U of T Back Campus Fields Project

Concept: 0 out of 5
Execution: To Be Determined
Yeah, but: My new website project, backcampus.blogspot.com

The Long Version: According to the University of Toronto, their "Downtown Toronto (St. George) campus blends historical architecture and inviting green spaces as a backdrop to a truly remarkable community." The lead photo is theirs, and it shows a neighbourhood awash in significant architecture and large green spaces. There's a big round one in the middle of the photo, which is used for ceremonies and frequently fenced off for rehabilitation, and there's the big square green space on the left side of the photo. That's Back Campus, but don't get too attached to it.

In anticipation of the Pan Am games, the University will be spending millions of dollars to dig up two grass turf playing fields and replace them with an artificial turf surface. Confusingly, and possibly in honour of George Orwell's legacy, the University invariably refers to this simply as "turfing", and not in the sense of 'turfed him off of the governing council'. To avoid the confusion of their replacing one kind of turf with another, I'll be calling the mowable surface "Grass" and the future material "Plastic." That seems fair.

The outline of the project is that two playing fields will be changed from grass to a plastic surface. The existing field is lined with trees on three sides, both young and old. There's a nice iron fence on the north end of the field and a rather unappealing black chain-link fence with a plastic dryer vent duct along the top – as protective padding, presumably – closing off much of the remaining perimeter, with the quarter facing the main campus left open as the only access. The existing grass does get a lot of traffic, and even as a community member I typically use the field with one eye on the frisbee and another looking out for ruts, puddles, and dips.

The replacement plan is to move the formal boundaries (and fence) almost to the very perimeter of the playing surface, keeping the existing trees and grass on the outside and installing plastic on the inside. The idea is that this will provide a hard-wearing surface that's suitable for international field hockey competition one moment and casual baseball games the next.

The University of Toronto, an institution renowned for promoting critical thinking, has published a great deal of material talking about what a great deal this is. Much of the financial cost will be paid by other people, community access will be retained, none of the existing trees will be harmed, no chemicals will be needed to maintain the surface, and it will be able to be used year-round. Their material doesn't contain one single downside; there's not even a slight shrug and an admission of 'well, yeah, that one little part might not be so great when it's all done.' It's lollypops and bonbons for everyone.

Naturally, others have stepped into the vacuum to provide a countering opinion. The unambiguously titled Keep Back Campus Green website contains a collection of their own articles as well as links to ones published elsewhere, both pro and con, regarding the project. The formal plans, organized opposition, and outside opinions provide a good diversity of material. I've read a lot of it, and I'm pretty sure that the "the truth is somewhere in the middle" folks have something on their side in this debate, but I don't think that it makes any difference.

The University does need a better playing surface; I'm willing to accept their assertion that grass is not up to the challenge. But the argument of necessity doesn't stop their plan and actions from being fundamentally and inherently evil. The University should step up, own it, and say, "we need this anyway". Or even better, "we need this anyway, and here are all the great things we'll do elsewhere in the campus to mitigate its effects."

The replacement of two grass playing fields by what is essentially a carpeted parking lot simply can't be morally neutral even if all of the other possible negatives of the project – damaging century-old Elm trees, removal of smaller trees on the border of the field, application of biocides to the playing surface, massive water use, restricted student and community access, among others – are avoided.

Is it plausible that paving over the large field that currently absorbs and slowly releases rain water to the surrounding trees somehow won't damage them? Instead of this natural system the University will be installing a large under-field cistern to slow the flow of storm water before it inundates the aging municipal network of combined sewers. That isn't nearly as good an answer to the problem at all.

Has any project of this scale worked out according to the best-case projections that are created to steer it through the planning and approvals stage? We're just one minor engineering requirement away from losing dozens of trees that line the perimeter; once ten million dollars are spent on a world-class competitive surface will the department of Kinesiology still want to leave it unlocked so that people who just happen to live in the area can toss a ball around on a saturday afternoon? I don't believe it for a second.

Less than two-thirds of a kilometre from Back Campus, or about a five minute walk, there's a large grass playing field. It's controlled by the U of T affiliated University of Toronto Schools (UTS) private high school, and it's kept locked and unavailable to the community when it's not being used for a few hours a day during the school year.

Immediately south of this playing field is what might be a hockey rink if it hadn't fallen into shameful disrepair, and it's also kept chained. The difference is that it's not being used by the school at all, and simply sits abandoned. Next to that rink are two of the most bedraggled tennis courts in the city, left open, but one features a chain-link net while the other is stripped bare and only used for the occasional kids ball-hockey scrimmage. If only there was a proper rink nearby that people could use…

Given Toronto's recent water infrastructure projects to deal with storm runoff, the reviving interest in Toronto's "Lost Rivers" – such as Taddle Creek, whose watershed this is – and mandated efforts to create green roofs to combat the urban heat island effect, even the best case scenario that the University proposes is exactly the wrong answer. Toronto's downtown core, of which the St. George campus is a major part, already suffers from a lack of public space, insufficient parkland and green space, and inadequate civil infrastructure to serve the demands we already have.

Regardless of the stated need for better athletic facilities, and the impending arrival of the Pan Am / Parapan Games in 2015, the University of Toronto's decision is a massive failure of innovation and leadership. This simply isn't the way we build cities any more, and the University of Toronto should be championing innovative solutions here just as much as they do in other areas. Taking such a regressive action in the heart of the most significant university campus in Toronto deserves to haunt their reputation for decades.

I am chronicling the University of Toronto's Back Campus Fields Project, the conversion of Back Campus from grass to plastic, on a dedicated website: backcampus.blogspot.com.

last updated 29 june 2013


Swiss Bianco Victorinox Carver

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: Pick a theme and stick with it.

The Long Version: Swiss Army Knives are such paragons of multi-functional virtue that searching with Google for exact matches to "the swiss army knife of" produces over ten million results. Audio codecs, shovels, fighter jets, forensics, filmmaking, public health, portable grills, smartphones, snowmobiles, bank accounts, barn equipment, business agreements, workbenches, window treatments, tube amps, telecom equipment, essential oils, Linux, Listeria: if something has existed long enough for there to be a blog post about it, someone's called something The Swiss Army Knife Of it.

This makes June's SAK Of The Month, the Swiss Bianco special Victorinox Carver, especially perverse. Equipped with five tools in three layers, all it does is cut.

The 93mm Carver is essentially an Alox Harvester that has had its cap lifter swapped out for a second large blade. That gives it two identical large blades, one pivoting from each end, and a hooked small pruning blade. The middle layer houses the exceptional Victorinox wood saw, and the fifth tool is the in-line awl. While that's technically more of a poking tool than a cutting one, it's an excellent rough-duty blade, and I wouldn't want to mess with one in a dark alley.

The automatic question about the Carver is "why bother?" Why bother with a multi-tool that only does one thing, and why carry a knife the size of a three-layer 93mm Alox SAK when it has blades that open with nail-nicks and no pocket clip? Well, did I mention that it's a special with a limited (but unspecified) production run that was made with Copper-coloured Alox scales in addition to the unadorned-aluminum version?

I have too much invested in Beanie Babies to keep track of Swiss Army Knife resale values, but I suppose novelty value must count for a lot.

I'm an accumulator, not a collector, so even though I appreciate that it's an uncommon bit of cutlery my Carver is a working knife. The hooked pruning blade is excellent for breaking tape, although straight out of the box it verges on being too sharp and aggressive. Having a pair of large blades, while odd, does mean that the Carver can cover a lot of miles before needing to be resharpened. And the wood saw is simply unbeatable for any softer material its length can span. While I haven't used my Carver for this task yet, the SAK saw is my tool of choice for rough-cutting PVC or ABS plastic pipe as well as wood.

While the all-blades all-the-time approach of the Carver is amusing and thematically appropriate, it would have been nice to see a metal saw in place of the second main blade. That would be a first for this size, as far as I can tell, which makes this dream configuration highly improbable – but by extension, accomplishing this remarkable feat would create a very desirable knife if Swiss Bianco could pull it off. I know I'd buy one, for whatever that's worth.

About the only odd quirk of the Carver, aside from its existence, is that the second large blade sits higher in the handle when it's closed. This means it's an easier blade to open, and a more comfortable knife to hold when it's in use, so it's the one that I use for most tasks. I consider this a feature rather than a bug, since I always prefer to use one blade for the majority of the work, leaving the other freshly sharpened for critical tasks.

The Carver is an easy knife to carry. Its weight rides securely in a jeans' watch pocket, the smooth tool-free back makes it easy to draw, and the thickness of its third layer gives it a square profile that's comfortable to use. While the Carver is thinner than the Mechanic, and so falls within my range for pocket carry, it wouldn't look foolish in a belt pouch, either.

As a Swiss Bianco special, the Victorinox Carver is only available directly through the regional Swiss Bianco distributors, and not through Victorinox or other third-party retailers. I'm pleased to say that the Canadian dealer that I purchased from was helpful and easy to deal with, despite the lack of a traditional e-commerce website, and my Carver arrived promptly with reasonable shipping costs. I have no doubt that I'll be ordering from them again.

last updated 4 dec 2010


Joby Gorillapod Focus

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Third time.

The Long Version: The Focus is the third Gorillapod, and sixth Joby product, that I've bought. Obviously I like them, but I've managed to decommission both an SLR and SLR Zoom, so I decided that stepping up to the heavy-duty metal model was a sensible thing to do.

It's nice to know that the Focus can easily hold my D800, but I rarely use it – or any tripod – for cameras. Instead it's part of my audio kit, where it does an exceptional job of keeping my Sony PCM-D50 field recorder exactly where I want it to be. The various Joby Gorillapods are such an excellent tool to have for audio recording that I consider them a mandatory-extra, just like proper wind protection.

The Focus is offered with or without a ball head. I went for the Without version and installed a Manfrotto 484RC2 head, which is heavier and larger than the Joby "Ballhead-X", but keeps compatibility with my existing heads and plates. If I was using arca-swiss gear then the X-head would have been perfect. Or almost perfect, at least – the included plate is square, but only has mounting grooves along one direction, giving visual but not operational symmetry. That's one of those things that would bug me for the life of the product, which in this case would be a very long time indeed. And yes, I do hate USB ports as well, thanks for asking.

While hanging a camera from a chain-link fence might not provide a lot of stability for long exposures or multi-shot brackets, it's something that works very well for audio gear. My method is to feed the legs through the fence, hooking the leg joints across the wire, and then snug the top two legs inward to give a secure hold. Then I can walk away and leave the recorder to do its thing for ten or fifteen minutes unattended and have no worries about it coming loose or letting me down. I'm also quite happy to hang the Gorillapod from the tops of signs or wrap it around posts, knowing that it won't work its way loose or slide.

I've been amazed at the places where the Focus has been happy, such as perched on the narrow bottom of an I-beam girder that's part of a highway overpass. I do occasionally use a full-sized tripod or light stand to hold my recorder, but proximity is everything, and the Focus is hard to beat for unusual perspectives.

And there are plenty of times when carrying larger objects simply isn't an option, whether it's for matters of convenience, access, practicality, or departure speed. I'm able to carry the Focus inside my nondescript backpack, so it's the heavy-duty support that I'm most likely to have with me.

While part of me wishes that I was a minimalist, it's usually beaten into submission by the larger part that wants the best available option to handle the widest range of contingencies, and that's what the Gorillapod Focus is. It's far stronger than I need for my Sony D50, but it's ready to do camera-duty with my Nikon D800, and that makes me happy. While the Focus is too heavy to carry for no reason – the lighter Joby head would help here – it's an indispensable part of both my day recording kit and the only tripod that I would consider travelling with. It might not do everything, but it's the most flexible tripod I know.

last updated 6 june 2013


Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 Silver, Part 2

Panasonic Lumix GX1 with Lumix 2.5/14mm

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but:  It may be small but it takes a while to write about it.
The Long Version:

This is the second part of a two-part thewsreviews review. Part one is here. Which means it's based on a paid-for copy and it touches on what strikes my fancy, which may not strike yours. Now onward...

As I mentioned earlier the GX1 is a "dense" feeling little camera with what appears to be an all-metal body (with the notable exception of the top plate and the battery cover on the bottom). By the time you have any lens mounted and the battery in the base you know you have a substantial piece of machinery. The only camera in my arsenal that feels anything like this, if not better, is the Olympus OMD E-M5. Which brings me back to the battery cover. It is as cheap as the rest of the body isn't. It's thin and flimsy and may very well wind up being broken before too much longer. Which means I better look for a few spares from somewhere...

To be fair to Olympus, the E-M5 is better in my not so humble opinion. And I would imagine, not having held one, that the Panasonic GH3 is in the same league as the E-M5, at least as far as build quality. But still and all the GX1 is no slouch (with the notable exception of the battery cover), and for the discounted prices you can find for the GX1 at right now it makes an excellent camera.
Top deck with major controls
The top controls for the GX1 are clustered around the upper right. You're limited to the on/off switch (a real switch, extra points for that), the mode dial, the shutter release, an IA push button, and a movie start/stop push button. The IA and movie buttons are small and set flush into the deck to avoid accidental triggering. You can argue if this is the best place to put these buttons, especially the movie button, but considering that Olympus and Sony have put them on the back where they are easier to reach by hand as well as accidentally trigger, I think putting them here was a good idea. Filming is not the same as taking stills, and I don't mean the obvious. It's a different process and mindset where you don't have to have the movie trigger as easily accessible as say the shutter trigger. In my mind Panasonic made the right placement choice on this camera.

The only controls I pay any attention to on the top deck outside the shutter release is the mode dial, and it stays on 'A' (aperture control) almost the whole time. I might go to 'S' (shutter control) for a deliberate slow shutter speed, or 'M' (manual) when I want to set the exposure once and have every other image come out the same (and I'll set ISO and white balance as well in that case). But I've yet to dive into and try any of the other modes (C1, C2, SCN (scene) and that funky symbol which is Panasonic's version of art filters).

By the way, that funky symbol, which is supposed to be an art pallet and paint brush (yes, I once took art in college), selects Creative Control on the camera, from which you can select from eight different controls. I've yet to try them out and if I do will probably review them separately. For now I'm busy just using the GX1 as a "real" camera, whatever that means.

The movement of the mode dial and on/off toggle are solid and stiff, which is what you want. Too many of the Olympus Pens, specifically the E-P2, have dials that are too easy to twist especially when the bodies are held against the body and you're moving (i.e. walking) about.
Back with major controls and Q.Menu selecting RAW + largest JPEG output
The back of the camera is dominated by an LCD with touch capabilities. This makes the third such camera with this capability I've purchased. The first was the Sony NEX 5N, and after less than 30 minutes I went into its menu system and turned it off it became so frustrating. The second is the OMD E-M5, and it is so good I just about can't use the camera without it. The GX1 falls right in the middle of those two. While I certainly won't disable that feature I've yet to find where it will become a critical feature. Perhaps over time I'll learn to love it more. It does have touch-to-trigger on the LCD like the E-M5, a feature where touching the LCD will focus the camera's lens before taking the photograph. I love the way it's implemented on the E-M5; it's hair-trigger in a good way and the focusing on the E-M5 is lightning fast and accurate. It's a great tool for picking the focus point in rapid action or complex scene. The GX1 by comparison is slower. If my photography is more measured (meaning slower, and a lot of it is) then the GX1 touch-to-focus is just as accurate. It's just not nearly as fast, and I attribute that in large part to the slower focusing speed of the GX1.

Many users, myself included, talk about the Super Control Panel available on Olympus LCDs. It's been a camera feature since at least the Olympus E-3 for me, and it has undergone refinements over time. You access it by pressing the 'OK' button on the back of Olympus cameras. For some Olympus cameras (E-3, E-M5) it sits right in the middle of the LCD, while on others (E-P2, E-PL1, E-PL2) it wraps around the bottom and right edges. In both cases the rounded buttons around 'OK' serve as navigation buttons on the Super Control Panel to pick a feature and adjust it. It's a fast way to set the most-often modified camera features. The Panasonic GX1 has something similar called the Q.Menu, which has its own dedicated button on the bottom, right next to the LCD's bottom right corner. You hit the Q.Menu button, then navigate around to pick a feature to modify, modify it, and then touch Q.Menu or the shutter to exit. I can't say if it's better or worse than the Olympus, which is actually a good thing. I will say this, it's leagues above the Sony menu system.

If there's a nit to pick over the Panasonic menu system it's that the text rendering is crude when displayed on the LCD. It looks like somebody in management decided that the older menu software was Good Enough, and refused to spend a little more money to clean up the text. Olympus did a good job cleaning up the text in their menus starting with the E-PL2, which is the same vintage as the GX1. The GX1 is a nicely refined little camera, which makes the crude menu text just that much more jarring when you see it.

There are two definable hardware function buttons on the back of the GX1 labeled Fn1 and Fn2. You can find where to set these in the menu. They are worth setting up. There are two "soft" buttons on the LCD which slide out from the right edge, Fn3 and Fn4. They are not worth setting up. They are difficult to "pull out" from the right edge of the LCD and do nothing but frustrate you when trying to reach them. The only reason for trying to use the slide-out tray is to enable or disable the LCD touch-to-trigger functionality. Once I had it enabled I pretty much left the slide-out tray alone.

The one lone wheel on the GX1 is buried in the plastic thumb rest on the top right corner. It's a surprising control in that it's both a wheel and a push-button switch. I use it to control aperture and EV compensation, and that's accomplished by the push-button action. You press the wheel in to set either aperture or EV compensation, then turn the wheel to make the changes. You know which function you're accomplishing because the values for aperture and EV change color on the bottom of the LCD. If you can change it, it's yellow. If you can't, it's white. The wheel is stiff enough not to be accidentally turned, and the button stiff enough not to accidentally press it in. It's a clever engineering solution and I like it. Yes, it slows you down over a two-wheel design, but I change aperture (or shutter speed) a lot more than EV compensation so it's not that big a difference for me.

I'm sure there's lots of additional features I haven't delved into, but I've had the camera now for about a week. My attitude is if I can't dive into a camera after opening the box and start taking photos after about 30 minutes, as bad as they might be at first, then it's a crap camera. None of my cameras are that way, although two were over the years and they were sent back. I can grumble about certain features, but the key is how quickly can I configure the camera to my tastes and what kind of results can I get. All of my cameras pass that basic test with flying colors (or black and white... sorry).

This is the last of the 20mm photos. It was processed in LR 4.4 to bring out color and detail, of which the 16MP sensor has loads. And that's another reason for getting the GX1. It's sensor resolution matches the E-M5. The E-M5 sensor has a lot more exposure headroom than the GX1 and I've seen it, but in a lot of circumstances the GX1 can produce acceptable, if not beautiful, results in the right kind of light that doesn't stretch the sensors exposure limits (and isn't that true about every camera ever made?).
Monochrome, ISO 3200, straight out of camera
These two photos were produced from the same GX1 raw image. I used touch-to-shoot to bring the E-M5 text into focus, and let the rest of the focus fall where it may. I have auto ISO enabled up to ISO 3200 and that's what you have here, a pair of ISO 3200 images. The upper photo, if you care to pixel peep, has a lot of processing artifacts in the darker regions that look very crystalline in nature. The bottom photo was produced in LR 4.4 and Silver Efex Pro 2, and has a more grainy, film-like noise. I don't mind noise, I just wish it were more like large clumps of random developed silver. The hard part about doing this is I like the tones of the in-camera photo. I tried to match that look with SEP, but wound up pulling too much up out of the shadows to suit my tastes. Under most circumstances, even up to ISO 3200, I would probably accept it and move on. Shrink the image down enough, put it on the web, and nobody will know nor care. Only a pixel-peeping idiot like me would even bother.
Monochrome, ISO 3200, post processed

These last five photos were taken with the GX1 and the Panasonic Lumix 2.5/14mm lens. I have this lens and chose this combination because of all the interesting press that's been generated lately by cameras such as the Nikon Coolpix A, the Ricoh GRD V (which Matthew dreams about constantly these days) and the Fuji X100/s. All of these cameras have an APS-C sensor, an equivalent 28mm with a max aperture between f/2.8 and f/2 (the Fuji). The Lumix 14mm is a 28mm equivalent, and its max aperture of f/2.5 sits between those other cameras. Whether the GX1 plus 14mm is as good as those other cameras with fixed focal length lenses is open to considerable subjective interpretation, so have at it. I do know that if I have the 14mm on the GX1 I can slip the combination into a rather capacious pocket on my cargo shorts and go anywhere incognito (well, maybe the cargo shorts draw attention, but that's another issue). And the same thing can be said for the even faster 1.7/20mm.

The monochrome photos are straight out of the GX1. The color photos were manhandled by me in LR 4.4 and Color Efex Pro 4. Enjoy.

last updated 2 June 2013

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