"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


Crumpler's The Grub camera pouch

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I've finally added a "Neoprene" tag.

The Long Version: The Crumpler Grub is about as simple as a camera pouch can be. There's no zipper, no velcro – not even a draw string. Instead it's just two thin layers of everloving neoprene sewn into a tube that's closed on one end. There's a loop of ribbon that serves as a pull-tab to help put the camera away, and can be used to hold the pouch, but aside from that it really doesn't conceal any mysteries.

The Grub has no belt loop or strap attachment; this is just something to put the camera in before it's put in something else. It provides a little cushion if the camera is dropped – which is not to say that it's a good idea – and it discourages buttons from being inadvertently pushed. Most importantly it provides a barrier between the camera and other metal pocket-dwelling objects, like keys, coins, and small flashlights. For that reason alone my camera is almost always safely tucked away.

Size is important when choosing a Grub, since a good fit from the slightly stretchy neoprene is what holds the camera in place. The Large size fits my TS3 as well as the Canons S95 and SX230, Panasonic ZS8/10, and similarly-sized cameras, but it's too small for the Panasonic LX5 or Olympus XZ-1, and the Samsung WB210 just slides right out of it. Crumpler also makes The Grub in Medium, Small, and iPhone sizes. While it's available in black, the colour for mine is called "Rust Red", which is nice alliteration but not particularly accurate. Each size has a different fun-but-generic camera-graphic on one side, and the orange detailing on mine happens to be a nice match for my TS3.

Even the Large Grub is slimmer and less bulky than my zippered Kikkerland case, so that one has gone to live with a slightly larger camera that I've added to my collection. I'll use the Crumpler pouch the same way that I use the sleeves that I like for my phones: take the camera out, use it, and then slip it back into its little home. It's not an exciting thing to use, but it's satisfying to have the camera sheltered from nicks and scratches. For something that's not particularly expensive, it's well made and performs as expected.

last updated 25 oct 2011


Apple iPhone 4s

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's so pretty.

The Long Version: Somehow, over the years that I've been using a portable messaging device, smartphones have evolved into little multi-purpose computers that can do some pretty cool things. The spiritual and functional difference between my old Blackberry 9000 and the iPhone 4s is huge: the Apple has a feeling of vaguely portentous purposelessness. There's no consistent menu, no list of functions, no fixed interface. Switching from the buttoned-down Blackberry to the glass-fronted fluidity of the iPhone has been an interesting experience.

I'm trying to come to terms with the iPhone as a spectacularly capable device that combines tremendous abilities with poor functionality. I have an application that can recognize a song from the radio in the background, yet as a music player the iPhone has a bad control interface that falls down specifically because it can do so many other things. Conversely, I can set the iPhone's creepy older uncle – a click-wheel iPod – to use a music playlist for its alarm, but that simple task confounds the phenomenal cosmic powers of this elaborate MP3 player. Sure, "there's an app for that", but it has to be left running in the foreground when the phone's put away for the night. Great ability; poor functionality.

The Siri beta works well, but with some surprising limitations. I tried asking it what time it was, and it replied that it didn't know the time at a specific nearby address. I eventually asked it for the local time, and it looked it up on Wolfram Alpha, which returns its results as images that Siri can't speak aloud. The iPhone has an application named "Clock" and Siri can use it to set alarms, so this shouldn't be that difficult. But as a beta release it's enough that it shows great promise, and even its present form is a tremendous addition to the phone.

Looking at the current market, I really don't see any competitor to iOS and the iPhone. RIM needs to establish its new OS, while Android needs to establish its own personality. I'm reasonably technically literate – I follow The Register and ArsTechnica on Twitter – and there can't be many other iPhone owners who once overclocked a beige G3 desktop. But honestly, if I wanted to sort out the divergent flavours of Linux on assorted hardware, I would have done it back when it was still confined to the desktop. 'Apple Just Works,' and the iPhone, with its confounding mix of perfection and obstinacy, is perhaps Apple's purest essence.

I've never been particularly partisan about brands, and I know the difference between a corporation and a friend. Owning the iPhone is going to take a new perspective and a different skill-set, but I'm ready for the challenge. Who knows where it'll end up in a couple more years? All I can say is that I'm looking forward to it.

There will invariably be lots of follow-up reviews looking at different iPhone features and add-ons. This is a 'first impressions' report, and by no means is it the last word.

last updated 18 oct 2011


KB Large Type Keyboard Cover

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Backlit, schmacklit.

The Long Version: When I first considered my 11" MacBook Air, the one thing that stood out as a significant omission was the lack of a backlit keyboard. The standard keyboard simply isn't particularly visible in low-light. Apple happened to agree, and has come out with a new backlit model, but upgrading doesn't make much sense when there's the Large Type Keyboard Cover in the world. It's made by the aptly named KB Covers, which suggests a certain expertise in this kind of thing. I ordered mine directly from them, and it shipped promptly in full retail packaging.

The cover is a thin silicone overlay that fits the 11" non-backlit Air keyboard. The newer backlit Air has a very slightly different layout, so make sure you pick the right one; naturally other models are available. It fits over the existing keys well, but the shallow 'chiclet' keyboard design means that there's not that much for the cover to hold on to. Turning the open laptop up-side-down will make the keyboard cover fall off, so don't do that.

As for function, the thin material adds just a hint of springyness to the keyboard action. It does change the feel as well, being slightly gripper than the plastic keys. It's not objectionable, just different – in a few days it becomes second nature. The biggest difference is actually to the sound from the laptop, since the Air's speakers play from beneath the keyboard. The form-fitting silicone sheet naturally doesn't do it any favours, both muting and muffling the sound, but really the Air isn't exactly an acoustical powerhouse in the first place. Web videos that might have been intelligible will now need headphones, but that's always been the case for music.

The large type cover is awesome; it's hard to look at it for the first time and not laugh. I have to admit that the really big letters did freak me out for a while – I don't touch-type, but can hunt-and-peck with only the occasional glances at the keyboard. I'd catch these big bright letters in the corner of my vision and startle myself with them. Since then I suspect that my typing speed has actually improved; going to the non-siliconed keyboard on my iMac feels odd and I make a lot more mistakes than usual.

In the interest of proper product testing I had some cookies. The ones that I buy from the sandwich shop are usually a little greasy, and I can always tell which keys are my favourite when I eat them while typing. (Yes, even with prompt use of a serviette.) I'm pleased to say that the keyboard cover actually didn't show any grease marks from the experience, so it not only protects but it also conceals.

The letters are bold and take up nearly the entire key, but with a good balance of black to provide a high-contrast field. The command keys in particular benefit from the large type cover, as they add the symbol that's used in the menus for the prevalent keyboard shortcuts. It's a neat trick to make the original marking larger as well as adding additional and useful information. Apple should be a little embarrassed that someone else's washable accessory does it better.

There are a couple of other nice touches on the keyboard cover. One is that there's a clear window for the light on the caps lock key to shine through, so that indicator is retained. Another is that the button markings on the up and down cursor buttons are drawn as properly spaced keys that are the same size as the left and right arrows, even though the keys themselves are oversized and sloped on the keyboard below. The fit remains perfect, but by not blacking out the space in between they become visually distinct and easier to use. Finally, for the touch-typists out there, the KB Cover makes the landmarks on the "F" and "J" keys even more prominent than on the original keyboard.

Nobody ever got fired for choosing Helvetica. It's a classic font that's familiar and easy to interpret, and a Mac-appropriate choice since PCs use an ugly cut-rate knockoff font to keep the price of their Windows operating system down. It also has the advantage of square letters that fit the keys very well. But there are other typefaces that are specifically designed for increased legibility for people with low vision, and others designed for signage or screens and other challenging conditions. Still, I suppose if something is going to be so visually bold then it's more acceptable if it's conservative. If KB had chosen Monaco or Comic Sans then I just wouldn't have been able to buy it, and that would have been a pity.

last updated 17 oct 2011


PopCap Games' Bejeweled 3

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Don't start if there's somewhere you need to be.

The Long Version: One of the problems with Mac OSX 10.7 is that it broke the older non-native software that had previously been supported by Apple's Rosetta translator. While that OS upgrade's scheduled for a "cold, dead hands" date for my iMac, I have moved my Macbook Air to the new system. The reason why my iMac will remain frozen is the same reason why I needed a new game to play on my Air – Delta Tao's Spaceward Ho!, the stalwart of galactic conquest that single-handedly delayed System 7's release, never made the jump to the Intel architecture and can't run without Rosetta.

But never let it be said that I'm up-to-date. My new game of choice is Bejeweled 3, and while it's a current release the underlying game is quite old. I was playing Jeweltoy, the non-networked version, almost a decade ago. According to Wikipedia, its lineage can be traced even farther back to the Russian "match three" game Shariki, which was released for DOS in 1994. There are many different versions of the same basic game to be found now, but Bejewelled is the best one that I've played.

The basic idea is that game pieces can be moved one step horizontally or vertically if that creates a match of three or more pieces of the same shape and colour. Matching three makes them disappear and cascades new pieces into their place, while matching more creates special game pieces that have more dramatic effects. The basic gameplay is quite simple, but the execution benefits from sophistication and forethought.

Bejeweled can be played in both timed and untimed games, as well as in subgames with special rules and gimmicks. I prefer the untimed games, and typically play the "Classic" mode. This creates arrangements of increasing difficulty, and ends when there are no more moves possible. There's also the (new) "Zen" mode that will always have at least one move available, and so offers unending play. But aside from having nothing at all to do with Zen, or any other known form of Buddism, the game is still interrupted by some decidedly non-placid animations each time the levels change. In fact, the whole "next level" thing defeats the uninterrupted play idea. There are times when I just want to hear the stones clicking together, but for that this new mode is a disappointment.

Playing the timed modes provide more of a challenge and acutely tests reaction speed more than longer-term strategy. This mode benefits the most from being able to click-and-drag to swap positions, which is faster than the more contemplative click-and-click technique. I generally prefer games that progress interestingly toward my inevitable victory, which is why I still enjoy Spaceward Ho! after twenty years, but there's a lot to be said for getting more of a rush from a computer game. The timed modes do this quite well.

I was hesitant about Bejewled's $20 price tag – after all, this isn't The Sims, nor is it a feature film. But it's almost as addictive as the former, if not as involved, and remains entertaining long after a movie has devolved to basic cable. But more than the money, it also costs me several hours of sleep each week, and after a long session I see its patterns every time I close my eyes. Even with the relatively steep price, it's hard not to recommend Bejeweled 3 to anyone who likes puzzle games.

last updated 12 oct 2011


Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's available in black or silver.

The Long Version: Not many people in 2005 would have thought that the world needed another f/2.0 35mm lens in Leica's M-mount, but then some people thought that the iPhone wouldn't be that big of a deal. You can't always trust the pundits.

The Carl Zeiss 2,0/35mm – to use their preferred sequence – uses their Biogon design which marks a mostly-symmetrical wide-angle lens. It's an M-mount lens, meaning that it fits on Leica and Voigtländer rangefinders in addition to the current Zeiss Ikon. Made with 9 elements in 6 groups, this rear-focus design simply isn't possible for cameras that use a reflex mirror. The similar-specified 35mm f/2 lenses in Nikon and Canon mount use the Distagon design, and are radically different lenses.

Film rangefinders have a couple of advantages over digital SLRs. Their lenses can sit much closer to the film plane, making for simpler and smaller designs, and film doesn't really care what angle light hits it at. Falloff is reduced, chromatic aberration is minimized, and blooming is outright impossible. So when I decided that I wanted a high-quality system that would take me off of the digital photography upgrade train, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 lens was my perfect stop.

"Flawless" is a difficult word to use, because there's always an exception. Indeed, the Zeiss 35/2 Biogon does vignette rather heavily when wide open, and it's still sometimes visible at f/2.8. There are brighter 35mm M-mount lenses out there, and there may be sharper ones, not that it matters. What the 35/2 offers is even rendering and phenomenally low geometric distortion that's better than any other wide-angle lens, and among the very best of any focal length.

For the photo above – see it larger – the lens is wide open and focused on the metal gate, about five or six feet from the camera. There is some falloff at the edges, which is easy enough to remove if the negative is scanned by one of those newfangled computers, although any wide-angle scenic photo that's ruined by vignetting probably wasn't very good in the first place. But look at the line in the tile at the very bottom of the frame. I wouldn't dare to use that composition with most telephotos.

It's quite exceptional to have a 135-format lens where film flatness becomes the largest source of geometric distortion. To really absorb the very best from the Zeiss 35/2 needs either a digital sensor or a scanner that can hold the film under glass. That makes it one of just a handful of small-format lenses that really deserves to have its film put through a drum scanner, much like my Hasselblad and Fuji medium-format equipment. That's pretty lofty company. My Nikon Coolscan V is very good generally, but sometimes I'll re-scan my negatives after they've spent some time under a good book.

The 35mm focal length is a classic for rangefinders and street photography. The Biogon has the technical perfection that's typically reserved for telephoto primes like the CZ ZM 4/85, but without losing the wonderful sense of space that only a wide lens can give. It has consistent sharpness across the frame, giving a beautiful and consistent rendering even as subjects fall out of the depth of field. While many people – perhaps three or four total, but all prolific internet writers – are passionate about "good" or "bad" bokeh, the only OOF characteristics I really care about are "offensive" or "inoffensive". The 35/2 is certainly inoffensive in a way that will look completely natural to photo-viewers even though it may not excite certain photo-takers.

In my experience, the more sophisticated and experienced a photographer becomes, the more they gravitate to simple lenses that behave nicely without any special effects. Primes instead of zooms, modest sizes and apertures, and no extreme focal lengths. The good news is that anyone who's likely to be offended by my saying that probably won't have read this far into a review of such a classic lens.

Physically the ZM 35/2 is large for a rangefinder lens, but smaller than an equivalent for a reflex camera. The body of the lens does intrude slightly into the frame at all focusing distances. The lens barrel is entirely made from metal, and it focuses from 0.7 meters to infinity with slightly over a 90 degree twist. It has a 43mm filter thread and is topped off by the standard-issue Zeiss lens cap, which is abysmal. Come to think of it, the ZM tail caps aren't all that great, either.

The 35/2 shares its hood – sold separately, $84 each – with the 50/2 Planar, and it's a ventilated metal reverse-slope design that attaches to a bayonet around the exterior of the lens. It needs to be removed to attach filters, and can't be reversed for storage, although it's so small that space is hardly an issue. Rangefinder hoods are a personal matter, but I prefer the look of the camera with the hood attached, and there are some incidental flare-prevention and protection duties as well. Most importantly, it stops the camera from tipping forward when it's put down on the table at Starbucks.

I suspect that Zeiss doesn't really intend for people to actually use their caps. One huge upgrade that I made with my 35/2 is to replace the lens cap with the micro-size hood hat, which gives better protection from damage and is much harder to forget about. One rite of passage with a rangefinder is to take a photo with the lens cap still on. On an aperture-priority camera like the Ikon this results in an extremely long exposure, which is usually enough to announce the mistake. On a fully manual camera, especially one without a built-in meter, the all-black frames can go on for quite a while.

An aspect of the rangefinder culture that amuses me is that "Made in Japan" can be treated like a derogatory label. Nikon users endlessly quest for cameras and lenses made there, but with the Zeiss lenses it's used to mark them as somehow inferior, or inauthentic, compared to products made in Germany. It must be based on that fine German tradition of quality automotive craftsmanship. I can't say that I've noticed any quality differences between my Zeiss lenses and the Leicas that I've used, but I'll update this section if someone ever looks at one of my photos and says "it's too bad your lens only has ten aperture blades instead of eleven."

The Carl Zeiss Biogon T* 2/35mm ZM – to give its full name, including university degrees, for the benefit of the search engines – just gets out of the way of the photographer. I don't think I've ever heard anyone call it "dreamlike" or use any other mystical terms to describe it; while that kind of lens can be quite nice this simply isn't one of them. With its neutral angle of view and its optical fidelity, it's about as far from a Lomography camera as you can be while still using film. But for those who may worry that the technical excellence of the lens might somehow compromise its artistic ability, rest assured that there's always vignetting.

The Zeiss 35/2 is the main reason why I bought my ZM Ikon. There's simply no match for it, not from other rangefinders or in other formats. The lens and camera suit each other perfectly, and offer something genuinely different from the parade of DSLRs that become obsolete every two to four years. Yes, the Ikon and 35/2 cost as much as the currently-heavily-discounted Canon 5DmkII and 24-105 lens, but it's the battle of the ephemeral commodity with a modern – yet timeless – classic. This is a lens that's worth stepping off of the upgrade path for.

last updated 8 oct 2011


Eton Scorpion Weather Radio

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: Beware the sheep in wolf's clothing.

The Long Version: The Eton Scorpion is a great gadget-lust device. It's a battery-operated radio that's charged by a dynamo crank and/or solar cell, receives AM, FM, and NOAA Weather Band frequencies, has a built-in 3-LED flashlight, and can charge a cell phone. The body has a rubber exterior with a built-in carabiner clip; it even has a name that could equally apply to a sports team or a weapon. The promise of a dependable and rugged device persuaded me to upgrade from a similarly-featured model that looked less like a Hummer, and perhaps fittingly my extra money was blown.

Eton, in a love-affair with capitalized letters, calls the Scorpion a "Multi-Purpose Solar Powered Digital Weather Radio, Compact and Power Packed For Extreme Conditions". It's an impressive string of words, but unfortunately its link to reality becomes more and more tenuous as it goes on. If they had just stopped at the comma, everything could have been okay. Almost. A 'Digital Radio' is actually something completely different from an analog radio with a digital tuner, which is what the Scorpion is, But Perhaps Eton Decided That an Accurate Product Description Would Have Made The List Of Attributes Too Wordy and Awkward to Read.

One of the first things that I found inside the package (pdf) was the warning to not to expose the unit to rain, moisture, or high humidity. So much for extreme conditions, unless they just meant extremely bright sun without exceeding the safe operating temperature of 40 degrees. It's impossible to know just how seriously these warnings need to be taken without risking the radio's destruction, so I don't know how much is because of a genuine weakness in this rubberized receiver, and how much of it is just Eton making certain that they're never liable for any failure of the product that bears their name. Frankly, either scenario is disappointing.

If the manufacturer's level of confidence is accurate, then the idea of clipping this to the back of a pack and forgetting about it is a very bad one. Of course, both the ten-ounce weight and built-in bottle opener suggest that this is more of a car-campers' toy than a serious back-country survival tool, unless the backpackers who use titanium sporks are also known to carry emergency energy supplements in heavy glass bottles.

The second-last claim that Eton makes is also suspect. Calling this radio "power packed" seems to suggest something other than the 3.6v shrink-wrapped battery that it contains. Consisting of three NiMH 2/3AAA cells, the battery is marked 350mAh, but that would be the capacity of each individual cell for 1050mAh total. Shown with a real battery for scale – AA, 1.2v, 2000mAh – I can't even begin to say how much I wish that this radio could simply take a few common-as-dirt rechargeable batteries and build in the same crank-powered charging circuitry.

Moving on to the main feature, the radio, the Scorpion manages decent reception and reasonable sound quality from its little speaker. Cranking for two solid minutes, averaging about 100rpm, yielded 15 minutes of reception at a modest volume. I don't have nearly enough sunlight in my north-facing and northern-latitude apartment to derive any benefit from the solar cell, so the crank is my only option. To its credit, the handle is large and easy to use, and the noise the dynamo makes is actually somewhat soothing.

Another feature of the Scorpion is that it can be used to power external devices that charge via USB. Five minutes of cranking let me play my iPod Shuffle for fifteen minutes, so if the power's out and I really need to hear a particular song then the Scorp will come in handy. A cable with two 3.5mm headphone jacks would have let me play it through the radio's speaker, but I'm simply not enough of a masochist to try it out for the sake of this review. Assuming that the radio and speaker-only run times are about the same, that means about two minutes of audio for every minute spent charging the different devices. My arm feels tired just thinking about it.

One charming feature of the Scorpion is the way it combines digital controls with the lack of any secondary battery to let it remember its settings. Don't bother setting the clock, because it won't last, and the digital tuner will earn its keep each time the radio needs to find the station that it was on when the little battery last died. The device does have a charge level indicator on its small monochrome LCD, but don't trust it when cranking the battery. It reports that it's full even when the radio would only play for a few moments.

The built-in flashlight must be great to have in a dire emergency, because it's only in times of desperation or extreme laziness that I would actually use it. Yes, I have seven different torches of various sizes and power levels within easy reach as I type this, not including the Scorpion, but that's still not the point. Even if I was a normal person with just a generic plastic hardware-store light in the junk drawer, I would still make sure that I had something better than the Scorpion on-hand if I knew that I would be needing a flashlight.

The Scorp throws a broad hot spot that's dominated by a bright ring, with weak spill that's mostly provided by the side LEDs. In quick brightness comparisons, it's a bit stronger than an average 1.5v light like my Gerber Infinity or my Leatherman Serac S2 on 'low' power. The S2 on 'high' smokes it, and that light's about the size of a cigarette; a more serious but still 1xAA battery torch like my Zebralight is completely out of the Scorpion's league. Yes, it can be said that it's better to have a light built in than to have to carry a second something, but dedicated flashlights that are better than the Scorpion are cheap, plentiful, and not very large. Most of them are also considerably more waterproof.

But I bought the Scorpion for times of desperation. The northeast blackout was only eight years ago, and it had been bothering me that I didn't have a battery-powered radio in the house. In event of an emergency, with no electricity and internet access, what else could I do for information? Use the radio in Penny's iPod Nano with one of the small battery-powered speakers that I have kicking around? Talk to the neighbours? Light the entire house with my myriad flashlights and the thirty-eight low-discharge AA batteries that I can think of off the top of my head, even without counting the ones that are already installed in those same flashlights?

So I probably could have just saved the fifty bucks that the Scorpion cost, since it's hardly something that I couldn't live without. I would certainly buy a cheaper "less rugged" design with an analog tuner if I could do it over again. It is nice to have a weather-band radio in the house, and as something that I'll almost certainly never actually need the Eton Scorpion is almost certainly up to the task. And who knows? If I'm ever really truly desperate, it could be nice to have.

last updated 3 oct 2011


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: It makes Ed Wood's body of "work" look like William Shakespeare

The Long Version: Let's get the important part out of the way first. From its release on 29 June 2011 to 29 September 2011, "Dark of the Moon" has grossed $1.18 billion worldwide to become
  • the fifth highest-grossing film of all time, 
  • the second highest grossing film of 2011 (behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2), 
  • the highest grossing film in the Transformers series.
With a $198 million budget it grossed five times its production costs, which means it's a success. It will, in all likelihood, spawn yet another Transformer sequel. Heaven help us all.

I like my science fiction films one of two ways; either hard-core and fact-based, or good and trashy. For examples of enjoyable hard core I point to 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still", 1956's "Forbidden Planet", or 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey". Good and trashy films, like "The Evil Dead", are minimally financed fun little movies with no pretensions, bad in a good way, fun to watch because you can see through the cheesy effects and the plot holes, but you don't care. There's a certain earnestness and honesty in those types of films. That's why I can watch "Plan 9 From Outer Space" repeatedly and find enjoyment each and every time. Especially in a group setting.

I didn't see "Dark of the Moon" when it was in the theaters because I was very busy. I felt no motivation to make the time because I've come to loathe the cineplex experience. Going to the movies now is like airline travel, but without the TSA. The few fixed times you can see a movie, the commute through traffic, finding a place to park, standing in line for expensive tickets, paying exorbitant soda and popcorn prices, then sitting through a good half-hour of ads and previews before the movie, the rude and noisy theater patrons, and on and on and on make a trip to the cineplex almost as bad as a trip to the airport. It's a far cheaper, far better experience to wait and watch a movie on Blu-ray (even a bad movie) in the comfort of your own home. That's why I waited to pick "Dark of the Moon" up at the local Walmart while grocery shopping this weekend. If the movie turned out to be truly bad, well, at least I was doing something useful besides just picking up a bad movie.

When I'm at home I might get to sit through an entire movie uninterrupted. Most of the time I don't, and this time was blessedly no exception. Watching "Dark of the Moon", at 2 hours and 34 minutes total length, took me over three hours in real time. That's because I needed to make the occasional stop, sometimes just to let my brain rest between the too-long pitilessly plotless and confusing stretches of the movie punctuated by the short chaotic sections of hyper-violent noise and action. I've sat through many long movies, some longer, but I've never had the need to just shut a movie down for a mental rest break. Even "2001", one of the most cryptic movies every made, seemed like a Pixar short compared to "Dark", and it clocks in at 2 hours 21 minutes.

Normally I'd write multiple paragraphs about the special effects, but not this time. Industrial Light and Magic, the effects house for "Dark", managed to render a world that looks overly complicated, muddy and just downright fake. It's difficult to see critical detail on the Transformer's, such as Sentinel Prime's face (voiced by Leonard Nimoy). The desire by the film's creators to overlay as much GCI action onto the live action locations (such as Chicago) makes it nigh impossible to accurately track the action, let alone sit back and enjoy the action. This is, in my opinion, ILM's worst work to date.

After re-reading the last five paragraphs I've come to realize there's nothing positive I can say about the film, so I'll just stop. I can't return the Blu-ray because of the store policy that says once the shrink-wrap is broken, I own the disc. But all is not lost; I can take it to a local Movie Stop and trade it for something else. That's probably the only good thing about this movie, and that is it'll go towards the purchase of something better to watch.

last updated 2 oct 2011


Medium Bobino Cable Buddy

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Now I bought the bigger one.

The Long Version: Last month I reviewed the small Bobino cable organizer, and while I'm still not sure about the name, I like it enough to invest the five bucks for a bigger size. It's not a huge expense, but it is a really big difference in size. This one is recommended for heavier-duty cables, and it's substantially bigger than the small one. For comparison I put my small size next to the new medium one, and the difference isn't subtle. The other advantage to having both is that now I have something to wrap my thinner earphones around.

The lesson that I've learned is that Bobino marks their sizes small. I don't know why I should be surprised; after all, half of the guys in the city are riding around on fixie bikes wearing their girlfriend's jeans. Ironically, having something small seems to be the big thing these days. For the sake of practicality remember that it's the size and length of the cable that matters, not the stated function on the package, and err on the side of common sense when choosing one.

last updated 1 oct 2011

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