Trove Returns with the Swift Wallet

Iterating on a Good Thing

The team behind what I've called (and remain firm on) the best slim wallet available have taken to Kickstarter to rev up funds for the next phase of its wallet, which they call Trove Swift.

trove-swift-defiant-sloth

The fundamentals of the original wallet remain intact:

  • It's virtually the same physical size as its predecessor
  • It retains the same two layers of bonded, full grain Italian vegetable-tanned leather
  • The same (from what I can tell) tight, high-quality elastic
  • Same composition of three separated slots for cards, cash, Instax photos, business cards, and so forth
  • A reversible design that permits versatile options for storing different kinds of slim materials

What’s New

What's different, however, is one of the available slots access to stored cards. As the creators state on their Kickstarter page:

Our backers and customers over the last three years have given a lot of feedback on the TROVE Wallet, they love the versatility of having 3 separate compartments, the quality of materials and workmanship and the compact and minimalist aesthetics. The TROVE Swift retains all of the qualities our customers love about the original wallet and adds a quick access pull-tab. We know everyone has that one card that they use everyday more than others, and we wanted to improve the speed and accessibility by adding the Swift pull-tab.

Trove Swift with Pull Tab on the way out

To confirm, the single, obvious differentiation between this version of the Trove wallet is the pull-tab. I was actually surprised by this when they graciously sent me a review unit. So let's get this out of the way: this is an impressive pull-tab. They summarize having tested several different materials for the ribbon and the pull-tab itself, finally landing on a union of polyester ribbon and coated metal tab. The ribbon feels like a micro-sized version of a belt buckle of the smoothest variety, and the feeling it provides when you glide it out of its resting place is a tactile pleasure. At 0.3mm thick, it's indecipherable as part of the wallet's in-pocket feel, and the tab itself only juts out slightly once a card or set of cards are placed in the one slot it functions in.

The Trove Swift Wallet

As a functional pull-tab, it far out-performs and out-feels the pull-tabs in Bellroy wallets, and a week in, feels entirely up to the task of long-term viability.

But is a pull-tab what the Trove needed?

Honestly, it brings nominal value to the wallet's design and functionality. It's not unwanted or unwarranted -- the feature is squarely about improving accessibility of a favorite set of cards. But of the two core slots with easiest accessibility of cards, neither caused any problems pulling the cards out in the original version of Trove (those front-facing cards in a stack prodded out just enough to easily grab with a finger). The more difficult-to-access single-slot (I'll call it the slot on the "bottom"), is actually where I think a pull-tab would have been more useful. This slot is typically where I dump my RFID office access card and another one or two rarely used items. But because of the tightness of the wallet, that tends to be where it's a little more difficult to stick a finger in and extract a card.

Trove Swift next to the original Trove (Hackett edition)

Where the pull tab does benefit the user is when you need to extract cash. While I usually don't carry any currency, if I do, I always fold it three or four ways to fit into one of the two easier "top" slots, and jam it into the crevice. With the cash resting against a card in the pull-tab slot, the feature works great -- the cash pulls out swimmingly.

Other Miscellany to Note:

  • This version of the Trove seems to be, at least initially, limited to a set of monochromatic colors (all of good taste). Perhaps a "build your own" option will be coming later on.
  • It's only available on Kickstarter, but as of this writing, they've exceeded their goal and aim to ship by the end of the year.
    • Based on this review unit, though, it's in perfect working condition, and I have to imagine it's just a matter of scaling up production and materials to ship to customer demand, but I wouldn't worry about there being any quality assurance issues whatsoever.

In Summary

Overall, the Trove Swift is an excellent iteration on what I continue to deem the best slim/minimal wallet you can buy. Whether you care for the pull-tab or not, Trove still is the right choice.

trove-swift-pull-tab-2

Weber Spirit E-210 - Grill Review

Growing up, a summer seldom went by that didn't include copious amounts of steaks, hot dogs, and burgers sizzling on a propane-powered grill out on the deck. My Dad was a fastidious griller, and those afternoons or evenings when grilling was our main meal, it served as fun break from the usual stove or fridge-spawned dinners.

It’s been years — well over a decade — since I’ve been able to truly grill after my move to Chicago. My roommate/buddy and I actually bought a smallish Weber grill back in 2013, but it was dinky and powered by a camping-sized propane canister. Now, having just moved to a new apartment with a fairly large deck just this past month, we lucked out to receive an early wedding gift from my parents — a Weber grill. Specifically, we are talking about the highly-reviewed Weber Spirit E-210. The next week was very exciting.

It’s worth noting that about three days into moving into our new place, our unit’s stove exploded. We’d been preheating it for a meal and things went haywire (General Electric should be ashamed of whatever model was installed at our apartment — the model number was burned almost completely off, so I can’t publicly slander them as accurately as I’d like). So as you’d expect, we were hankering to fix something heated to eat. Enter: the grill.1

Shitty GE Stove - Exploded

My Dad had it ordered at the Home Depot not too far from my apartment, so I took the car over one weekend and loaded that sucker in the backseat. Amazingly it fit laying horizontal in the backseat, pre-built at Home Depot (which I’m thankful for, because I probably wouldn’t have had the patience to put it together the next day). I had to leave it in the car overnight anyway, because I needed Ashley’s assistance getting it out of the backseat and up the two flights of stairs to our deck. This, of course, happened the next day.

Once this whole thing was set up, it was fairly straightforward getting it to work. The only concern I had was hooking up the LP tank. For some reason, the first tank I had challenged me with a faulty valve (the thing wouldn’t turn to open), so I had to return it to Home Depot for one that worked. And it did.

Design & Function

Designed for the space-conscious, the Weber Spirit E-210 is a great fit for tight spaces. While our deck is fairly large, I can’t say the next place we rent (or buy) will have as spacious a layout — this grill should fit snug into almost any city deck. It comes with two metal side-tables that fold down (making it even more compact). For reference, it measures 45½ H-by-50 W-32 L-inches. Two top-ported linear burners output 26,500 British thermal units (of which, I’ll admit, I know little about), but it does quickly heat the 360 square inches of cooking surface area. And since we’ve already had people over to grill with us, I can say that the cooking surface accommodates meat and veggies for 3-5 people.

Lamb Sausages & ChickenHood-based Temp Gauge

The controls are deceptively simple. Twist the left knob to kickstart the crossover electric ignition (which does require a AA battery, included with the grill), and flip the second knob if you want to crank the heat up for some high-degree cooking. While I haven’t pushed it to the limits, I’ve heated it fairly hot at around 475 degrees, and it only takes a few minutes to reach that cap. The porcelain-enameled, cast-iron grates are very easy to clean with a steel-bristled brush, and the middle center grate pops out with ease. Weber includes a cast-iron pan to replace it if you’re in the mood for cooking anything inside it (like cast-iron pizza or veggies), and there’s even an add-on pizza stone if you’re ambitious. There are some neat additions to this grill, though how neat is hard to say since I haven’t used any other grill. Weber has what you could call burner shields (they call them Flavorizer Bars) which sit like long pyramids over the burners and prevent food drippings from sizzling directly on the flames. The bars also allow for close proximity smoke to raise up right under your burger and hot dog meat to, I guess, simulate a charcoal-like flavor (hence Flavorizer). Who knows how gnarly this is — all I know is that you make a mean burger on this thing, and sure, it takes kind of charcoal-smoky.

Some other nice details:

  • The propane tank succinctly fits under the grill in a - chamber, which comes with a grated cover to make the whole grill look nice and clean for visitors
  • The propane tank sits on a cubby that gauges the remaining amount of propane, which is useful for knowing when to fetch a replacement
  • Hood-mounted thermometer
  • 10-year warranty

Overall Thoughts

I can’t complain about anything related to this grill. While I don’t know too much about the material build of it (I’ve read that it is primarily made of enameled steel, something “Weber is very good at”), but based on using it almost every single day for two weeks straight (remember, no stove!), the thing hasn’t stuttered or disappointed once. As usual, I’ll probably update this review in six months or a year to check in again (included its winter use in Chicago).

If you’re scouting for a compact, powerful little grill, the Weber Spirit E-210 won’t let you down.

Buy It/Read Other Reviews

Details:

  • Product Type: Weber 46110001 Spirit E-210 Liquid Propane Gas Grill, Black
  • Product Dimensions — 32 x 50 x 63 inches
  • Item Weight — 119 pound

  1. We did, finally, get a new stove installed, but about 30 days later. Thanks for the long delay, landlord. ↩︎


SlimFold Wallet Review

It's been a while, but I'm back at the wallet reviewing game. This time we have a marvelous new entry with a fresh material concept that hasn't been represented in many of the slim wallets I've tried over the years. It's also a bifold wallet, which aside from a few Bellroys, is not a particularly popular build choice when it comes to slimness targets. The good news is: SlimFold Wallet delivers despite a couple design peculiarities.

slimfold wallet with cash and card

Design & Utility

The SlimFold Wallet arrives in a sealed plastic slip. This is the first of any trendy wallet I’ve seen arrive in such packaging, and it was a bit off-putting. Cheap, plastic wrap with a peg hole under-represented the wallet as uninspiring; it could be hung on any department store shelf like the rest of them.

Opposite the front of the packaging, the insert inside the plastic stated a number of SlimFold Wallet tentpole features, including its thinness (“3x thinner than leather; fits in your pocket”), lightness (“2x lighter than leather; reduces bulk”), and strength (“crash-tested; 100% waterproof”). In addition to all its compelling features, the material is also machine washable.

slimfold wallet back

Great. I'm intrigued.

Plastic packaging aside, these were features I hadn’t seen unified into one wallet before. My current go-to wallet, the Trove, is wrought from a thick elastic band paired with leather. While a fantastic wallet, it’s definitely not waterproof, and I certainly wouldn’t wash it in a machine (or by hand). In contrast, the SlimFold Wallet material used is also lighter and thinner than any of the elastic-band based wallets I’ve tested before it. For all the compactness of the Trove and Supr Slim wallets, and even though the SlimFold Wallet is bifold, its standalone material is thinner and lighter.

When you pry it from its casing, the wallet is surprisingly light and compact. It also opens and lays completely flat, which is an affordance I’d never seen before in a bifold wallet. The wallet's composition is built from one long piece of thin, fabric-like material (they call it Soft Shell), and stitched and cut together in a clever way. There is one opening for full bills (no more quad-folding my dollars like an idiot with the Trove, one “ID slot/window” with plastic cover on the left side, and two slide-in slots on the right side.

Since the material is so thin and light, the designers decided to reinforce the wallet with plastic inserts against the back wall (where you can store either cash or more cards). Optically, these inserts don’t draw attention to themselves, but feeling them and knowing they’re there makes the wallet feel jankier than it is. You can remove them, but the wallet begins to look and feel like a deflated balloon, mostly because the inserts keep the wallet a certain size and regality, and without them, the top of the wallet flimsily folds over the stronger, card-enforced body. With both inserts in and the wallet loaded in all its slots, the wallet does not open as naturally (or as wide) as you’d expect when looking to pry out dollar bills, and it no longer lays as flat when closed. But with a reasonable number of items in there, it looks and sits just fine.

opening slimfold walletopening slimfold wallet

Aesthetically, the wallet is true minimalism. The color is black and without texture, the slot cuts inside have no ornamentation, and the only branding is a small “slimfold” logo pressed on the lower-right inside slot. The only knock against it is the colored stitching, which can be seen along the bifold seam in the back, and along the vertical sides at the opening of the wallet. Using black stitches would have hidden the constructed nature of the wallet, and avoided the distracting, slightly slanted stitch lines. It’s a small thing to note, but it does draw away from an otherwise precisely-crafted product.

In terms of utility, SlimFold Wallet claims to be ideal for eight cards, but will hold up to twelve. For context, my current load out for the SlimFold Waller is the following:

  • Debit Card
  • Charge Card
  • Ventra (Chicago Transit) Card
  • ID Card
  • Costco Card
  • Office Security Card (thickest by far)

If you count my office card as two, since that’s about the weight/thickness of it, you could comfortably say that seven cards is about the best it can do before feeling like a normal, fat wallet. I hardly ever carry cash, but a few bills inside don’t add too much thickness to it, but after several bills (or more cards), the wallet’s tolerance for laying as flat (when closed) on a tabletop shortens. (This is really the measure of slimness I’m grading it against, since it’s up against non-folding wallets of a similar competitive arena.)

Use

It took me a while to re-acquaint myself with a bifold wallet, as it’s a style I hadn’t carried in over 10 years. Luckily, the material itself was thin enough for me not to notice while walking around with it in my preferred front-left pocket. Since the size is larger than the Trove, and the cards inside aren’t so tightly condensed, the wallet actually feels like it lays flatter against my leg. Without a proper comparison to every bifold wallet in the world, I can say it's the thinnest design for a bifold I've ever seen and used.

Though the wallet is slim and unobtrusive, there is one design choice that is noticeably a nuisance, albeit minor, to every day use: the card slots. It seems so obvious at first, but it actually took a full week of use to pinpoint it: The front panel card slots (the most used ones) face each other across the wallet's fold. Nearly every other bifold wallet positions the card slots upward (for vertical insertion and extraction); the SlimFold Wallet, however, requires you to load them horizontally. This causes an issue with the agility of every day use: you have to open the wallet completely to extract a card. With other bifold wallets, extracting a card is as simple as partially opening the wallet and sliding a desired card out of its slot. With the SlimFold, you need to either lay the wallet open flat in your hand, or fold it back on itself and then slide the card out. Again, it's a small inconvenience, but it's enough of a change in pace that it's noticeable. And while you could argue this is actually a more secure way to keep the cards from unintentionally slipping out, that never seems to be a problem.

The other complexity added to this layout is stacking cards in the slots. The right-side slots are designed in such a way that if you grab the rear card (I store two in each of the “horizontal” slots), it becomes difficult to navigate it back into the rear slot after use since the slots are cut from the same sheet of material. I'll quickly try to do it while I'm getting past a register or bus terminal, and the card will often hit the inseam of the slots (that optically separates the two horizontal slots, when it’s really just an aesthetic card slot separator bar of the same material sheet), or just tuck in right behind the first card in its same slot. It sounds inconsequential, but in use, it is slightly slower than top loading cards vertically into the same slot.1

Other than extracting items out of the wallet, its daily use is pleasurable. The wallet is unobtrusive, lightweight, and easily slides in and out of your pocket. The Tyvek® MICRO does not pick up lint or other pocket debris like some elastic wallets do. And overall construction is durable enough for any amount of beating (I'll remind you that they state it's been crash-tested). In summary, the SlimFold Wallet functions as it should -- use it for commuting and paying for things, otherwise keep it in your pocket.

Closing Thoughts

The Soft Shell SlimFold Wallet is available on their website’s store for $45; paying $3 more will get you an RFID-enabled version. You can also purhcase it on Amazon.

Pros:

  • Waterproof
  • One of — if not the — slimmest bi-fold wallet available
  • Extremely lightweight
  • Easy on the eyes
  • Sleek, black, minimal design effortlessly eludes judgement

Cons

  • Plastic inserts in the rear make the wallet feel jankier than it is
  • With both inserts or with fully loaded slots, the wallet does not open as naturally (or wide) as you’d expect for bill extraction
  • Wallet must be opened completely to extract cards in from panel slots, slowing down a daily task

The SlimFold Wallet is the right choice if you're looking for a slim, tightly constructed wallet with waterproofing and tear-resistant design. If you're looking for sleek, fast management of cards, I still recommend the Trove as the go-to slim wallet.

Update (April 11, 2016)

I received word from the manufacturer that they are planning to revamp the packaging, addressing my initial concerns regarding first impressions with basic plastic wrapping.

They also have been sampling a version of the black wallet with black stitches, which they plan. To introduce soon. This will alleviate visual distinction of the stitches, contributing to an overall seamless integrity.

Lastly, I misspoke about the material used in mine (and have subsequently updated my review accordingly). SlimFold wallets come two different materials:

  1. Soft Shell
  2. Tyvek

The one I reviewed was the Soft Shell, which is the thicker of the two but provides more durability.

Lastly, while the one I reviewed does feature the inside slots open towards the center (making them more secure, as I had mentioned), there is also a model that features vertically open slots to slide cards out the top.

Full disclosure: I was given a review model of the MICRO Size Soft Shell model from the manufacturer; this gesture did not impact my perspective on the wallet in this review.


  • 1: You also run the risk of having both cards facing each other slide out and cause problems in closing the wallet itself (because they slide out over the inside fold). Again, minor issue, but vertical slots may have performed better.



  • Saga of the Leftovers

    How do we deal with the fragility of life? How do we cope with lost love and lost family? How do we contend with the forces of nature, the forces of mortality? It took some patience, and some diligence, but I powered through the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers through all the perceptively melancholy, depressing episodes to get here: season 2.

    If you for some reason don’t know, HBO endorsed and funded the creation of a series based on American author Tom Perrotta’s novel about the sudden disappearance of two percent of the world’s population, and the events that followed in a small town. That’s actually all you need to know. This series isn’t necessarily about a post-apocalyptic struggle for characters traumatized by a single, life-defining moment; rather, the series in an introspection on pathos and how to interpret the unknowable: through theological or logical reasoning. To build a show respectful of both disciplines of thinking, whilst furthering the development of characters and theme, is quite an accomplishment for show runner Damon Lindelof (yes, the same Damon Lindelof who brought us Lost).

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    And this is coming from a guy who drops more shows than I’ve finished based one or two perceptively poor episodes, never to return or give it a second chance. Oddly enough, I made it through the entire first season of HBO’s The Leftovers without giving up, even though I came close to ditching after season one’s relentless string of depressing narratives. And I’m really glad I stuck it out: Season two is an incredible ten episode arc that rivals the best shows I’ve ever seen.

    The first season of Damon Lindelof’s mystery box series needed to set the tone and stage for the myriad of themes it sought to explore: foremost grief, but also love, pain, family, loss, connection, spirituality, and religion. And while packaged well, the first season seems disjointed — there wasn’t an underlining narrative arc that binds the story from episode one to episode 10. This is partly why season two was such a shocking experience. From the rebooted credit sequence (absolutely astounding in its simple artistic design with a meta song mockingly drumming in the background) to the wild opening segment of a cavewoman’s struggle in episode one, to the beautiful round-table close, the narrative arc is perfect and the execution extraordinary. My love for this season could also stem from my soft spot for transcending narratives that explore human existence, rationale, and being, but even without that as a reason to explore its story, The Leftovers is a spectacle to behold, albeit its composition in subtle strokes.

    Season two also solidified an expectation for the show, and fulfilled an achievement Lindelof had been seeking ever since embarking on Lost back in 2004: this show (and that one) seeks to explore the nature of our connectedness with each other here on earth, even through the unexplained phenomena of life, death, dreams, and the spiritual realm. When JJ Abrams and Lindelof first explored this notion in Lost, they built a complex, overbearing mess of mysteries conjured along the way, and were never able to satisfactorily pay it off. For all its dramatic heaviness, Lost was predicated on its mysteries — a trickling of questions, clues, and cliffhangers stringing one episode to the next with a slow burn of answers over 121 forty-five minute segments. But even Lindelof admits that the audience was too smart for this underpinning of the series, and eventually Lost disappointed because it actually wanted to focus on something other than the jumbled mess of plot holes and mysteries that gradually were shat on by ambiguous (or non-ambiguous) answers and revelations. On the other hand, The Leftovers has proven that it is not predicated on its greatest mystery (why and what happened to millions of the world population, who seemingly vanished all at once at the same time on October 14); rather, it is predicated on the underlying relationships and questions of being through thematic explorations of the struggle of life.

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    Sure, you could argue Lost attempted to do this the entire time, but that’s not the reason any of us were watching the show. We wanted to know what happened next in the unfolding of the overall mystery of the island and its supernatural impact on all the primary characters. But not once during season two of The Leftovers did I feel I needed a clue or answer to its stage-setting mystery; neither did I feel the need to necessarily receive an answer for all the other narrative arc questions that cropped up (mostly because season one set the expectation that I oughtn’t get an answer), so it was delightful to see the narrative threads (even the foreshadowing of episode one) perfectly ladder into the final few episodes to complete the story. There are still unanswered questions, but they don’t matter nearly as much. Now that the ground rules have been written, they are fully explored and enriched in season two: you care more about the characters, the balance of interpretation between the spiritual and the pragmatic, and the delicateness of life as we perceive it.

    Are there forces moving us through life? Do we believe in them to reassure ourselves, to justify our actions? Do we not because it’s illogical? And does it matter? In some ways, the answer to these thoughts about ourselves and about the world of The Leftovers is perfectly colored during every Season Two episode by the new credits sequence — and the spectacularly chosen theme song “Let the Mystery Be” by Iris Dement. The refrain rattles thus:

    “Everybody's wonderin' what and where

    They all came from

    Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go

    When the whole thing's done

    But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me

    I think I'll just let the mystery be”

    Our characters travel through misplacement, abandonment, death, purgatory, revenge, misunderstanding, assumption, psychosis, and, through it all, familial love. The Leftovers has become a thesis statement on spirituality — can we rationalize tragedy, loss, and love through theology, or through the explicit actions of humans beings and their impact on one another, regardless of supernatural divination? Can anything truly be explained?

    The Leftovers season two’s greatest ally in its conviction is its open-mindedness: there isn’t a right or wrong, true or false binary explanation for any of the events that transpire. You watch characters do awful things to remind the rest of the population that they are not safe regardless of the mathematical perception of safety based on what we think we know about the Departed; you watch characters seemingly die and resolve their purgatorial predicaments; you watch as the world burns and family perseveres. There are no easy answers with The Leftovers (or questions, for that matter). But if you watch both of the series’ current seasons, you will have a more informed lens through which to gaze at life's tectonic shifts of emotion and tragedy.


    Next Keyboard for iOS Review

    An Attempt to Change Typing Across iOS

    Back in February, I backed a Kickstarter project with a mission to remake the iOS keyboard. Unlike other third-party keyboards, this one specifically was taking charge for Apple devices only. When I gave them the five bucks or so it cost to back the project, I felt that this was a unique proposition, and was excited by the notion of a focused keyboard replacement (so many other third-party keyboards were and continue to be built for all operating systems, you'd think a focused app would take advantage of its core system better than one that wasn't).

    And so the year went by until right around June when they offered a beta download for backers of the Next Keyboard project. I usually don’t test or run betas in lieu of a near-delivered product, but I was excited to try it out (I haven’t tried any other third-party keyboards on any of my devices before). Installation of Next (and any other keyboard) is a bit wonky. For the beta, they essentially provided instructions in the app proper, and the functioning keyboard wasn’t activated until you went into the Settings app > General > Keyboard and added it manually. (Apple could definitely improve this process in the future — it’s not a fault of the developers.)

    Once installed, I gave it a whirl. That whirl lasted about five minutes as it was completely breaking the iOS experience with blank keyboards, preventing spotlight usage, etc. I uninstalled it immediately and decided to wait until the newer version came out.

    And then the newer version came out a few months later. Went ahead and downloaded the app again. Same instructions, more or less. Did that. Added it. Wah-la. Much better already. The app transforms into a marketplace and provides all the settings for configuring your keyboard. Something I wasn’t anticipating (probably because I stopped following updates) was the ability to change the theme of the keyboard so fluidly. Nearly a dozen themes exist today, and I’m sure more are planned for the future. They all look great.

    In addition to themes are stickers. If you’re familiar with Line or WhatsApp or apparently now Facebook Messenger, stickers are larger-than-emoji sized images that can be used when communicating with others — which is probably only done in a messaging or social media app. These stickers were free, but I’m assuming this is a marketing arena made to generate revenue, so the more sticker packs they come out with in the future, the more they’ll likely have the propensity to charge for them.

    With all this being said — how does the actual keyboard function now that it’s been officially released? (That is, of course, the most important component of arguably one of the most important functionalities of a mobile device). To be honest, it’s a mixed bag. Here’s the rundown the of things Next does right, and where it has some misses.

    What Next Does Right

    • The themes are beautiful, so pulling up that keyboard in any context is a delight
    • The emoji picker is brilliantly integrated into the keyboard pane, and it’s easily scrollable
    • Stickers are easily accessible as well, and Next makes it easy to paste them into conversations (unfortunately, due to technical obstacles, you can’t just tap a sticker and assume it will populate in the Messages app — it must be copy and pasted. Next copies it for you, and simply suggests you tap the text field to paste)
    • Text navigating is done in a wonderful way (even ahead of the changes Apple is making in iOS 9 for iPad). Essentially, you tap and hold on the spacebar, and slide left or right to weave the cursor through the text on the screen. Simple, intuitive, and functionally sound. I really like this.
    • iOS/Apple device only. This helps limit the resources and improves the focus on the software moving forward.

    Where Next Falls Short

    Unfortunately, for all the great things Next does right, it has some major shortfalls:

    • They removed the microphone shortcut in their keyboard design. Not sure if this is a limitation imposed by Apple or not, but I actually find myself using it on occasion, especially if I’m doing the walk-and-text thing around Chicago — way easier to just tap that microphone button and say what I need to type and send away.
    • They have access to everything you type, apparently. I’m assuming they’re classy and not tracking this stuff, but you can never be sure. (And to note, all third-party keyboards have this same caveat.)
    • There’s a lag in pulling up Next keyboard. This is usually always the case, and that one or so extra second of lag is really annoying, especially if you’re used to the speed at which iOS keyboard pulls up (immediately). This is part of the deal breaker for me. Again, this may be a limitation caused by Apple’s SDK component for third-party keyboards, but either way, it renders this keyboard that much more unusable on a daily basis.
    • It still doesn’t activate all the time. This is the other deal breaker for me, and the reason I removed Next again from my device. Sometime I’ll pull down on the home screen to get to Spotlight, or open Messages to resume a conversation, and the keyboard won’t roll up (the cursor will just sit in the text field). This requires a force-quit of the app, which usually fixes it, but that doesn’t solve the Spotlight issue. Regardless of what the problem is, this is unacceptable for any third-party keyboard software.

    Wrap-Up

    Overall, the Next keyboard is a tremendous effort in squeezing a lot of functionality in a great, well-designed keyboard. Whether by its manufacture or through limitations in the iOS SDK, however, its problems outweigh its benefits and I can’t rightly recommend it until those technicalities are dealt with.

    Let’s hope that the incremental improvements in iOS 9’s keyboard for iPad reinvigorate the third-party keyboard market to improve designs and functionalities (and prompt Apple to fix issues inherent in their SDK) so that we can continue to see improvements to the way we interact with our devices.


    Trove TAG & Cable Clip Review

    My new go-to, English-made wallet Trove has released a few more products over the past month, adding to their ecosystem of mostly integrated hardware. Since I had the equivalent of 20 GBP taunting me in my debit account, I bought both. A mere five days later, Royal Mail delivered them to my Chicago doorstep1.

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    So what’re the latest products? The Trove Cable Clip, a fairly straightforward leather product for clipping things together and the Trove TAG, a more complicated product that has three specific wallet-enhancing features.

    The Trove Cable Clip

    As the name suggests, this is a clip. It costs £5.00, which seems perfectly reasonable for the build quality if you live in England, but it comes out feeling overpriced when you order with US dollars. Here’s a quick rundown of my initial thoughts:

    Sizing

    Compact size that could be a good or poor choice for use depending on your other hardware. The Cable Clip fits snugly into the housing of the Trove wallet, but it would have been nice to see the dimensions on the product page — I wasn’t thinking very clearly when I ordered it (probably a drunk purchase), and it ends up that it does not clamp together the way I hoped it would around my RHA headphones. This is probably because the RHA earphones I use comprise thicker, stiffer cabling than the example Apple Earbuds used in Trove’s marketing. When I tried fitting the Apple Earbuds in the clip, it worked perfectly (I didn’t need to clip a half of the loop as I did with the RHA’s — see image above).

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    While the size is nice — it appears much smaller than competitor cable clips (due it needing to fit into the Trove wallet for storage, as needed) — it also could be seen as a hinderance. As mentioned above, it won’t work with larger earbuds or thicker cables, but most cables like short USB and Lightning ones, should be fine inside its clamp.

    Functionality

    The Trove Cable Clip functions exactly like you’d image it to. As noted about its size, you just need to slip whatever clump of wound cable (or anything else you want to clip, for that matter) into its Veg-tanned Italian leather and clamp down the buttons. That’s it. That’s all it does. It’s a cable clip.

    Since it's sized for the wallet, there’s the option of slipping it into your wallet to store while you’re using your earphones or other cable. In practice, however, I noticed that you need to have a smaller inventory of cards in the wallet because — depending on your setup — the Trove Cable Clip can cause some pressure against the other cards, bending the overall wallet to its will. This isn’t a problem if you only use a couple of the slots (configured so that there are three proper “slots”), but if you have a lot of cards in there, say six or seven, the thickness of the cable clip’s buttons widen the wallet considerably. It also doesn’t align with Trove’s role in minimizing your wallet and inventory, but then again, you don’t need to put the thing in your wallet when you’re not using it.

    Build Quality

    Like with the Trove wallet, the clip is made using the same kind of leather that’s found in the squared leather portion of their main product — the part that holds everything together. And as with the wallet’s leather, it’s genuine and solidly wrought. Though I’ve had the clip a short while, I imagine its longevity to be in line with any pure leather product: quite a while.

    The product has a few adornments to note: the Trove branding is visible on the outside of the clip design, subtly embossed into the leather, and their “Reverse the Rules” tagline, along with a link to their site, adorns in the inside (which is never visible when you’re using the clip. It comes in a variety of colors, including black, blue, brown, green, grey, lime, orange, and a smattering of others. I’ve only seen one in person, and it matched my expectations of the colors seen on the site.

    Trove TAG

    When I received Trove’s email announcing the Trove TAG, it took me a while to actually understand what they were peddling. Recognizing the increased technological complexity of the world around us when it comes to using debit and credit cards — contactless payments, card skimming technology — the company has attempted to add flexible intelligence to analog hardware. The Trove TAG is marketed as three products in one, and does, in practice, solve the issues that can stem from these real-world issues.

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    What Trove TAG Is

    The leather-wrapped, card-sized slab does the following:

    • Operates as a guard (the ‘G’ in the name) in two ways:
      • Mitigating its user from becoming a victim of contactless card theft (whereby a malicious person uses card-skimming technology in passing you by on the street and swiping your card details from the contactless tech inside it)
      • Removing worries of multiple contactless cards being activated at the same time when used inside the wallet (for instance, you use your transport card in your wallet, without extracting it, but that card gets charged along with another contactless debit or credit card also sitting in your wallet nearby)
      • For both of the features above to work properly with the RFID card inside the TAG, you need to slide the two target cards against each side of the TAG (in my case, my debit and credit cards site on either end of the TAG inside one of the Trove’s slots)
    • Includes an anchor (the ‘A’) in the form of a triangular tab that sits at one corner of the TAG. It comes with a small attachment cord that can easily be taken off, but if you are so inclined, may use it to attach the entire wallet to your keys, accessories, luggage, etc. You may also decide to just use the TAG on luggage without the wallet for the final feature:
    • Comprises a tracking ID (the ’T’) on one side of the TAG that, upon registration with Trove’s subscription service (first year free with purchase of a TAG), allows the TAG (and whatever you’ve attached or slipped it into) to be tracked if someone finds and reports it online via Trove’s Report TAG Serial Number page.
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    Trove TAG Build Quality

    Specifics about the actual materials used in the Trove TAG are oddly omitted from the site, but it’s apparent that they are using some kind of vegetable-tanned leather (similar to the wallet and cable clip material) around the hidden, interior RFID-blocking card. The design is classically analog, with stitching around the border, and gold-stamped branding on one side, and embossed instructions (for TAG discovery) on the other.

    I picked up a yellow and black one to match my Factory Edition Trove Wallet, but it comes in a slew of colors that match with the other wallets and cable clips in their current hardware line, including embossed text colors of aqua, blue, orange, pink, purple, and red. Each model will run you £15.00.

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    Overall Impressions of the Trove TAG & Cable Clip

    These are two unnecessary additions to the already fantastic Trove Wallet, but if you’re looking for added usability, they both are well-built products that perform exactly as intended.

    The Cable Clip is a great little investment if you need something like it. My only caution is make sure you have an understanding of its dimensions (it’s about 5 x 8 cm) and how that will wrap around whatever cable you plan on using it with — it has a fairly small loop.

    The Trove TAG is a new kind of product that has great benefits if you need them. For me, using the Chicago CTA everyday for commuting, it’s an easy purchase — I have a debit and credit card in my wallet along with the Ventra transportation card, and putting my two payments cards against each side of the TAG prevents them from accidentally getting charged when I lazily press my whole wallet against the bus or train contactless payment machine. In this case, it’s convenient to be able to do this knowing only your transport card will be used. The TAG also wards off any fear that card-skimming assholes can’t extract your precious bodily card data. If you carry around more than two cards you’d like to target with the TAG, you will have to buy another TAG for every one or two additional cards beyond your first pair.

    The tracking ID feature and the anchor are less interesting to me. For tracking to work, you need to subscribe to Trove’s service at £5.00/year (after the first year being free), and rely on whoever finds your wallet or luggage or whatever you attach it to actually report it in. The Trove tracking subscription sign-up isn’t as intuitive as it ought to be, either, and it’s actually very hard to find on the site (it’s linked to through a simple blue, in-text link instead of a masthead navigation link). And the anchoring thing just isn’t something I’d use unless I had an extra TAG to attach to my backpack in case it was left somewhere.

    Overall, Trove continues to impress with a cool set of products all tied to its ecosystem around its minimal, functional, and what I’ve called The Best Slim Wallet, with the benefit of each product working perfectly in isolation as well. If they sound like something you need, they come recommended.


  • Footnote: In actuality, they delivered to my Chicago mailbox, and while I was at work, Ashley picked it up for me and met me for a coffee downtown before her afternoon shift. We went to a great new place (and I say that with extreme honesty, because the Chicago Loop has sucked for great places for several years) called Freehand Chicago, a hybrid hotel, cafe, and bar. Two Tecates and two espressos were ordered with the best of intentions.  


  • The Time I Decided to See a Movie Without Watching Its Trailer

    I was three hours from wrapping up a ridiculously long week of work, adjusting my posture in the seat of my chair, when I really started feeling like seeing a movie after shutting off the computer and saying “fuck it” to a dozen outstanding to-dos. My girlfriend was working the evening shift, so the gameplan was to tell her I was seeing either one of two movies out of the sorry-ass selection in theaters this month, and that — I hoped — neither one would be too extraordinary so as not to ruin the notion that we only see good movies together. (I already biffed on this last year when I saw both Birdman and Boyhood without her.)

    At the time of checking, I had Kingsmen and It Follows to choose from, because, honestly, there seemed to be nothing else worth dropping $12 on. A cursory glance at Metacritic put them both around the same temperature from critics (70-80), which was good enough for me. I’d seen a few trailers for Kingsmen, and both of them were so different from one another it was hard to gauge exactly what kind of film it would be — somewhat serious action film, or goofy/spoof take on James Bondish British espionage? I hadn’t seen the trailer for It Follows, but assumed it was some kind of American teen horror flick with a guy stalking some innocent person (with fairly high praise from the few snippets I’d glanced through). The poster was refreshing (no red text used!), but still I didn’t read a proper description of its plot or watch the trailer. Both were queued up for around similar times at 7:00, so I returned to work, waiting for the day to end.

    After trying to trudge through the rest of my work, I ended up staying later than I should have. Now the options changed — only It Follows was available for viewing at 8:20, the most practical time at this point, so I decided to do that. I made a quick stop for reasonably priced water and a chocolate bar at Whole Foods, then lugged my laptop-ridden backpack up the AMC River East stairway and bought a ticket and medium popcorn for a movie from which I had no idea what to expect.

    The opening shot was enough to sell me on the next hour and a half: A young woman bursts out of a Michigan suburb home along a quiet neighborhood street in some kind of lunatic hurry, clacking along in heels across the street, abruptly saying something to her dad, who meets her at the entrance of another house, running back out, leaping into a car, and furiously driving off. All one long, somehow claustrophobic shot. And it wouldn’t be the last of this kind of marauding, dreadful camerawork.

    It was at about 15 minutes in when I realized my girlfriend was going to be annoyed — this was clearly a great film already, and she was missing out. But I kept stuffing buttered popcorn in my mouth and stressfully enduring minute after minute of the film until at about 10:15 when I was finally relieved to see the credits commence.

    No, this isn’t a review of It Follows. But if you want the short of it, I highly recommend seeing the film. My favorite of the year so far. Instead, I want to say a little something about the joy of seeing a film without having subjected yourself to any kind of information about it. There are a rare few times when this has happened in the past. Most recently, we saw St. Vincent in a last-minute film switch at the theater, and neither of us knew what the film was about, aside from the assumption that it starred an old cranky Bill Murray. It ended up being quaintly entertaining, and destroyed the film we piggy-backed off it (the horrible Mockingjay). Aside from that, it’s usually random picks on MUBI that I find myself flipping on a film without any preconceived knowledge. Rather than having an idea of what the film may be about or what its tone may be like, you watch it unravel with unspoiled anticipation.

    Just think about it. You don’t know who any of the protagonists are, what environments they will at one point encounter, no sense of music — which can drastically alter the timbre of the film’s feel and movement — and you certainly, most importantly, don’t have a sense of what the film is even about. Going into a horror film, of all genres, without knowing what to expect was rewarding in a way most of the films I’ve seen on MUBI haven’t been. It Follows wasn’t some foreign indie film that took a strange direction (like Kim Ki-duk’s 2006 Korean film, Time — wow: weird and recommended, too). It Follows an American-made horror flick hidden in the outskirts of Detroit, an unnerving score by Disasterpeace (whose work spans synthy-electronic videogame OSTs), and an unsettling sense of time-space discontinuity (it’s hard to reference any props in the film as an indication of when this film actually takes place).

    So yes, I recommend seeing It Follows. I’d also recommend seeing more films without watching their trailers. The spoiler-laden fad of showing two and a half minutes of film is, unfortunately, the state of the film industry right now, and it’s hard to avoid accidentally seeing a trailer when they pin twenty minutes of them before your screening at the theater. But, perhaps, you can try this at home. Perusing Netflix. Or iTunes, or whatever. Watch an old flick without reading its description. Or one that you’ve heard of but know nothing about. It’s refreshing. It’s surprising. And even it’s a terrible movie, you at least didn’t have a sense of what you’d be in for until after a few hours of unblemished time passes.

    And seriously, don’t watch the trailer for It Follows. It ruins part of the fun of the film, and certainly doesn’t set the tone right at all for what you’re about to end up of loving.


    Trove Wallet Review - The Best Slim Wallet

    I've finally found it. After years of seeking the most minimal, functional, and succinctly designed wallet for everyday use, a team of masterclass manufacturers in England delivered. That wallet is called Trove.

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    What sets the Trove apart from its predecessors and competitors is its versatility. While others have set out to design very minimal wallets, they all typically follow the same set of rules: thin, monotone materials that feature one slot into which you dump all your cards. That’s it, right? That’s apparently how everyone who got into manufacturing wallets decided to execute the minimal concept. Perhaps after several years of backing these endeavors on Kickstarter, reading others’ experiences with wallets, and actually using them daily, folks are starting to realize this isn’t the best design. If you’re going to use a wallet like this every day in every circumstance, it’s helpful to be able to organize the kinds of things you put in it. And that’s not just me trying to be classy — functional design for something like a wallet should really come down to these two things:

    • The ease of use in grabbing an often-used item that is separate from transactions (such as a transit card) without having to extract a stack of cards to find it is a daily benefit in both speed and ease of use
    • The ability to store loose cash and/or important receipts or certificates in way that doesn’t grind against the primary stack of cards (or painfully seeing that cash rip due to the tightness of the package during extraction) is useful in that it respects your inventory

    The other wallets don’t allow for these kinds of luxuries (and I mean luxuries in the ludicrous sense that most all wallets up to this “minimal revolution” have featured these kinds of things as defaults). So let me break down why I think the Trove is the best of its class:

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    Utility:

    • The Trove is primarily configured to feature one big slot with either:
      • A band-like design for accommodating smaller items (like quad-folded currency or tightly wound earphones)
      • Two more card-sized slots on the reverse side of the primary one that can accommodate more cards or thrice-folded currency
    • The wallet can also transform into a mobile device stand (either horizontal or vertical), ideal for conveniently setting up a phone to watch movies at an angle on an airplane’s seat tray, for instance
    • The manufacturing and quality of the product is fairly high for this kind of thing. While I haven’t owned and used it as long as my Saddleback sleeve wallet (which also claims to use leather and a manufacturing process destined to last 100 years), I will make the assumption today that:
      • The elastic used should last at least as long as a similar product, the Supr Slim Wallet
      • The leather “patches” employed in the design are a high enough quality that they won’t be compromised any time soon
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    Usage

    It's a slim wallet. If you've been playing this game for a while, you know what to expect. The biggest differentiator here, however, is the versatility (and dare I say customization) of the Trove’s dividable design.

    Instead of retracting a block of stacked cards every time you need to dig for a card that isn't easily available on either end of the group, you can selectively position your most-used cards on the ends of the main compartment as well as the dual slots made available when the wallet is configured with two main slots (inner leather strap tucked in).

    It’s small, it’s convenient, it works.

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    Configurability Beyond Mechanics

    At the time of purchase, the Trove is featured in several different color configurations. While this isn’t unique to the Trove, it does seem to have a much larger selection of colors and tones than its competitors. If this kind of thing is important to you, by all means it’s another reason to take make the purchase.

    I decided to go with a limited edition version (number 378 of 500) that they dubbed the “Factory Edition”. There were a few other color combinations I liked, but the yellow, gray, and black is a killer look for its design.

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    Where to Get It

    As of January 2015, the Trove is only available for purchase on their website shop. The basic models retail for £30, while the Factory Edition is currently priced at £35. It ships from England, so there is an international shipping fee if you’re from the States or elsewhere. I was lucky enough to catch their free holiday shipping, which extended a bit past the New Year.

    If this review wasn’t effective enough to incentivize you to make the purchase — or at least sock it away on a wish list — then keep using whatever you’re used to and try, try so very hard to forget the incredibly functional design benefits of the Trove while you wither away in misery with torn currencies and daily card extraction embarrassments by way of unorganized single-slot wallets for the rest of your life.


    Fyi Update - October 2017

    Trove ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to promote their latest wallet iteration, the Trove Swift. I was lucky to get a review unit and have assessed the Swift product here.


    Apple Leather Case for iPhone 6 Plus

    Product Review

    For the longest time, I've distanced myself from big phones and phone cases, but last year I decided to order the iPhone 6 Plus, a 5.5" behemoth that quickly won me over. Having used it daily for the last several months, it does indeed continue to delight. But as I put it through its paces, my daily use of the device unearthed an unforeseen problem: the phone is one slick device. And I mean that literally -- when extracted from a pocket, the thing unconsciously attempts to slip out of your hands and commit hardware suicide against the ground.

    I had two choices, apparently: Handle with obsessive delicacy, or buy a case with less of a slick surface.

    While I’ve never cracked or damaged any iPhone I’ve owned, one day in December I opted for buying a case while I was shopping with my girlfriend and her sister at Target. While they were off shopping for gifts, I jaunted towards the electronics section. Initially, I hoped to find some decent PS3 games on post-holiday sale, but the leftover stock wasn’t worth picking over. What other purchases had been nagging at me? That damn case.

    Up to this moment, I had been debating getting a case — ever since the first couple weeks of my iPhone 6 Plus use. And so I wandered over to Target’s pitiful mobile section, eyes darting through peg after peg of over-designed car chargers, chunky plastic cases plastered with flowers and sports logos, strange car-mounting solutions, and a jungle of cables. Target is probably the last place I’d look for something to outfit an Apple-designed product, but I’d been doing research on basic cases, and the Apple-branded leather case had received fairly wide-spread approval from the network of bloggers and reviewers I respect. I figured they’d at least carry a few colors of the Apple-made one. At this Grand Rapids, Michigan location, they only had two cases for the iPhone 6 Plus left in stock, and in only one variant: black. I was hoping to snag the dark-navy blue one, but black would have to do — especially since I’d convinced myself I was going to buy this that day.

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    So what’s it like in action? After wresting it open from its super slim packaging, putting it on was as easy as aligning the edges of the case against the back of the phone and pressing the two together. It softly absorbs the device with more of a sigh than the usual plasticky click, and the iPhone just sits snug in the case’s real-leather cradle. That’s it.

    Here’s my rundown of the device, to save you paragraphs of a typical review:

    Pros:

    • The real leather feels wonderful
    • Improves aforementioned "slickness" by providing sturdier gripping surface
    • Permits phone to be placed completely flat on a surface (the camera bulge is covered by about a millimeter of leather material)
    • Allows the iPhone to be placed face (screen) down on a surface without permitting the screen to touch (there's a nice leather rim raised about a millimeter from the screen that rests on the surface first)

    Cons:

    • Due to the material, where the leather rim meets the screen a small trench is created that tends to route dust and other small particles into its maw. Granted, this is a very minor trench, but I would be remiss not to mention this since I've had to take the case off a few times a week to clean out these little pieces.
    • The clearance on the bottom of the phone, where the headphone, lightning cable I/O, and speaker/microphone are located, is a bit tight on the headphone jack side. If you have a non-typical headphone plug (such as with a thicker base around the jack, and an L-shaped one), it may not click all the way into the iPhone. This reminds me of the issues with the original iPhone’s concave headphone jack, which ostracized the same kinds of headphones. Luckily, my ten-year old Etymotics (which do have a thick plug base) do fit in fine, but it seems as if half a millimeter is sticking out, and doesn’t completely click in.
    • Miss the sturdy buttons for volume and sleep/wake — the case does not have cut-outs for these, and instead has built-in leather bumps that you press (which in turn press the buttons they lay against). It’s a minor complaint (ever notice how physical Apple buttons are really nice to press?), but to turn a subjective preference into a positive, I’ve noticed that I don’t accidentally press the volume button instead of the sleep button when quickly putting my phone away anymore. (If you don’t know, the asinine new location of the sleep/wake button is on the right-side of the iPhone, opposite the volume increase button — when gripped in one hand, it’s possible to press both of these buttons at the same time, and the aftermath of this does not always yield the initial intention) .
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    In short, the Apple iPhone Plus Leather Case works honorably as both a protective wrap for the very large phone, and as a way to more confidently handle the device.

    Get it on Amazon


    Apple Pay Makes Buying Shit Easy, Fast & Secure

    The last few months have seen an enormous amount of activity around mobile payments. This has mostly stemmed from the launch of Apple's new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus models, both featuring NFC (near field communication), a wireless contact mechanism for interacting and executing payments with retail hardware. And, of course, the payment service (for which that NFC technology is integral) they've dubbed Apple Pay.

    As one of many early adopters, I was excited to try this out. Sure, while the hardware and feature has been around for a few years -- primarily employed by Google Wallet and Android devices -- I've never seen one actually used (except very embarrassingly in an episode of Fringe), and I haven't owned an Android device. So it was high time I gave it a whirl with my new iPhone. Besides, after having read enough to feel informed about the technology behind Apple Pay, it appears that it is the most secure way available to normal users to make transactions either online or in-store. So there was really nothing stopping me from heading downstairs in my office building to the frighteningly close McDonald's to buy myself an afternoon coffee.

    My experience was delightful. Aside from having to waft in the microwave airs of the fast food kitchen, the whole thing went without a hitch. I ordered my coffee, watched as the payment terminal on the counter in front of me glowed blue, and simply held my iPhone within an inch or so of it. I didn't even push the home button to initiate it; rather, I instictively had my thumb resting on its surface (e.g., the TouchID surface), and the terminal communicated immediately with the iPhone. The screen lights up, shows your credit card on file with Apple Pay, and a small TouchID logo with a fingerprint is visbile, promptly capturing your finger's unique signature. Once it's done (and if you have a new iPhone, you know how quickly this actually happens), a little check mark animates and that's it. Payment complete.

    It took me a paragraph to write that, but the whole experience takes less than a couple seconds. My experience at McDonald's has been the fastest -- there aren't any PINs to punch in or signatures to be etched; just hold the phone up with your finger on the home button. My experience at Walgreens has been similarly quick, but they do prompt you with a donation option on the payment terminal's screen. Not a huge deal since I've been used to this (having shopped there a number of times before), but Apple Pay makes the process much faster. (I recall before there were about three to four screens you had get through to completely check out.)

    Overall, Apple Pay has been a wonderful feature of the new iPhones. While it's nowhere near ready to replace a wallet, it does make the experience of shopping in the few stores that support NFC terminals better than anything before it (shame on retailers like CVS who actively shut off their NFC terminals because of the MCX/CurrentC kerfluffle, screwing over both Apple Pay and Google Wallet users). With pending Apple Watch support for early 2015, the process of paying for things while out on a run or a quick jaunt down the street will be exceptionally secure and enjoyable moving into the future.

    On a last note, it seems that there isn't a very good canonical source for all the retailers who can support (or who will support) Apple Pay and Google Wallet. As such, I've compiled a separate page -- Apple Pay Retailer List -- for your reference. I'll try to update it moving forward until, hopefully, enough stores support it that it won't be an issue. If you're looking for a terrific overview of Apple Pay, MacRumors has an extensive reference guide.


    All You Need is Edge of Tomorrow

    Leaving a movie theater thoroughly entertained is usually rare. Or perhaps my opinionated tendencies have gotten the best of me. I’ve been let down more than often than not over the past few years, and it has cost me far too many buttered popcorn bowls. I can happily say, however, that 2014 hit the mark on several occasions, and most notably with Edge of Tomorrow, a film that was unfortunately marred by horrible marketing and tragic failure at the domestic box office. But Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt’s sci-fi foray joins the ranks of other hugely enjoyable, critically- and fan-loved vehicles that fell short only in making money in theaters. You could lump in there such flicks as the recent Dredd 3D and canonized classics like The Shawshank Redemption and Blade Runner. Yes, that’s good company — and rightfully so.

    Having arrived on video and DVD/Blu-Ray just this past month, Edge of Tomorrow (or as Warner Bros. recently decided to mutilate further, Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow) stands as one of the few movies I’ve added to my personal collection amidst the infinite libraries of video streaming services. But back at the beginning of this year, when I saw the original trailer (and subsequent trailers), I wanted nothing to do with the film. It came off having the same tired aesthetic of every other heavily-saturated action movie trailer, and the plot concept of “live, die, repeat” was thwacked over your head with smarmy text and thudding music. Not the kind of trailer to pique your curiosity, but for all that is holy, this movie should have been marketed to pique your curiosity. It’s too damn clever and enjoyable in execution to have a studio obfuscate it, especially when no other action film released this year can steadily stand against it in execution.

    But one look at its box office performance and you would guess that poor marketing killed it commercially. Netting a paltry $100 million domestically against its $178 million budget isn’t going to please Warner Bros. much. Granted, it earned over $269 million in foreign box office receipts, but that’s not the story we usually hear. Advertising for off-beat movies can be tricky, but it can be done (just usually not well with big studio stakeholders). What actually turned around my perception of the film (which was badly bruised by trailers) was the phenomenal reception from critics and fans. Rotten Tomatoes had an aggregated 90%, and Metacritic reported a 71% — neither are poor numbers, especially for a purely action film, and it’s remarkable the positive momentum couldn’t keep filmgoers getting into theaters and going back.

    Sure, Tom Cruise has been battered around publicly for years, but when has his film performances ever disappointed you? Exactly. He’s perfect for the role of Major William Cage, an officer in a near-future army who has never experienced live combat. He’s forced into a mission against an alien invasion that ends in catastrophe — killed within minutes of making his landing on a beachfront against the enemy, and soon finds himself in a time loop that initiates after death. Compare it to Groundhog Day all you want, but it shares little in common with that movie’s shtick and more in common with some of the the best-paced comedies and action films of all time.

    You’d think the concept of living, dying, and repeating would get old, but director Doug Liman edited the film to near perfection. He builds on every repeated sequence, coloring in Tom’s and Emily Blunt’s characters, time-leaping through narratives at just the right moment so as not to tire the concept, and crescendoing in a finale sequence that culminates in dread and fear after having suppressed those emotions throughout the first two-thirds of the film.

    If you have yet to see this film, I encourage you to do so. It’s available on Amazon and iTunes for renting and purchase.


    Jodorowsky's Dune - A Documentary on Artistry

    When I originally saw the pre-release poster for the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune on a February visit to the Music Box theater in Chicago, I was excited. The prominant visual -- a colorful, wildly insectoid starship design -- immediately captured my interest. The subject matter, paired with a director with whom I've only once been aquainted via Holy Mountain, intrigued me all the more. I didn't even know anyone else had attempted to bring Dune to the big screen, let alone failed. I made a note to see the film in theaters, but alas, didn't get around to seeing it until a few days ago. But even several months post-release, the film satisfied most of my appetite for what it had teased earlier this year.

    But let me back up a bit here. First things first: Dune). Written in 1965 by American author Frank Herbet, Dune is often claimed (and probably statistically so) as the world's bestselling science fiction novel. Though I'd retrospectively consider myself fairly well-read in science fiction, I actually did not read Dune growing up. I remember buying a copy of it when I was in high school at the Ridgedale Barnes & Noble, which was my suburban destination for collecting all my books when I lived in Minnesota. I'm sure I bought it alongside a few other novels that, for whatever reason, took precedence. Ever since, it fell by the wayside, traveling with me to college in Chicago, sitting smugly on that black little bookshelf, and subsequently making its way to each and every apartment thereafter. I remember reading through a few chapters on a number of occasions over the years, but kept putting it down in lieu of something else. Perhaps I just didn't want to delve into something I anticipated to be overly complex and challenging, or perhaps it just wasn't the right time. So I kept putting it off.

    Until I saw the poster for Jodorowsky's Dune. Why that set me off on scouring through my bookshelf and diving right into the first book (of the canonical six), I'll never quite know, but I tore through it I did. Up to that point, the only exposure I had with Dune was David Lynch's much-derided adaptation from 1984, and this was probably more than fifteen years ago. I saw it with no context and as much as I can remember, it was awful — especially compared to the popcorn sci-fi of Star Wars. The book, however, is turned out to be phenomenal, and as you can imagine, I immediately continued reading through the subsequent books in the series. It's one of those tales that grows better with its sequels, both holistically and individually (yes, I think some of the sequels are better than the first one, which, in retrospect, is really just a prologue to a grander story). My memory tells me that David Lynch's film is a loose, semi-unfaithful adaptation of the book, but I'm definitely going to re-watch it now with more informed context. Knowing the complexities of the book, I see why cinematically adapting it, or its sequels, is a monumental challenge.

    All the more reason I came to watch the documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, with enthusiastic optimism. If there's one guy that actually could pull off the more spiritual, metaphysical elements of the book, it's Alejandro Jodorowsky. A Chilean-French filmmaker and, let's be honest, all-around artist (he acts, he writes, he conducts music, he even produces comics), Jodorowsky is best known for his surreal films El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Like reading Dune, it took me a few tries to get through The Holy Mountain. Surreal is definitely the right way to describe it -- watching that film gives you the impression Jodorowsky never really understood the norms of film language (e.g., how to build cohesive sentences like other filmmakers). Instead, he created experiences to be felt through film -- like the poetry-version of stringing together words. The most similar experience I've had in watching a film in recent years is Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (highly recommended, one of the best of 2014), which follows a flowing, experiential pace of visuals and light storytelling. The Holy Mountain moves at a bizarre pace, throwing colorful scenes, characters, and situations for you to mull over for weeks after watching (a footless, handless dwarf, flies covering a face, a man pooping gold, a wax statue sent into the sky with balloons). Fun, memorable stuff.

    So again, this is the guy who apparently wanted to tackle science fiction's biggest story. But rather than focusing on the heart of what makes Dune so visceral in the telling, it instead rewards audiences by unexpectedly capturing the beautiful plight of a dedicated artist who loves his craft and has unbridled enthusiam for film. He states early on in the film that he never read Dune before deciding on doing the film (he said a friend told him the book was fantastic and that was all it took -- that would be his next film!). I'm not sure if he actually ended up reading even after he started production on it, but I can say this: he had a propensity to identify an amazing cast of actors, producers, and artists to contribute to the film. Salividor Dali, Orsen Welles, Mick Jagger, H.R. Giger. You can see where this is going.

    And as you'd expect, he had high hopes for his version of Dune, regardless of how much or how little it connected to Frank Herbert's original story. After a while, I gave up on caring how far from the original story he drifted and instead just sat back to enjoy the unwavering dedication to his fantasy. In doing so, it's clear that he seems to have captured the spirit of Dune on a visually astounding level. In his own words, he wanted to create "a film that gives LSD hallucinations -- without taking LSD"; after seeing the proof across 3,000 illustrations, storyboards, reference materials, and script snippets, I have no doubt this film would have felt like a jolt of something ethereal. He tasked his carefully curated artists with the creation of ships and landscapes that, while never featured or alluded to in the book, capture a creative depth beyond Herbert's original universe-building. In a sense, this is what every author secretly hopes a cinematic adaptation of his or her novel amounts to: inventively taken in a direction suitable for film. This one in particular was so and so dramatically different from the source material, it would have been like seeing Dune written by another dimension’s Frank Herbert.

    But there were some truly remarkable concepts Jodorowsky attempted to pull off in addition to the radical interpretation — things that film enthusiasts will greedily enjoy seeing unfold via storyboards. Take, for instance, the opening sequence that he wanted to achieve: a continuous shot longer than Orson Welles' Touch of Evil sequence; a shot that by the looks of the original storyboard would have been nearly impossible to pull off in the 70s. It's a shot that essentially traverses an entire galaxy, flying by battles, pirate raids on spice transport ships, asteroid fields, eventually leading all the way to a close-up on two figures. Ambitous stuff -- only recently have films attempted to create something like this, and, of course, they rely entirely on computer generated imagery.

    While the film is a terrific homage to artistry and the madness that drives it, its commentary on the influence of Jodorowsky's work on the Dune production is presumptuos. Towards the end of the documentary, its creators -- not Jodorowsky -- make bold assertions about the work on Dune influencing nearly everything that followed it, including Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Contact. While I'm sure the production book made its rounds in Hollywood, it likely didn't have that great an influence over the visual direction of what we now know as classic blockbuster pictures.And especially the integrity of equally imaginative creators. If anything, it helped ground some of the bolder ideas that folks like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg struggled to convey in those early years of selling their ideas to studios.

    As it stands as a documentary and an homage to the filmmaking process, Jodorowsky's Dune is still an exceptional achievement. I have newfound respect for the director as an artist, as well as for the creators of the actual documentary -- the film has great rhythm, and does a fine job bringing old production illustrations to life in attempting to convery the imaginative reaches of Jodorowsky's grandest vision. We can only hope that someone picks up the spiritual torch and shepherds something akin to taking LSD to the big screen in the near future.


    Snapback Slim Wallet 2.0 Review

    A Wallet Reboot of Sorts

    Last year, the SnapBack Slim (1.0) was launched as a Kickstarter project. I reviewed it here after receiving an early model, and have been using it frequently to gauge its longevity over time. It’s held up well, and I can attest, several months later, that I stick to my initial impressions about it:

    • As an elastic, minimalist wallet, the original Snapback Slim proved superior to other attempts at a similar design by employing an elastic band around the main wallet cavity to hold non-card paraphernalia like cash
    • The elastic band doubles as a strap for the wallet while exercising or exerting oneself in such a way that you, well, can’t put your wallet in a pocket
    • It felt strong enough to to reassure against any uncertainty regarding sewing quality (and still holds up after several months of frequent use)

    The Snapback Slim wasn’t without its faults, though. Namely, I found the elastic strap a bit mellow — it certainly held cash, but it didn’t feel particularly taut for, say, loading it with a small quantity of one or two bills. Additionally, the inseam of the elastic band was off-putting: it was positioned on the inside of one of the wallet’s ends, and it not only interfered with loading cards into the wallet (they would have to be pushed against one side or the other), but it also fattened the look of one side of the wallet. Aesthetically, it just didn’t seem like that should happen.

    So when I heard that Nick Augeri, the designer of the Snapback Slim, was working on a revision to his original concept, I was pleased. He had decided, much like the recently kickstarted Baron Fig notebook, to relentless refine his product. The original Snapback Slim was a great product — and, only after a short period of use, it’s clear that the Snapback Slim 2.0 is even better.

    Initial Impressions

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                  <noscript><img src="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/25423/2023/eeb9b97ca9.jpg" alt="The superior Snapback Slim 2.0" /></noscript><img class="thumb-image" src="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/25423/2023/eeb9b97ca9.jpg" data-image="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/25423/2023/eeb9b97ca9.jpg" data-image-dimensions="1280x1280" data-image-focal-point="0.5,0.5" alt="The superior Snapback Slim 2.0" data-load="false" data-image-id="5399d680e4b0a25f5a3e0b9d" data-type="image" />
                
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                  <noscript><img src="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/25423/2023/22f6dc16f0.jpg" alt="The new Snapback Slim slash logo embossed on the elastic" /></noscript><img class="thumb-image" src="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/25423/2023/22f6dc16f0.jpg" data-image="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/25423/2023/22f6dc16f0.jpg" data-image-dimensions="2500x1875" data-image-focal-point="0.5,0.5" alt="The new Snapback Slim slash logo embossed on the elastic" data-load="false" data-image-id="53991188e4b07a79ffe432d3" data-type="image" />
                
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    First things first: the second revision of this wallet feels much, much stronger (yes, stronger -- when you're using a material like elastic for a wallet, you want it to feel as far from shoddy as it can get). This obviously sturdier build quality to the entire wallet gives me the impression that Nick may have even started from scratch with the design. The material feels denser and tougher than before by an order of magnitude. Perhaps this feel is best exemplified in the new snap band (the outer elastic strip intended for holding your cash and other items separate from your cards). The band hugs the entire wallet like a terrified child to his parent. Oddly, it does this so well that it was a pain to load the wallet for the first time because I idiotically kept the snap band wrapped around the body of the wallet. So a word of advice: don't load the wallet with the band around it -- you'll struggle.

    Once I had the wallet loaded, everything felt perfect. My most used cards, positioned on the easily extractable inner sides of the wallet, smoothly slipped in and out. The snap band felt more than adept with just a few small bills, and I have to imagine that confident elasticity won’t diminish any time soon. In short, this 2.0 version of the Snapback Slim fixes the original problem around the looser snap band.

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    So, how about that inseam? Happy to say that the gluttonously present stitching in the previous version has been positively refined. While it still sits at the far edge of the main inner compartment, it is more deftly stitched into a tighter wind that rests with the sides of your cards, not separating them as before. This is a notable change in how the wallet operates with several cards installed — whereas it used to fan out at one end (like the thick side of an ax head), it now rests slimmer and more uniform. Again, version 2.0 addressed the only real annoyance I had with the original one.

    TL;DR But You’re Already This Far

    If you like slim wallets, and would like one with more than just a single compartment to dump everything into (ahem, Supr Slim wallet), you should back this smartly revised iteration of the Snapback Slim. If you have the original Snapback Slim, you’re probably still fine using it. It’s like an iPhone 5s to an iPhone 5 model comparison. Either way, it’s a minimal, slick little wallet that holds cards and cash very well. And it’s priced quite right, especially at the early bird specials. You can find the Snapback Slim 2.0 right here on Kickstarter.

    If you’re interested in reading my original impressions of the Snapback Slim 1.0, here’s the review.


    Full disclosure: I received an advance build of the Snapback Slim 2.0 ahead of the Kickstarter project launch, so I’m reviewing a 99% completed version of the product. The logo placement in my photos is slightly unjustified in the center of the snap band, but the final builds — as you can see in the Kickstarter project — are perfectly aligned. And as always, I’m keeping my impressions honest.


    Canadiano Coffee Maker Review

    A recent gift from the brother and sister-in-law prompted me to write a review about it. The Canadiano coffee maker, made in Canada (obviously) and apparently by some loony designers, is one of the more curious pour-over coffee makers I’ve used. Wrought entirely from wood (except for the stainless steel filter cone at its epicenter), the Canadiano promises to assume the flavors of a continually used coffee bean over time. I expect such absorption to enhance future pours, a feat that glass and ceramic vessels simply can’t match. Since I usually stick to similarly roasted beans, it may be good practice to rotate in and out of using the Canadiano depending on the origin of the beans that Tonx drops at my door. (Edit: I now use Yes Plz, the spiritual successory to Tonx, as Tonx was purchased by them in recent years).

    Canadiano Coffee Maker (boxed) Canadiano Coffee Maker (boxed, rear)

    After having unpacked the coffee maker (which was tucked into a thin, paper box with stencil cut-outs for the logo), and cleaning it with recommended soap and water, I proceeded to “season” the vessel per the single-page manual’s instructions. This procedure involved:

    • Coarsely grinding some coffee beans
    • Boiling water
    • Tossing the grounds into the bowl of the device
    • Setting the Canadiano atop a mug
    • Pouring the heated water atop while stirring it about.

    It suggests using whatever amount of water you prefer (I usually stick to a 1:16 coffee to water ratio, but it didn’t matter much since all I was doing was seasoning it during this run-through). The basic idea behind seasoning, especially during the first use, is to clean out any additional sawdust that might have lingered in the inner bowl, as well as jumpstart the wood’s absorption of coffee flavor.

    Post-seasoning, I dried out the Canadiano whilst setting about 250g of water to boil back on the stovetop. I went about grinding the recommended two tablespoons of beans into a coarse ground (right at the 18th notch on my Baratza), and continuously stirred while pouring over the water. For coffee, I used) Tonx’s latest release, the Gigante from Huila, Colombia. According to Tonx, I was to expect “a delicate combination of raspberry and bing cherry flavors, with sweet notes of molasses, and a floral, minty finish.” Such nuances are never regularly met since my nose and taste buds are terrible at detecting anything short of a habanero pepper (or maybe that’s because I ate stomach-rending roasted habanero wings at Jake Melnick’s last night), so I didn’t know what to expect from the taste of coffee, especially from a new brewer. (To be fair, Tonx’s releases are usually amazing, but I’m undoubtably at the sub-pretentious level of tasting skill.)

    Canadiano Coffee Maker (unboxed) Canadiano Coffee Maker Bottom Filter

    I had prepared a few shots of espresso from this release during the past week, and they had been delicious as expected, but I definitely noted the delivery from the Canadiano to favor a woody, nuttier taste than I remembered from the previous instances. This isn’t surprising coming from a coffee maker made entirely from well-oiled wood, and I love when coffee delivers a nutty taste. I’m not sure how much influence the wood has over the the beans, but my guess is it will bond much better with continued use. In this regard, the Canadiano is unlike anything else on the market, especially when compared to other pour-overs like the V60 and Chemex.

    There are other long-term benefits from using the Canadiano aside from the inheritance of coffee taste:

    • Canadiano has a metal filter instead of paper, which means a reduction in waste and expenses over the paper filters typically needed for the Chemex and AeroPress
    • Minimal footprint (it’s a simple wood slab, easily packable and storable)
    • It isn’t as fragile or prone to accidental breakage like glass brewers
    • Cleaning it is easy — the few times I’ve used it, I just ran hot water into the bowl and poured out the remainder of grounds after banging it a few times over a trash bin
    Canadiano's Stainless Steel Filter

    Canadiano offers a few different models of the coffee brewer, and there is a noticeable difference between the two main types: Raw and “not Raw” editions. The raw editions require some additional maintenance after each use; the company recommends applying the Canadiano Conditioning Oil regularly (every 3-4 months), depending on use. According to the company’s site, this “Conditioning Oil is a self-drying natural oil that keeps your Canadiano in a stable condition. The editions will develop cracks if not maintained and cared for properly.” My model isn’t a raw model, so thankfully I don’t need to concern myself with maintaining the integrity of the wood, but for those that do, it’s one extra little thing to do. Not a big deal.

    Overall, the Canadiano is a fun, untraditional pour-over experience. I really like the wood build, and coffee grounds look lovely pooled in the bowl when brewing. The 3-5 minute steep time is perfect (about the same range as a Chemex), and clean-up is simple. As I continue to use it, I’ll come back and update this review. The goal is to use the Canadiano with single-origin coffee (so the next Colombia batch from Tonx is getting full-time duty with the Canadiano). Recommended if you’re up for a change in pace from your usual tools, and want to experiment with the unique potential of wood binding flavor over time to enhance the coffee brewing experience.

    Coffee Grounds in Canadiano Coffee Maker

    NYT Now App Review

    From a Casual News Observer

    Journalism and news have had a rough decade. Everyone has seemingly struggled under the transition to the web (even though it's been more than a decade since news has moved into the digital era). Traditional newspaper institutions have gone in one direction or another, typically involving either a paywall method of siphoning off free article visits after a limitation (like Financial Times and the New York Times) or a free method backed exclusively by advertising (like USA Today). Other niche news sites backed by paid subscriptions have attempted to rise out of the darkness (like NSFWCorp), but have been beaten down by low member numbers or acquisitions (like NSFWCorp's buyout from PandoDaily). News companies' great battle for relevance with loyal readership, subscribers, and attention squares them off against the violent waves of SEO, blogs, social media, and "free news elsewhere."

    So what strategy will work now? How can these institutions survive in the modern era?

    The New York Times, which has experimented in a number of ways with its subscription services across traditional paper delivery and digital accessibility, have recently released a new product called NYT Now that might be the best solution yet. At first, I wasn't sold on their pitch:

    NYT Now includes the top stories from The New York Times, handpicked and summarized by our editors.

    The product is basically a selection of the top NYT articles (and continuing stories) of the day, along with another section handled by their editors that "curates a feed of the most talked-about stories from other sources, so you’ll never miss out on what’s interesting." And that's exactly what it is. The kicker is that they're charging $8/month for this, and it primarily exists as an iPhone app. As a bit of a bonus, if you're an NYT Now subscriber and log in to the nytimes.com website, it will feature small green diamonds next to articles that you may read for free (otherwise you're stuck with the same limitations of non-subscribers -- 10 articles/month).

    When you read that summary, it sounds like a bizarre product. Yet another curation app of articles around the Internet? Another news app with the focus of summarizing important news of the day? And yet another subscription offering from the New York Times that's even more puzzling and confusing than their current crop of options (weird pairings like Tablet + Website only)? If I already was at a loss of understanding their convoluted digital vs. traditional strategy, this seemed to be horribly ill-advised direction to take.

    But I was wrong. NYT Now is actually fantastic.

    Okay, So Why is it Fantastic?

    Keeping up with the news has always been a laborious exercise if you're a casual observer. I've subscribed and unsubscribed to a number of different news-oriented periodicals over the last decade -- The Economist, The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Wallstreet Journal, and Monocle -- hoping that one would stick as my go-to for world and potlical news (typically the stuff I don't follow in my highly customed RSS feedreading or Twitter stream). I also have used and tried a number of apps that attempt to bring you the top news from across the world and Web, including Circa (still the best example of this) and the Quartz morning briefing. While I enjoy the journalistic integrity, detailed stories, and birds-eye view that so many of these purvey, nothing has really stuck with me as part of a daily or weekly exercise in reading (except Monocle's brilliant monthly designs). But there's still an appeal to receive and understand news, even though it's hard to keep up with.

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    So why does another potentially divisive app do it better than anything else out there? The Atlantic's assessment of NYT Now sums it up best:

    Keeping up with the news is exhausting. NYT Now proposes that the best way to stay on top of the flood isn't a wily and undulating Facebook or Twitter feed. It's a single, holistic, ongoing news package, that tells readers what they want to know and nothing more—unless they specifically want to dive deeper.

    There's also a bit of friendly personalization involved. When you wake up for your morning briefing, the NYT Now app greets with you a "Good Morning", the temperature outside, and an easy bulleted list of the things to recap from yesterday and watch out for today. Again around 6pm your local time, there is a "Good Evening" briefing to cap off the day. It's like getting a presidential briefing doc from your secretary. It feels awesome. And nothing beats professionally-written bullet points and headlines to guide you through the mess of a constantly updating news site's home page. The experience with NYT Now feels better than anything before it.

    You may be wondering about the limitations in articles for free viewing on nytimes.com. Yes, it's true, you don't get to access every article they publish. Originally, I thought this would be an issue -- sucks I'm paying for a partial subscription to the entire NYT package. Well, after a good week of NYT Now use, I can tell you it isn't an issue at all. Who has time for all these articles anyway? When I was subscribed to the NYT, I feel like I only read some of the top stories anyway, and then entertained myself with Film, Travel, and Science articles when one sounded worth reading. Same gist here -- while it's hard to navigate to sections of the newspaper in-app (note: you can't), it's easy to find the top stories in these sections on nytimes.com. And more than likely, the top couple stories from that section are available for NYT Now subscribers. So instead of wading through a whole section for the probable best article, you'll just get easy, visible access to it. And if you really want to read that off-beat "36 hours in Tokyo" article, you can use one of your free 10 article credits per month.

    As a convenience, if you scroll upon an article you'd like to delve into later, you can send it to a Saved section (one of the three main streaming views in the app). This area operates as a sort of Instapaper for reading saved articles at your preferred time. It syncs with your NYT account (which you must create or log into with your NYT Now app subscription), so anything you save for later reading on nytimes.com also shows up here. If you want, you can also send articles to your favorite read later app (like Instapaper or Pocket) via the iOS share panel -- these services can be reached via a forwarded email of the article, and from my tests, it seems to work just fine.

    In Summary

    Since downloading the app on launch day, I've habitually noticed I've been tapping it open more than Twitter and Circa these days to see the latest headlines and follow their curated stream of hand-picked articles around the web. Sure, I'm likely doing this because it's still a new experience, but I'm also enjoying it because their stream often includes bits from everyone -- especially outside my highly biased, highly curated RSS feeds. You need a break from the same kind of stories, and NYT Now has been (and promises to continue to be) an easily accessible vacation.

    You can download the NYT Now app here and try it for free for a month. Subscriptions are handled via iTunes, so you aren't handing over private information to the NYT and you can easily cancel without having to call a 1800 number (like you traditionally do for a regular subscription.


    In the Name of Unread

    Last week saw the release of a beautiful new RSS feed reader, Unread, from Jared Sinclair. After reading through some initial reviews from the usual suspects (MacStories, 512 Pixels, Building Twenty), it was clear that this was likely the best way to read articles and stories captured in RSS.

    Michael Anderson sums up the gist of Unread quite succinctly:

    Hype prior to the release pitched Unread somewhere between sliced bread and the wheel on the spectrum of good ideas. In reality it’s a solid, capable app with a few nice touches, some recurrent frustrations and an air of superiority.

    There was one problem: ever since Google Reader died a slow, shitty death, I chose NewsBlur over all other upstart RSS services to resume my pitiful, undesirable RSS habit. It is (and has been) a fantastic service -- if you want something that is truly granular in settings and power-user functionality, it's the bomb. But one thing that has severely dragged it down is its API's use in other apps. Hardly anything supports NewsBlur outside of its native apps (ReadKit is a rare example on the Mac). Not that this has been a make it or break it issue -- the native NewsBlur apps are fantastically designed and super fast -- but I get the jealous bug when apps like Unread and Mr. Reader have support deficiences with my RSS service of choice.

    So I rashly decided to act an idiot and picked up a FeedWrangler subscription and downloaded Unread immediately.

    Good thing I don't regret it.

    While I'll always appreciate NewsBlur, Unread and FeedWrangler have really helped me with the weird RSS-reading habits I've developed over the years. Instead of seeing all the unread counts by folder or by feed, FeedWrangler requires you to either dump everything into one massive unread (or all articles) stream, or organize by "smart streams", which basically amount to curated lists of feeds and/or pulling specific keyword content into a single stream. This in itself was a huge change from my aforementioned way of digging through all the content refreshing day-to-day, but the use of Unread had shifted the actual content read and the method of reading it.

    Unread's opinionated design wants you to slowly, conscientiously read articles (something I typically have used Instapaper, a read later service, for in the past). Its use of font, color, and lack of distractions (aka, toolbars, back buttons, menus) permits the user a vacation from briskly blowing through articles like the Slayer on a good night. (Yeah, I've been watching too much Buffy.)

    So how does one transition from subscribing to nearly 100 feeds into a relaxed method of reading? Unsubscribing from daily bloat is a good start. I went on a feed diet, striking off several sites that published way too frequently (10-15 articles a day is manageable only if you're breezing through the headlines). I didn't want to breeze through anymore. I wanted the time spent reading my feeds -- let's just call them articles at this point -- to be well-spent. The sites that I threw into NewsBlur were just there in case I wanted to rifle through the latest food trends on Chicago Eater, or reference work crap on Search Engine Land. I was using NewsBlur incorrectly, according to the Unread/FeedWrangler mantra; I was, in a sense, using it as a bookmarking tool. Luckily, I had collected a lot of these sites into folders, and two of them -- Core and Important -- housed the sites that I most frequently read. Nixing several other less important folders, and rearranging sites within them, made the transition quite easy.

    While it's only been a few days and a weekend, the cleanse has lowered my annoyance and anxiety with reading articles en masse, and has made it much more joyful to sift through the most important authors' writings on a daily basis. Like anything in life, sometimes you have to do some spring cleaning to feel relief from clutter. And damn, has Unread made that worthwhile.


    The Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition Review


    LogBlog App Review

    Every day, billions of human beings poop -- unless, of course, you're this guy (apparently). As most of us know, there are few things more self-deprecating than dragging your ass into a stall, dropping your pants, and letting loose a day's worth of stool. If you happen to take light of this awkward situation, you might find it -- of all things -- humorous. I count myself among those that do, and as I expected, so, too, does a whole community of folks on the social network called LogBlog. So come along for a journey through the Willy Wonka design of a poop enthusiast's wet dream. You'll be surprised to find a first-class app that offers a very fine experience far from what I'd call a turd.

    The Chicago-based Janitor, Ltd.'s freshman app, LogBlog, is what happens when you have an adolescent appetite for sharing those private memories of spending time by yourself, secluded from the outside world, in a stall or bathroom somewhere, anywhere -- at home, at the office, at a restaurant, in an airport, at school, in an outhouse. Doesn't really matter -- what does matter is that you have an irresistible desire to share with the world that you just took a shit and it was a glorious affair.

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    The app is well designed. It merely requires you to use an email, pick a clever username, and set password to sign-up. If you desire, you may sync with your Twitter and/or Facebook account to discover other friends on the network (and add your avatar image). Alas, there isn't a way to customize your avatar image other than selecting from the app's pre-established icons or syncing with one of those two social accounts. I'm sure this is a deliberate decision made by the developers -- they tend to keep the interface classy.

    Navigation is straightforward, sharing several similar design principles between Twitter and Instagram. The first tab features your personal Roll, a recounting of all the times you've recording pooping in the past. Think of it as a vanity reference to show off to friends and family.

    Next is the Public log, which as you can guess, is a refreshable feed of the entire community. It reminds me of Twitter in the early days when they actually let you just stare at the firehose of activity across the world. Only LogBlog isn't quite the same size of Twitter (at least not yet), and so this feed is actually readable. And it's fantastic. You get to unroll some really inspired usernames as well (2stainz, RunsDMC, and FiberMoves are my favorites).

    A third tab, titled Me, is more or less your profile section. Settings can be edited (notifications, invite/follow other users, share activity on social networks, edit accounts, and support), historical posts can be viewed, and information about followers and those you follow can be viewed.

    Finally, the fourth tab, News, is like the Following/News tab in Instagram, showing you the latest external activity (other people's liking of or comments on your posts) and your own activity (your posts, comments, and likes).

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    There is no feature bloat here -- most everything has its role and place within the app's structure. If anything, there may be too many ways to view your own roll -- perhaps this app could be even leaner and refrain from keeping the Roll tab at all (but I do love that icon). And the ability to post is omnipresent from tab to tab: there is a pretty, teal "flush" icon in the upper-right corner of every screen. Yep, that leads to the compose screen to flush away a post. You can only share text posts, as I'm sure the restraint of permitting images is to keep with the clean approach the developers have taken. (And don't forget to add a colon tag and keep it under 222 characters in length.)

    As the "#1 app for #2 news," I'd go so far as to say that, sure, LogBlog could be interpreted as a self-serving mecca for poop enthusiasts to share their most sacred moments, but it also is a harrowing critique of the social networking industry and its participants. We're an unabashedly conceited society who share everything we do and like and want that we might as well have a whole social network dedicated to those magical times on the toilet. Bravo, Janitor, Ltd.

    Grab It & Get Poopin'

    LogBlog is available on the App Store for a mere dollar. Don't be a pussy -- just fucking buy this. It's what Twitter and Facebook should have done all along -- charge for service. Keep it classy. And think -- several hundred people have already dropped their spare change on an app to discuss their turds. The greatest mistake (or perhaps classiest gesture) Janitor, Ltd. made was resisting the marketing narcissism of pricing their app at $2.

    And once you've downloaded it, you can find and follow me on LogBlog with username CustersLastCrap, where I recount the historical movements of Commander George Armstrong Custer with much-needed reporting of his often-overlooked moments in the Montana mountains, relieving himself of several days' build up in excrement.

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    Snapback Slim Wallet Impressions & Review

    Here we are, back to wallets. Another minimal, thin, elastic-binding money dumpster. The Snapback Slim. There are nearly as many wallet projects on Kickstarter1 as there are accessories for iOS devices. And this is probably a good thing. Look what Google Reader's death did to the RSS services market -- we have more options than you can add feeds to. But not everyone uses an RSS reader; everyone I know uses a wallet.

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    While I respect the mission for a slimmer, more minimal wallet (I did, after all, review Supr's Slim wallet), I was at first apprehensive with Nick Augeri's approach to the same market of minimized, "hardly-anything-there" design. He was kind enough to send me his wallet for early testing and impressions, and I happily gave it a try. After having spent more than half a year with Supr's Slim, I certainly have a similar product with which to compare.

    Snapback Slim's Design

    The Supr Slim was ordinarily designed (it's a stitched piece of eslastic with an "X" branded onto it), so it's welcome to see that the Snapback Slim has more panache. The Floridian creator calls it a "slim wallet [that] can handle your cards, cash and receipts", and as you can imagine, it'll hold all those items with the added benefit of separating them -- something the Slim and other cards-only wallets can't do. I know, it's like going backwards to go forwards with wallet design, but bear with me. From just looking at it, you'll notice the Snapback's biggest improvement in design over Supr's simple elastic body is the colored strap attached to its side for wrapping around the wallet itself (measuring 2.5cm in width against the entire wallet's 5cm x 8.5cm size). This, strangely enough, is exactly what I found the design of Supr's needed after a few months of use, especially after having seen the recently successful Kickstarter project for Capsule. And so I did actually modify it with a Field Notes rubber band, which separates my cash and creates friction for any wannabe Apollo Robbins pickpocket. While the Snapback Slim's money band doesn't offer any friction, it does add a useful feature to the political problem of separation between money and card. Its wide strap grips enough surface area to hold contents tightly, regardless of how many cards you have in the main hold. It even doubles as a connected wristband or loop (for a keychain or bag). This is fantastic.

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    The only slight annoyance I have with the design of the Snapback Slim's design is the inseam of the elastic band. Whereas Supr slyly hid it by splitting and situating it in the middle of the body, Snackback Slim positioned it on its side. In loading the wallet with cards, the creator calls it a "safety tab," but I'd regard it as more of a misplaced stub. Once you have a couple cards inside the wallet it isn't much of a problem, although I have found its placement causes a bit of resistance extracting and depositing a card on the side that the safety tab rests. If anything, I recommend using the clean side to keep your most used card.

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    Initial Impressions in Daily Use

    I've only just begun to use the Snapback Slim Wallet, so of course I'll update this review in a few months to weigh in on the longer term durability of its build, but as of now, the wallet's elastic material feels crisply taut, sturdily adhering to any number of cards you load into it. It also feels strong enough to reassure against any uncertainty regarding sewing quality. And the product is manufactured in the USA. Hurrah.

    While material is important, my bigger concern with elastic-band wallets is the lack of reinforcement for stored items. While I haven't sat awkwardly or violently enough to irrevocably bend my cards, it's still a possibility with any of these kinds of wallets. If you wear it in your front pocket, of course, there are no worries about this (just this). The elastic used for this wallet seems durable, but I'm no materials expert. My other elastic wallet has lasted in perfectly good shape for over seven months, and still flexes perfectly with the number of items held -- the most negative aspect of slim, leather-bound wallets. Perhaps the only risk of bending or crippling your cards is if you only pack one or two in there -- with at least four or five, the wallet as a whole seems more than sturdy enough to ward against mishaps.

    Using the additional colored band to store loose cash has been more than helpful. I only ever have a single bill or two at a time (until I break that twenty with a cup of coffee), and so my time with the Snapback Slim has mostly been with a $20 bill and a couple singles, all folded together into fourths. This method tucks the bills neatly under the colored band and they sit flush with the height of the wallet itself. It looks neato.

    The Kickstarter Project

    There are few things I appreciate about the way Nick Augeri set up his Kickstarter project for the Snapback Slim.

    1. Prototypes
    2. Detailed production schedule post-project success with risks and challenges
    3. Pricing and reward tiers are practical and efficient

    Tracing the history of a product’s development helps put the final product into context. The creator shares how the wallet evolved from an iteration with a much smaller, secondary elastic band, to several versions of a thicker, wider one. It’s a good thing he went with wider, because the Field Notes rubberband I jerry-rigged on my other wallet is way too small to securely hold cash without it flopping about. It also appears that he had tested out different material lengths, likely testing the elasticity of having a different number of cards inside. With this kind of backstory, the Snapback Slim’s quality is reinforced to prospective investors.

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    Likewise, providing a comprehensive post-project schedule of how he plans on handling production and delivery gauges the complexity of the product, the thought and resources behind manufacturers, and risks associated therein. There have been several Kickstarter projects that stumbled after enormously successful investment runs, and Nick Augeri acknowledges that he has established a close relationship with his manufacturer to assure a speedy run of the now-completed and tested product. I know Kickstarter requires a delivery date for submission of any project, so at least he’s kind enough to warn against a few weeks’ delay if indeed there is a higher quantity ordered than hedged against.

    Finally, the pricing and reward tiers are straightforward. You’re investing in a product line, not a series of distractions (for both you and the creator). I’ve never been swayed to invest in a higher tier to spend an evening at a fancy dinner with the creator, or to wear a t-shirt that says I backed a project, or to don a few branded stickers on my notebook. I’m investing in your product because I want to see that product line successfully manufactured and sold, along with owning one myself. Snapback Slim’s sane four options for investment should be the standard moving forward.

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    Elasticity in the Year of Wallets

    Does the Snapback Slim set itself apart? I won't hold back from comparing it to Supr's Slim wallet or the British elastic wallet, Flip, but I'll do so in a progressive way: the Snapback Slim evolves minimized wallet design with the addition of a functional colored strap, improving the thinnest wallet you can own. If that appeals to you, it's an obvious choice to invest in the project on Kickstarter. I wish the best for the Snapback Slim -- it'll round out the Year of Wallets quite well.

    You can view and fund the Kickstarter project, or follow the company's updates on Twitter


    1. Okay, I actually counted. There are more iOS accessories, but there are over 90 wallets that are either currently running as projects or were successfully funded in the past year and a half.


    Pret's American Grapefruit Juice: A Notable Review

    Have I completely lost my mind? A review of a grapefruit juice from Pret a Manger, of all places? No. I haven't. Even the lowly, everyday juice deserves a moment in the spotlight. And today, that juice is Pret's American Grapefruit Juice, an all-natural, preservative-free celebration of summertime.

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    I've consistently stopped into Pret a few times a week since it opened at the base of our building complex last year. The coffee isn't half bad, the yogurts are great in the morning, and the lines are way more welcome than the intolerable ones at Starbucks next door. They also have a nearly monotone outfit of juices for purchase: honey tangerine juice, lemonade, orange juice, orange & pineapple juice, and, what we've come here for, grapefruit juice. When I say to the friendliest manager this side of your industry job fantasy, "just the juice, here", he says: "that'll be $3.30, please". This guy, whoever he is, runs an amazing check-out experience, always jumping in to ring folks when the other clerks are overwhelmed by a rush of customers. And he always thanks you, wishes you a good day, and welcomes you back the next.

    So I've got this grapefruit juice in my hands, avoiding the outside world on a steamy 84-degree day, ready to march back upstairs and sit at my desk and type more stuff on the computer and do this and do that while trying to savor this delicate reminder of childhood under a warm, tender sun. And then I think about all those breakfasts and afternoon snacks where my mother prepared her two sons' grapefruit bowls the only way I'll ever know: halved with each half's fruit segments lightly propped out of their uterine cavities, membrane-free with a dash of powdered sugar.

    Does Pret's grapefruit juice always send me down memory lane? Probably not. But shake that bottle well and you, too, will be tugged back to a cheery memory at least once. Few things other than a really good IPA could beat the strikingly tart and pulpy thirty-sip seranade of Pret's American Grapefruit Juice nirvana on a hot day (even if I wasn't ever outside). I know, it's 100% pure Florida grapefruit juice, so it's really just the product of a damn good juicing machine with a competent driver, but pure juice can be brilliantly rich, and in my mind, this one definitely fills a hole in my stomach.

    Is Pret's masterpiece the juice-making apogee of all human sweat, blood, and agony? I can't say for certain, but I will admit it's a pretty good 430 mL plastic bottle of GFJ. Seeing as how it's 100% juice (and "nothing else"), pulp to juice ratio is the game to play here. There is a low-level of grapefruit pulp that gracefully clumps together at the bottom fifth of an unshaken bottle. Once shaken (note: shake carefully, the zip-tops have been known to weep sticky leakage from aggressive forearms), the pulp disperses evenly and stays put. If you like a little fruit flesh in your juice, you'll like this. If you despise anything floating around in your liquids, stay away. (Pret neglects to mention the presence of pulp anywhere on the bottle, an unfortunately poor and unfriendly design decision, so this is your warning, trepid buyer.) Regardless, the pulp isn't overwhelming, the tartness of the grapefruit feels like a 7 on a scale of 10, and the volume (14.5 fl oz if you didn't convert earlier) is just enough to hold you back until your next meal.

    What have we learned today? Grapefruit juice is a good choice of beverage, especially in the summer, and especially as a stand-alone snack at mid-day. Pret's take on the classic (which, let me remind you, is just pure juice) is an overwhelmingly intelligent choice. You may wonder -- my, there are a lot of juices and beverages to choose from at 3:00pm on any given day, so why grapefruit? Besides it simply tasting better than other, lesser reincarnations of citrus fruits, grapefruit has gnarly benefits as a vessel for orally-taken drugs -- like alcohol. What? Yeah. Not only is the juice great for you (a delicious source of vitamin C, A, B complex, E, and K), but according to a Group of Canadian researchers, grapefruit juice interferes with an enzyme that "metabolizes many drugs, and toxins as well, into substances that are less potent or more easily excreted." So if you want to tastefully disguise a few shots of vodka or gin with that bottle of grapefruit juice, you'll likely get the funnies before 5:00.

    Find your nearest Pret a Manger and enjoy.


    Kairo - A Minimalist Exercise in Puzzle Gaming

    Grainy, misty monolithic landmasses hovering in a field of white. Ethereal music droning like a waterfall sucked into the vacuum of space. You're alone. You don't know who you are, or where you are. The only gameplay prompt is another island of stone in the distance. Your movements are limited. There is no narrative, no introduction, and no weapon.

    This is how the computer and iOS game, Kairo, begins.

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    Game developer Locked Door Puzzle (run by Richard Perrin in London) cunningly forges stark, minimalist canvases upon which sounds, music, and visuals coerce you to apply a haunting narrative. It's a game you experience on your own, justifying what you see around you with your imagination until some carefully planted cue suggests otherwise. Very few gaming experiences permit you to draw upon blank environments to summon your own narrative -- not even the “anti-game” Dear Esther does this, for its insufferable narrator blathers throughout the experience. Kairo offers no clear answers. One area, for instance, encourages you to slowly trot along a winding, concrete stairwell that hovers ominously amid black infinite. While you continue downward (although why you'd want to do this is somwhat suspect, seeing as how it is just floating there in total darkness...), you hear a broken radio frequency flicker beneath the bellowing sounds of Wounds’ impressive, glacial soundtrack. You soon realize the radio is emanating from a white obelisk, splintering through the black sky. You can't make out the transmission, and you don't see any discernable antenna, so nothing of meaning can be derived from this. You aren't certain if you should stay there a while longer to see if the transmission clears, or if you ought to continue forward (obviously, you have to continue forward). But there is never a sense of urgency in Kairo -- it is a place out of time, out of context.

    Where narrative reinforcement may be missing, moving through and exploring the world of Kairo is stunning with rich -- if, in actuality, stark -- world-building. Soon after the first minor puzzle of the game, you proceed along a bridge that tapers off into darkness. As you move across it, bracing for some ghastly surprise, the scarce sound effects dim as great pillars slice through the underground sky and bury their endpoints into the unseen ground. This effect implies your movement across the bridge is actively morphing the landscape, bringing structure to the bridge as you proceed to the other side. It's a beautifully scripted sequence -- the kind of thing that burrows in your consciousness and creeps back out in dreams. Furthermore, soundscapes and environmental elements are oftentimes mystically disconnected to your expectations that add to the game’s intrigue. At one point, I found myself entering a room with what sounded like a waterfall echoing along stone somewhere around the bend in a corridor. Upon turning and entering the cavern of this sound's origin, the environment betrayed my expectation of water. Instead, I found a high stone edifice with cascading rectangular sheets. As an experience that builds upon its foundation of simple geometric designs, I continued to enjoy these optical-audial tricks.

    At its heart, Kairo is a first-person puzzle game. As the game progresses, you pass through several puzzles, none of which are game-breakingly obtuse like the classic series Myst (for which I absolutely needed the hand-holding of a game guide). With the suggestion of mechanics involved in Kairo’s strange world, I began to understand the world it presented to me as some kind of infrastructure for awaking... Something. Sparks spill out from an illuminating panel high above my field of view, tiles on the ground “ding” with life as I pass over them, movable lanterns active beams of energy when positioned just right -- these operational components kept me interested. So only after meandering through the first leg of puzzles does the game begin to reveal itself, and as you complete them, the game continues to quench your thirst for answers. (It also helps that the completion animations and sound verifications for completing these puzzles is very self-aggrandizing -- so of course that makes you feel good).

    If you're at all interested in puzzle games, Kairo is a terrific experience. But it really shines as a game stripped down to its essence, allowing the player to move freely and unburdened with excessive gameplay baggage. The visuals, the sounds, and the music -- as bare as they are -- help you imagine and place your importance in this world. Perhaps it's best to understand the game behind the name's meaning -- likely derived from the Greek word kairos, which implies "the right, opportune moment". In the word's context of time, Kairo is a theater designed for the player to perform an action at the right time to initaite something special. On a high level, every game designed is like this, but in Kairo's world, you believe you're really contributing to something grand, something that, in the end, may reward your efforts in bringing meaning to it.


    Gaslight Coffee Roasters

    Gaslight Coffee Roasters is the latest entrant near Milwaukee Ave in Logan Square, the street that is slowly becoming a coffee mecca for Chicago. I finally got around to visiting it on a dreary Sunday in January, right around the time the weather decided to shit both snow and sleet intermittently on my walk up Humboldt Blvd. Thankfully, Gaslight sits comfortably at Fullerton and Milwaukee, so the sticky ice didn’t have long to cling unwanted atop my mop of hair.

    iphone-(null)-0.jpg

    Seated at this pointed corner of the intersection permits Gaslight to receive a welcome bloom of natural light along its wall of glass. This draws you into the open, breathable spacing of tables and coffee bar — enough to detract you from mistaking the place for a prohibition-era speakeasy. Gaslight’s stark, brick-on-wood aesthetic with sparingly hung taxidermy reinforces a notion of both minimalism and straight business -- the baristas here aren't screwing around, and neither is their coffee. Without the slightest whiff of pretentious1 bullshit (leave that to Cafe Mustache, a stone's throw south), the staff bustles behind the horseshoe-shaped coffee bar: ringing at the iPad register, scurrying to-go cups to commuters, channeling the Strada espresso machine, measuring freshly roasted beans into brown bags, shuttling plates of charcuterie, holstering readily accessible smiles. You get it. And all the while they bustle, crooning tunes waft over the place from an LP spinner in the far corner.

    But let's not get distracted. I came here to buy beans. Freshly roasted beans. For the last few months, I'd been getting my fill from Tonx (specialty roasters with an online-only business that ships out bi-weekly, single origin beans to subscribers), but I was right on the edge of my next shipment, so I needed a fix. Zak Rye (former Metropolis roaster) and Tristan Coulter's new coffee shop seemed like a good enough answer. And so I took the bait.

    All of Gaslight's beans are roasted in the back of the space, and come from a few different origins: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Rwanda. Not sure if these will rotate throughout the year, but as of January 2013, this is it. The rear roasting space is appararently communal, as the beans also get used by Wormhole, which is located much father down Milwaukee just south of North Ave in Wicker Park. I like Wormhole, and I already dig the new Gaslight. Let's support these local players with a purchase, shall we?

    You pay $15 for a 12oz bag. This is standard fare for anything above the oily shit Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts stuff into retail packaging. It's even less expensive than the slightly inflated Tonx, so I have no problem paying this for locally roasted beans. To reinforce buyer's satisfaction, the packaging is beautifully done up in brown paper, sealed with an office-grade paper binder, and decorated with an insignia-pressed wax badge.2

    Fighting the elements back home, I fired up the kettle with 340g of water and coarse-ground 25g of the newly acquired Guatemalan coffee. Figured the best way to try this new batch was with a pour-over method (in this case a Chemex), so that's exactly how I did it.

    And it was delicious.

    Since my nose is always stuffy, I can't rightly claim to detect the nuances of flavor like some self-aggrandizing connoisseur, but of what I could discern: pleasant hints of nut and wood, neither of which took a backseat to an unsuspecting cocoa veil. This is really good coffee, such that I could easily live off this for my evening cup. I'll no doubt return to Gaslight Coffee Roasters on more occasion than this (and ideally in less deplorable weather). And if you know what’s good for you, your health, your metabolism, your libido, and your sanity, you'll do the same.


    1. Aren't too pretentious, either. As stated in an interview with the owners on DailyCandy, Zak reinforces this notion: "We’ll do whatever customers want: pour over, siphon, cowboy coffee. You want a shot of espresso in a bowl of soup? Done." If only they served soup.
    2. I suppose at this point I should share one last thing about presentation -- they wrap scarves around their Chemex beakers (or perhaps these are beakers topped with V60s, I can't rightly say). Quite pointless, aside from probably keeping the brewed coffee a degree warmer during the cold months. Gaslight takes presentation and detail seriously, and so we must commend their efforts.

    Supr Slim Wallet Review

    The Minimal Wallet that Gets it Right

    Twenty-twelve seems to have been the year of minimalism across lifestyles, products, and software -- wallets notwithstanding. As one of the holy carrying trifecta for men (phone and keys being the other two, natch), the wallet holds the necessary things for buying and identifying. In an increasing modern world where cash is carried less and less, designers have moved towards minimizing the grossly over-sized everyday carry to accommodate only the necessaries. Supr's Slim Kickstarter project was one such endeavor.

    Supr pitched their Slim wallet with a goal of $10,000 for production assistance. Their manifesto:

    We believe that all you really need in your wallet are your essential cards. Supr Slim was created with this in mind - to be a super-thin, card-carrying over-achiever.

    Six thousand, two hundred and thirty-seven backers later, Supr exploded that goal by reaching $203,488. Obviously there is a market for this kind of thing.

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    Based on Supr's project, the qualifications for a minimal, slim wallet seem to be the following:

    • Ability to hold 5-10 credit card-sized items
    • Ability to hold cash, but likely only a few bills folded into thirds
    • Adds very little additional weight, girth to the items you carry
    • Ableness to move easily through RFID scanners (office buildings, public transportation)
    • Durability of materials
    • Built in the USA

    Build

    The Supr Slim wallet is minimally built for its minimal purpose. Its body is comprised of durable elastic band, designed to stretch and wrap around its contents, but smart enough to unwind tightly to adjust to the load. They claim (and I can attest to with previous wallets) that leather materials stretch to accommodate larger loads, but do not gracefully shrink back when you remove a card or two. This leaves an undesirable gap between cards and their thresholds. The Supr Slim wallet solves this [possibly] critical predicement: it "will never stretch out or lose its ability to grip your cards". Since we are just talking about a nice piece of elastic stiched together to holds things in, it should measure up to these expansion/deflation expectations.

    Build quality that touts these features, including manufacture in the USA, should excell. After only a week of use, the Super Slim does seem to have durability, though it's too early to say how long a piece of elastic fabric will last. The hand-stiched "X" is also of suspect quality. According to their updates, mid-way through production:

    "We lost our embroidery team who had been doing all the hand-stitching of our X detail. As a consequence, we experienced a bit of a slowdown in production for the past couple weeks as a new team is being trained. One of the lessons for us throughout this process has been how difficult it is to find skilled people to perform this kind of fine handwork here in the USA at this scale."

    This kind of thing is bound to happen, and it's not the embroidery team I'm worried about -- it's simply the durability of a very simple X with four piercings through the elastic. It is the one unique identifying detail about the wallet, and I doubt it will withstand the daily use of a wallet from tight pockets and varying fabrics. (Though it could be argued that the wallet becomes more minimal by losing such an embellishment.) And lastly, the elastic surface does tend to attract small pocket stuffs, like lint. I may notice more often than most because my elastic color is a dark navy, but this would never happen with leather material. Go figure.

    Use

    I'd grown accostomed to carrying around a simple card wallet for over several years, so I knew what to expect with something like the Supr Slim wallet's sleeve design. You squeeze some cards in, maybe a folded bill, and that's it. The trick is positioning frequently used cards on the outer ends of the interior "stack" so that they are easily to pull out. These are typically my CTA (public transportation) pass 1 and my ID. This layout may change with the Supr Slim wallet, but the point is it's actually a bit difficult to get to some of those cards in the middle of the stack. The Supr Slim wallet doesn't make this any easier -- in fact, it creates more difficulty than the Saddleback Wallet Sleeve I'd previously been using. The Saddleback has a finger-cut bottom for pushing up the cards vertically (the design is vertical whereas the Supr Slim is horizontal) and easily sifting through the tight stack, Supr's has a rather thick, 2mm stitched binding at the bottom of the elastic bay. If you want to get something out of the stack, you're going to have to pull everything out, or pick at it with your fingernails.

    When empty, the wallet is surprisingly smaller than the size of a credit card -- this is obviously by design, but it actually adds a bit of friction during use. Since the elastic bay is smaller than its typical contents, when you are depositing and withdrawing cards, it takes a bit more time to get the stack back inside than a typical card wallet made of credit-card sized leather.

    Overall, however, it's functional -- but not necessarily utilitarian for everyday use. Of the positives: it has a very small footprint in your pocket, adds little to no weight to the items you use it for, and works exceptionally well with RFID scanners. It isn't so great, however, when it comes to the elastic material holding cash, packing more than 6 cards, and easily accessing cards in the middle of the stack. After a few more weeks, I'd probably get a quick system down for extracting cards in the middle of the stack, so the last point might be moot. And since I've only given it a test run of a week, I can't speak to its long-term durability, but I'll likely update this review at the 6-month mark with results.

    Competition

    Supr certainly wasn't the first out of the gate for a product filling these qualifications. Several other great brands have designed slim, sturdy little card-carrying wallets that work just great. Granted, you could take any product designed to carry business cards and call it a slim wallet, but these are exemplar of what we're talking about with Supr's project.

    A few examples:

    While I haven't tried the Gus, the other two operate as advertised. I found the Slimmy wallet to actually be a bit thicker than the Saddleback because of its three-panel design, but the separated sections do help with organization. Saddleback's is made of amazingly durable real leather, but it's just a glorified card case, so you'll have to pull out everything to get cards in the middle of the "stack". Both work with my office building's security gates, but fail to properly work with my public transportation's stalls (CTA). Either leather must not help with the RFID scanners they employ, or my office building's stronger card interferes.

    The Experience of Kickstarting

    I've kickstarted several projects, a few of which have been hardware. As with most Kickstarter projects, there were a few delays in getting the wallet into production and finalized for shipment, but I received mine three and a half months after the project was funded. This is one of the better turnarounds for hardware funded through Kickstarter (the Pen Type-A, for instance, was notoriously late to ship -- 6-10 months after the estimate). As noted, designers claimed there were issues with stitching their little "X" on the front of the wallets, an explanation I'm fine with. But as an investor in a product, like most of these Kickstarter things go, I'm entitled to know what's going on -- challenges, solutions, and requests for input. Luckily, the Supr team did a fairly good job with all this, and the experience funding this particular project has been notably good:

    • Backers received frequent enough updates that didn't inundate our inboxes with unnecessary banter
    • Updates often came with well-designed photo cards with a splash of typography, giving the whole process a stylized methodology
    • Production was smartly planned, and for the most part, proceeded without any derailments (aside from the aforementioned loss of their embroidery team) 2

    In summary: the Supr Slim wallet is a nice piece of stitched elastic that happens to conform nicely with credit cards. That's it. And that's all it's suppose to be. So call it minimal, or call it dumb. If you like removing all the excess from your pockets and your life, you'll probably like the Supr Slim wallet.

    You can sign up for a notification for when it is available at the Supr Good store.


    Updated - June 2013

    2013-03-19

    It's been a few months since I wrote this review of the Supr Slim wallet. To call it a review is somewhat dishonest -- it operated as more of a one week impression of using the product. Now that I've been using the wallet daily, I can provide a much better interpretation of how it operates in the real world and holds up as an object.

    The Supr Slim wallet has surprised me in its usability. It really is the slimmest thing you can buy to keep your credit cards (or business cards) somewhat protected from the elements. I tried going back to my Saddleback wallet for a few days on a trip back to Minnesota and as slim as it is, it felt thicker and heavier than what I'd grown accustomed to with the Supr Slim. Definitely wasn't expecting that -- it's so awesomely lightweight, you forget it's in your pocket.

    The quality concerns I had, while not unfounded, have proved moot. The stitched 'X' remains in tact with the slightest of threading (eventually this will fuzz up or get snagged on something), remaining visually intact. The elastic material has held up perfectly fine, too, and I can presume will do so for quite some time. As thin as it is, it still feels sturdy and tight, and adjusts dandily to my set of six cards.

    Overall, I still recommend it for the minimalist wallet carrier.


    1. For some reason the RFID reader for the CTA can't pierce through my Saddleback wallet, so I have to scoot the card out a little in order to successfully pass through the turnstyle.

    2. As of this writing, they have only shipped the black and navy wallets, while backers of other colors still wait. Whether this was planned or not, I can't recall.


    Updated - July 2014

    2014-07-11

    Here we are, over a year since the last update. I've still been using the Supr Slim wallet frequently (more so than other wallets, aside from the few months of trying a new one for a review), and it has held up remarkably well. Still perfectly functioning, still in great shape. A few notable observations (with a new photo below):

    • The "x" stitching is still fully intact (and hasn't ripped or broke)
    • The elastic is still super sturdy and hasn't lost a bit of grip/tightness
    • The only issue I've encountered is the unraveling of a very small elastic lining in one of the bottom-corners of the wallet. Wear and tear, most likely, and it hasn't affectly anything. Only worry is accidentally aggravating this by pulling it out -- it could unravel the integrity of the bottom enclosure.

    Otherwise, I still recommend the hell out of this wallet.

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    Also refer to my review of the Snapback Slim Wallet, a simliar elastic-bound wallet with an additional strap to hold cash and receipts. It's also been updated with a version 2.0 with very notable improvements.

      

    Dishonored: Honoring the Genre Looking Glass Studio Built

    Long dismissed as mere entertainment (as most mediums, like literature and film were in their own eras), games have manifested into the pinnacle of all art forms: they are the culmination of story telling, dialogue, cinematography, animation, sound design, musical scoring, voice acting, hardware interaction -- even mathematics. Because of this, a breadth of genres exist more so than in any other medium. Over the last several decades, these genres have mutated and blended into one another, spawning new directions based on the maturity of the medium, improvements in hardware, and the ambitions of project scope.

    One such genre I was exposed to back in the mid-late 1990s has since become my favorite. It's one of the few genres I care to take interest in anymore, so when games of this type are released -- which is, unfortunately, far rarer than its fans would like -- it's a momentous occasion. Luckily, 2012 has seen Dishonored released, an exemplary title for the genre.

    Built from the heritage of exploration/interactive fiction/choose-your-method game series like Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock, Half-Life, and Bioshock, Dishonored plays like a tightly crafted love letter to the game studio (and contributors) that started it all: Looking Glass Studio.

    The Genre Traits

    To glean the most insight into this genre, it's important to start with the efforts and innovations of Looking Glass Studios. The game studio had a prolific ten-year life during which it cranked out memorable, immensely influential titles until its unraveling in 2000 when parent company Eidos Interactive had to pull back on spending. Luckily, many of the great contributors moved into other shops, including Ion Storm, Valve, Irrational Games, and Arkane Studios. These folks (including game designers Warren Spector, Ken Levine, Seamus Blackley, Harvey Smith) have woven their influence over titles that have stood the course of twenty years' technological progression. And their inventive gameplay mechanics continue to seep into modern games -- Dishonored included (from Arkane Studios).

    Their earliest works -- Ultima Underworld II and System Shock-- broke new ground for role-playing gameplay rendered in the first-person perspective)). Remember, back in the early 1990s (when these two were released), American PC gamers played RPGs from a "top-down" isometric view (an angled, bird's-eye perspective of miniature characters on-screen); first-person perspectives were reserved for the shooter genre (like id Studio's Doom). Ultima Underworld II and System Shock defied the assumptions behind this type of perspective. The first-person perspective, of course, permits an immersion into the gaming environment that no other point of view can yield. And immersion is one of the critical components to this genre. Tom Bissel's essay, Looking at the Uncertain Fate of Single Player Narrative Videogames Like Arkane Studies' Dishonored, explains the kind of immersion I'm talking about:

    Game design that allows the player’s decisions not only to bypass but actually foreclose important narrative or gameplay beats isn't just a way to make the player feel like he or she matters; it’s a way to make gameplay itself feel like something deeper, stranger, and more irrevocable than play.

    The releases of Thief: The Dark Project (1998), System Shock 2 (1999, co-developed by Irrational Games studio), and Deus Ex (2000, produced by Ion Storm) continued -- as well as improved -- this trend of immersive gaming. These games benefited from three critical components1:

    1. The inclusion of customization to character through inventories of items, weapons, and modifications (but with limitations to inventory storage capacity)
    2. Environmental narrative, whereby story is implied or shown through conversations/encounters with non-playable characters and world-building notes/books/audio/log devices dispersed through the games' areas (in a sense: direct and indirect world-building)
    3. Choices and paths of level/puzzle completion so that there is never truly one "best" way to complete a task, but many different routes that the game permits. Oftentimes certain choices made have a dramatic influence on how the game continues to unravel (in the same spirit of "choose-your-own-adventure")

    In the case of point #1, System Shock 2 employed an interesting training concept that slowly segues you into the world by having you choose and qualify in a career at the "interstellar space organization" of the game world before on-boarding you to the setting on which the remainder of the game plays. These career choices (of which you may only choose one) specifies your skills, weaponry, and/or psionic powers -- in a sense, informing the context of your play style.

    Likewise in System Shock 2 for point #2, as the player moves throughout the areas of the game world, the discovery (by choice, of course) of audio logs hosted in small computational devices (eerily like the modern tablet) and ghostly apparitions (yes, it's a bit of a mutation of role-playing and horror genres) reveal rich narrative, slowly building on the backstory of what happened to the two space ships and bringing the player closer to the reality of the mysterious person communicating and guiding you throughout.

    Thief and Deus Ex are good examples for point #3. Both games offer areas of play that present environmental and narrative puzzles that the player may address in a number of different ways. In Thief, for instance, you play as a stealth-based character (as the title implies) who moves through environments to the chorus of a light indicator -- if you're in a well-lit area, you can be seen by enemies; if you're in the shadows, you can move unnoticed. So when you're presented with infiltrating a well-guarded mansion to steal a valuable item from the owner's safe, you can either sneak up behind the guards' on their patrol routes, knock them out, and hide their bodies; or, you may wander around the back of the mansion, shoot a rope arrow2 near the balcony and grapple in without harming anyone. (Or, if you're inclining towards role-playing the homicidal type, you can kill everybody.)

    Arkane's Take on the Genre

    A few games that have trickled out in the past several years that continue this legacy include Half-Life 2, Bioshock (spiritual successor to System Shock), and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Dishonored -- the most recent title in this blended genre -- reminds me most of the inventiveness of Thief and Bioshock. One-part stealth game (as an option, of course), and all-parts customizable character, the game has so many wonderful design successes that it's hard to be critical towards it. The game is, unfortunately, far from perfect, but its play mechanics far outshine the blemishes.

    The game satisfies each of the three main components of the Looking Glass Studio genre. You're presented with an established character within the game world (Corvo Attano, lord protector of the Empress), and after a fatal incident that triggers the main story arc of the game, you're on your way to becoming a supernatural assassin. (You may argue that bestowing nonsensical powers upon the playable character is an effort by the game developers to satisfy every "wouldn't it be cool" urge they had while producing the game, but this worked to excellent extent in Bioshock and System Shock, and since this is a videogame, it fits perfectly into the aspirational fulfillment of the medium.)

    As the player, you're presented with several ability and weapon choices. Abilities include passive forms, such as an increase in health, agility, and/or adrenaline; or, they may include active forms, such as an enhanced vision for seeing through walls, possession of other life forms, and teleportation of short distances. The active abilities present very unique gameplay opportunities, and the blink ability specifically (which allowing short bursts of teleportation horizontally or vertically) really opens up the playable environments. I quickly upgraded this ability to move slightly farther early in the game, and enjoyed the reachability of roofs, crawling along pipes that hugged building walls, and drop-assassinating from above. The developers allow you to upgrade any ability at any time in the game -- a testament to the game's flexible environment design. Often games prevent you from affording or acquiring certain abilities until late in the game, but you're free to use whichever ones whenever you want.3 The ability choices build successfully upon themselves throughout the acts of the game, rewarding investments in different types depending on the situation. It's also neat that the acts become much more vertical later in the game, and even if you don't invest in upgrading the blink ability (teleporting), for instance, you still can navigate these heights with other options (like possessing a rat and scurrying through air ducts, a whimsical nod to Deus Ex's endless air duct sneaking).

    Narrative is handled through several different methods: non-player character (NPC) interactions (required or otherwise), notes/letters/books/materials scattered throughout the acts' environments, rides with Samuel (the boatman who segues you from finished act to hub to next act), and the Heart, which is by far the most unique. A couple notable games in this genre employ a sort of sidekick narrator that is assisting you throughout parts of the game, communicating through an audio device (Atlas in Bioshock, Janice Polito in System Shock). The Heart is a bit different -- it's an object you may use, but is entirely optional. It can be used in a number of ways:

    1. To identify and home in on a rune's hidden location in an act
    2. To guide you to an act's objective
    3. To extrapolate information and backstory on buildings, areas, and people

    Unlike other games, the Heart isn't necessarily stringing you along to different objectives within the game; instead, you're choosing to unearth information about the world around you to either better understand it or assist you in making decisions. I've debated whether or not to knock out a guard or assassinate him on a number of occasions, and by learning his backstory through the Heart, it's much easier to choose how to handle him. It's details like these that improve the immersion element of playing the game as a morally-conscious character instead of an apathetic one.

    Finally, the game environments are designed for multiple paths and access points to completing any given objective. Need to enter a building? Think Thief or Deus Ex, but with several more methods of infiltration with all the abilities from which to choose. And as with moral decision-making like assassination vs. non-violence, your choices have a direct effect on the changing environments and narrative of the game. The city of Dunwall, which is the game's over-arching environment, is slowly being overrun with a plague seemingly catapulted by a rat infestation. Rats attack the living in destructive packs, and feast on the dead whenever a corpse is exposed. By setting this stage early in the game, you feel slightly duped into thinking you'll play the game as a relentless, revenge-seeking assassin; rather, you must now make choices about how you want to play out the game. More corpses mean more rats, more plague, more violence. Fewer deaths (or none at all) could mean a more peaceful playing environment (and, subsequently, game world).

    As of this writing, the next game to build on this heritage is Irrational Games' Bioshock Infinite, set for release in early 2013. Though it is not directly related to the other two games in the Bioshock series, it is thematically and spiritually related -- much in the same way that Bioshock is related to System Shock 2. How this genre will continue to improve and transform in the future is anyone's guess, but the current crop of games are moving in a promising direction whilst retaining what made the original Looking Glass Studio games so fascinating: a sense of discovery, wonderment, and reward through gameplay and narrative.


    1. There is a fourth consistency between several of their games that few other games in different genres have. Perhaps it's just coincidence, perchance it's thematic -- but each of Looking Glass Studios' main narrative games come with some form of betrayal. At some point in these games you're lead to believe you're accomplishing or moving towards a goal when *you*, as the player, are taken off-guard and betrayed. One of the most memorable gaming moments I've had is the System Shock 2 betrayal. It was so well-orchestrated, so well-conceived that the way it was done lead me to believe -- for one brief, dramatic moment -- there was a glitch in the game. Goes to show the power of video game narrative and the immersion inherent in the medium's version of a "plot twist".

    2. Rope arrows: once loosed from your bow, these arrows home in on a penetrable surface and a rope drops for you to climb.

    3. Granted, you must find and accumulate "rune" objects hidden around the gameplay environments, but these are relatively easy to find and the purchase price of an ability is always reasonable.


    Dredd 3D: A Film Review (Really)

    Though it should be obvious to the intrepid filmgoer, pretentiousness should be avoided when enjoying motion pictures (and reading literature). So often can one be abhorrently judgmental to the tastes of mainstream audiences that your enjoyment of well-crafted entertainment can be compromised. Such is the case for Pete Travis's excellent film, Dredd 3D. It's one of those films you could so easily dismiss by glancing at its emblematic poster for presumably mindless action. But you'd be doing your movie night a disservice with such premature judgement. You see, as hard as is it to imagine, every once and a while an action movie miraculously sneaks through Hollywood unblemished. And here we have one that is savage, comic, and unabashedly strutting in B-movie glory. It shines with future-smacking dissolution and hard-boiled totalitarianism mockery.

    So, does it matter what the film is about? Likely not, but the plot isn’t half bad. Narcotic gangsters of a broken future American city - one in which 800 million people live in the ironic sanctuary of a megalopolis, barring exit to the grand post-apocalyptic wasteland -- trap two of the film's law enforcement agents inside an immense, towering residential complex. The place is like a decaying, hell-spawn version of a futuristic Mall of America. It is here that the stage is set for our heroes to evade annihilation by every malevolent being in the building. The heroes of this grim world are heavy-leather garbed law enforcement agents equipped with an all-in-one super pistol. No need for elaboration on the costumes or weaponry, because it doesn't matter. It just works. (Lucas, take note, you fool.) Their hard-lined perspective on world order is enough to garner the backing of the audience, I presume. I mean, they operate as judge, jury, and executioner -- what's not to like?

    Dialogue is spartan, and holy shit does it feel perfect in its minimal fulfillment for this kind of action flick. The sets and characters inhabiting the world are also top-notch -- they function just right, whereby we can unobtrusively understand the complications of this future populace, the buckling of an over-saturated city, the poverty, the crime, the instability. Whether it's being prophetic or cheeky, it doesn't matter; it's fluid world building that doesn't get in the way of the narrative, and doesn't digress into any political shenanigans.

    The film speeds along to a crunching soundtrack and competently-executed scenes. This is important: here's an action film that finally isn't shot with maddening quarter-second cuts and drunken hand-held camera men. You have no idea just how relieving this is in 2012.

    Now, what could be potentially off-putting is that Dredd’s viewing is required in 3D. At first, this is an annoyance, especially when I've long held to the opinion that 3D is the bane of this new era in moviemaking. But Dredd 3D follows in the footsteps of Prometheus whereby the extra dimensionality is smartly employed. It is actually better used in Dredd 3D -- almost, dare I say, to the brilliance of Wizard of Oz's use of color 73 years ago -- through the film world's inventive drug, "slow-mo" (with which its users experience life at one percent speed). When the drug is used in the film, color saturation and details intensify on the screen in ultra-slow motion (my guess is they used the Phantom camera and shot at 1,000+ frames per second). Travis cleverly uses these opportunities for grand action sequences, ones that end in bloody splashes of rainbow-blasted brutality. Only with 3D do you feel the extra punctuality of the scenes, so much so that watching it without glasses would be a disservice to the film’s integrity.

    I would call Dredd 3D a film with self-actualization: it is completely conscious of itself but never stands still to explain itself to the audience. It just keeps moving. And so it's enormously enjoyable as an action-blockbuster that requires very little thinking but plenty of genre appreciation. Perhaps the film is so enjoyable because we forget how nice it is to watch something like this; it’s been so long since we've have a fun spectacle that isn't stupid that we welcome it heartily, no questions asked. So: see it.