-opening compartments.

Wearing the Kata backpack is always going to be a matter of personal taste, although its adjustable straps may help people tailor its fit slightly. It's comfortable on my 5'11½" frame, and even without the hip belt I'll have no problem wearing it for extended periods. That belt isn't on the bag in these photos, as I often don't use it when I'm just puttering around in the city, but they come in very handy for extended walking. They're made from the same EVA foam as the shoulder strap pads, which is strong and comfortable but takes up a lot of space when the bag's sitting on the subway seat beside me. The good news is that it's fairly quick to switch the bag into the needed configuration – I wouldn't hesitate to add them if I need to carry the bag for more than a couple of kilometers.

I had a fairly unpleasant introduction to camera backpacks, and have since concentrated on finding the right shoulder bags for everything that I need. My Kata 261 has been a revelation, and now I'm idly thinking about the possibility of adding another Kata backpack to replace my tricked-out Domke F1X. It probably won't happen unless I develop the need to carry my portable studio significant distances, but the fact that I'm considering it at all is huge.

The Kata bag that I've bought solves a very specific problem that very few people have, and it does it remarkably well. If I ever decide that my life needs another camera backpack, I'll be looking at the other Kata Pro-Light series bags first.

last updated 24 feb 2011


Opinel #6 and #10 Knives

Concept:  3 out of 5
Execution:  3 out of 5
Yeah, but:  They're just like the #8, but more so.

The Long Version: I reviewed the Opinel #8 knife back in the beginning of December, and liked the 8.5cm model so much that I decided to pick up the smaller and larger sizes as well. The #6 has a 7cm blade, and the #10 is 10cm long. A centimetre and an half either way doesn't seem like much, but it makes a huge difference in the character of each tool. The fundamentals of the construction is unchanged from the #8, so I won't repeat those parts of my first review, and instead will skip straight to what I've learned from these two.

The biggest surprise of adding these two knives to my collection is that each blade has a different thickness. The smaller #6 is thinner, while the #10 is thicker. That doesn't sound all that profound, and it makes perfect sense, but these knives are so inexpensive that I was keep expecting them to be cheap. Instead they're each tuned to their own best use without unnecessary compromises. The other surprise is that the locking collars are nowhere near as stiff as the one on my #8, with the #6 being quite loose, so there is an element of variability in the manufacture and/or quality control of these knives.

The #6 is a very small knife, having a thinner handle that's easier to carry in a pocket, and it does a very good job at breaking packing tape and slicing paper. This is mostly what I use a knife for, making the #6 my usual choice, but it gives up the versatility of the bigger #8. The #10 is the same sort of thing but in the other direction, being substantially bigger with a much heftier handle, making it less suitable for general use but better at the 'big knife' tasks that might come along. I'm still not sure that I'd pick it over a Buck 110 as a working knife, but it's much lighter with a very similar - but slightly thinner - blade. If I were to accidentally go camping, I'd want the #10 for utility tasks, but I'd still want the #8 for kitchen duties.

Now that I own three different sizes, I'd still recommend the intermediate #8 as the best general-purpose tool. The smaller and larger sizes have their specialties, and are very useful for light or heavier-duty tasks, so if you know you'll need one or the other then you can't go wrong. After all, they're under $20 each, so there's no reason not to have a variety.

last updated 18 feb 2011


Spacing's Toronto Subway Buttons

Concept:  5 out of 5
Execution:  3 out of 5
Yeah, but:  But it's not like subway stations are pretty.

The Long Version:  It takes a certain amount of faith in Toronto to come up with a merchandising idea for the Toronto Transit Commission, and an even bigger leap to produce them yourself when the TTC rejects it. Over five years ago the crew at Spacing Magazine took it upon themselves to make and sell these buttons that take their themes from the tile patterns and names of each of Toronto's subway stations. Available directly from Spacing or through a who's who of the coolest stores in the city, they report that over 120,000 have been sold to date.

The buttons themselves are an inch across – even us metric-for-life types still measure in inches – and the colours are a good match to the original stations. There's not much to say about them mechanically; they're decent little buttons, and won't disappoint anyone who has seen one before, but they don't really advance the state of the art of bottondom either. The brilliance is in the concept and the variety, and indeed they've gone on to make buttons of highway signs and the emblems of some of the original towns that are now part of Toronto as well. In a further advance, these subway buttons are sold individually, as a complete set, by lines, and even by "ends". The set that I have is the middle end of the system, comprising the lines that cross through downtown.

It just happens that this button set comprises pretty much my entire world within this city. In fact, with the sole exception of Bathurst, I pass through each one of these stations every time I commute to and from my day job, including both levels of St. George and both platforms at Spadina. And while I will occasionally venture into the eastern arm of the Bloor-Danforth line, my west-end experience pretty much ends at Bathurst station. Toronto is an unusual city in that its psychology is divided in half by Yonge Street, and people typically stay on one side or the other, rarely crossing it when it comes time to move. Despite our currently living on the western side of Yonge, Penny and I are both east-enders at heart, and being included in Spacing's downtown subway set further insulates me against the hard reality that the street numbers are going the wrong way.

While it's beyond the scope of this review, Spacing has also put their button factory to other good uses. Toronto's inner suburbs have recently elected a mayor who campaigned on the idea of depriving them of decent public transit, so it's no surprise that this has been an entertaining few months of city politics. For example, His Worship decided to kick off his term with a flourish by inviting Don Cherry, hockey's answer to Rush Limbaugh, to be a guest speaker at what should have been a largely administrative event. Nattily attired as always, Cherry's speech began: "Well, actually, I’m wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything… I’m being ripped to shreds by the left-wing pinko newspapers out there — it’s unbelievable. One guy called me a jerk in a pink suit so I thought I’d wear that for him too today."

The answering buttons were inevitable, and available in two versions.

Ah, Spacing – where would we be without you?

last updated 16 Feb 2011


Billingham Hadley Pro: One Year Later

Concept:  4 out of 5
Execution:  4 out of 5
Yeah, but:  What can change in a year?

The Long Version: The Billingham Hadley Pro has been my main camera bag for over a year now, so it's time to take a look back and see how it has performed. The initial review of it is here; it provides some background on what the bag is, what it holds, and how it compares to the more common Domke bags that (superficially) share its specifications. Since that was written my Hadley was with me on a day trip to Chicago and a ten-day stay in New York City; in this past year I've bought three new cameras, eight more lenses, and even another camera bag. This review is looking at everything I've learned in that time, and how my opinions and the bag have changed.

Camera bags are one of those things that get outgrown as equipment changes, but I'm pleased to report that my Billingham has been immune to that problem. Everything that's packed into my Hadley Pro in the lead photo for this review has joined my collection after I bought the bag. The left side has a 500ml water bottle, and the centre has a Hasselblad 500c/m medium format camera. (Note that it's wearing the CF150 f/4 Sonnar, not the smaller and more common 80/2.8 Planar.) Rounding out the contents is a Zeiss Ikon with a 1,5/50 Sonnar attached, and it's sitting on top of a 2/35 Biogon. There's also the paperback novel that's artfully peeking out of a pocket, and plenty of room for film and other necessities in the other pocket: this bag is ready for a day doing just about anything without looking overloaded.

There are a few reasons why the Hadley Pro has outlasted the other bags that I've bought. For one thing, it's such a great size that it's the bag to buy even if something smaller could do the right-now job, so it's not likely to be outgrown. And speaking euphemistically, having one is such a luxury that not using it simply isn't an option; there's a certain amount of dog-wagging when it comes time to chose and carry photo gear. The 500ml water bottle and Hassleblad were both bought after checking to make certain they would fit in the Hadley. When I choose my equipment I simply prefer to use the cameras that will fit comfortably in the Billingham; when I look at other camera bags I can't find any that I would prefer to own or use.

Naturally, the Hadley shows some wear and tear after a year's use, but it's nothing extraordinary. I took an opportunity to compare mine to a brand-new bag, and I was surprised at how little difference there was. Yes, my bag (on left, bigger version here) looks a little more 'lived in', with the fabric of the strap and the handle showing a bit of fuzziness, and the leather on the side has been scuffed up. The leather latches that keep the bag closed have worked in exactly as I expected, and there's just a small wear spot on the corner of the lid where the strap rubs against it. Not bad for a bag with a couple thousand kilometres on it, and one that I use as my general-purpose bag most of the time. My Hadley just shows a little bit of character – it's a long way from being disreputable.

One feature that separates the Pro from the amateur Hadley models is the top handle.  This attaches to a reinforcing strip within the lid, which creates a convenient place to accumulate dust and lint. The bag can be cleaned with a damp cloth, but I usually just dust it off by hand from time to time. It is true that black shows dirt easily, but I love the look of the black fabric with black leather and nickel hardware. Very classy and professional but without drawing any undue attention to itself, and it still looks great with jeans.

The top handle is one of the standout features of this bag, and shows no sign of weakness or tearing after my first year with it. I use it all the time, and now I can't imagine buying a bag without a decent handle. In confined spaces, whether a bus, boat, plane, or submarine, it's been an easy way to control the bag and make sure it stays with me, even when I haven't been able to sling it over a shoulder. I use it without thinking and don't notice it the rest of the time. If there's a higher compliment to pay to a design, I can't imagine what it would be.

The aspect of the Pro that I initially wasn't thrilled with is the flapped-and-zippered rear pocket. The Domke F6 that I've previously used for travel has a rear slash pocket that's left open at the top, and the flexible bag means that it can hold an airline ticket one moment and a novel the next. That's been very handy when my flight's finally called and I need to rush somewhere after an hour of waiting. The Hadley design is less convenient to use and can't hold as much, but trades that for security that the Domke can't match. The Hadley is unquestionably better when it comes to carrying passports and those other paper extras that shouldn't stay behind in a hotel room, and magazines and novels can slip into its main compartment or a front pocket, respectively. I have gotten used to this slightly slower but more dignified way of storing items, but I still wish that it had an open slash pocket at the back, and slim passport-sized slots within the two front pockets.

I hesitate to mention it, because it really is a minor thing of no significance, but I do wish that the pleating on the expanding front pockets would fold down a little more neatly. Even when they're empty, and even when the bags are new, they like to pouch out the way they have in these photos. But then again, I wear button-down collars to work while my colleagues are comfortable in band T-shirts and hoodies, so perhaps I'm a little more – for the sake of politeness – methodical than most.

While my Hadley and I were attending PhotoPlus Expo in New York City last year, we were lucky enough to be able to visit the Billingham booth. I was able to spend a few minutes talking to a vice president whose last name happened to be the one on the products. While I know intellectually that Billingham is a family business, actually meeting one of the family came as a surprise. We talked briefly about camera-store retail in Canada, and he gave me the little trinket that I've clipped to the left side of my bag. It's a black leather strap with a nickel stud closure that slips into one of the side attachment points, and originally held a split-ring that I've replaced with a small biner clip. I have no idea what it's actually for – I suspect it's a novelty keyring – and there's nothing like it listed on their website as available for sale. I use it as a place to snap a wet `brolly, and it makes me feel suitably British to be able to say that.

While I will pick a different bag if I know that I'll be facing heavy rain, I've never had any problem with the canvas Billingham in the occasional shower. The latches hold securely, and the design of the cover leaves no gaps for water to sneak in through. The material in my bag is still new enough that the Stormblock waterproofing has water beading long before it wets the fabric. Once that effect wears off, the canvas will swell when it gets damp, tightening the weave and blocking water from entering in a way that synthetics can't. So despite the natural fabric and leather trim, this isn't a bag that needs to be coddled or protected from the big bad world, and mine has held up very nicely despite being exposed to the rigours and hardships of normal use.

I have met people who are genuinely unable to understand why they may someday own more than one camera bag. I suspect that anyone who has read this far has a small closet with camera bags that don't get used any more, and a small selection of ones that still do. Well, a year with me is like spending several years with a more sensible photographer, so the fact that I still reach for the Hadley first is a major endorsement. Since it arrived in the house I've put away my trusty Domke F6 and used my Crumpler 6M$h only once; the Hadley Pro has taken over all of my small/medium camera carrying duties in addition to becoming my carryall when I don't need something as big as my Timbuk2 messenger bags. The massive Domke F1X is the only other camera shoulder bag that I occasionally still use, while the one camera bag that I bought last year is a Kata 261PL backpack for my Fujifilm GX680 medium format SLR. Every other time that I've felt the pull to buy another small bag I would just end up looking at different sizes of Hadley, and since I already own the best one, I've seen no reason to buy anything else.

Despite my love of travel, I don't drive. All of my getting-around is ultimately self-powered, even if that means I have to get myself onto a train or a bus, and I have to carry everything I'm going to need for the entire time that I'm out. Having the right bag is very important, and has a direct impact on my happiness and comfort. Billingham's Hadley Pro isn't the only bag I use, but it's by far my favourite, and there needs to be a reason why I can't use it before I'll carry something else. Even my beloved Domke F6 never crossed over into general use, but I'll still choose my Hadley for those rare times when I'm not bringing a camera. Yes, it's expensive, but if something unthinkable happens I would replace it in a heartbeat. I can't think of much higher praise than that.

last updated 10 feb 2011


Slice™ Safety Cutter

Concept:  3 out of 5
Execution:  4 out of 5
Yeah, but:  I want to scatter them around the house.

The Long Version: The Slice seems to be a mk2 version of the iSlice that Keith reviewed back in March of 2009. His review made quite an impression, so when I found this one in a local store for $6, I picked it up. It turns out that there have been a few changes over the past couple of years.

The best news is that they've dropped the iMitate name and picked up some style points with the new logomark. The opaque plastic has a matte finish that's easy to hold, they've added a lanyard / keyring hole, and the narrow end is still magnetic.

The best part of the Slice's design is that it's no bigger than it needs to be. There's an elegance to that that's rarely seen these days. The tiny ceramic tooth cuts through only one or two layers of paper, but it's too short to draw blood or open plastic bags of frozen vegetables. The impulse is to act as if it cuts like a knife, but instead it needs to be held horizontally and drawn across the surface. Watch out at the end of the cut, though, because it can put a little divot in a plastic or wooden countertop.

The Slice is a perfect solution for one minor but vexing problem that I have. The film for medium format cameras comes in lightproof plastic wrappers that are surprisingly hard to open bare-handed. The Slice Safety Cutter makes short work of these packets, but it's so inoffensive that it should have no problem getting past a security screening when traveling by air or visiting New York landmarks. It takes up no room in the camera bag and weighs nothing, but it's still easy to find in a hurry. Perfect.

I'll be honest: I bought the Slice because I remembered Keith's review, and thought it was cool. It turns out that it's just as cool in person, and it works exactly the way it's supposed to. It's completely different from other box cutters and 'safety' knives that I've seen; it really works better and it really is safer. Mine now lives on the fridge, and is my tool of choice for dispatching coupons, envelopes, and any other paper that needs to be done away with. I've been tempted to buy another one to keep in my camera bag, or to pick up some of their other products just to round out the family. They're cheap, they work, and they're neat. What more could I ask for?

last updated 4 feb 2011

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