"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

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