Events

The time a Drobo lost over 30,000 of my photos and videos

The following is an account of what happened to me in late 2012, when two of my Drobo units malfunctioned and corrupted or erased over 30,000 of my photos and videos, rendering them either completely unusable or making them vanish into digital ether.

I have been a Drobo customer since late 2007, when I bought my first USB Drobo. I was glad to take advantage of the new storage possibilities it offered. Since then, I’ve bought one or two Firewire Drobos, two Drobo 5Ns and a Drobo 5D. After relying on my Drobos for several years, I experienced catastrophic data corruption on both of my Drobos at the time (a USB Drobo and a Firewire Drobo). That incident still haunts me to this day.

If you look through my past posts about the Drobo, you’ll see that I wrote about them and I defended them (speaking from my own experience at the time) when others said, among other things, that they “can’t be relied upon” and they often turn into “bricks” or lose people’s data. From my own experience, I had only good things to say about them. They hadn’t failed me for years, I hadn’t yet lost any data from them, the support was great and their design is beautiful. They are a pleasure to use when they work. Until recently, few things in hardware got me more excited than buying a new, bigger hard drive for my Drobo and sticking it in, then watching the capacity gauge show the new, larger volume and hearing it start to sync the data to the new drive…

Which brings me neatly right to the crux of the problem. I had bought a new 3TB hard drive for my Firewire Drobo and stuck it in, replacing an existing 2TB drive. The data sync had gone on for close to 30 hours and was getting close to completion (the Dashboard software was telling me there were only 5-6 hours left). All of a sudden, a red light next to the new 3TB hard drive went off. Before I had a chance to assess the situation, the Drobo crashed and rebooted. I thought, okay, it’s resetting itself and will begin to work once more. I waited for the reboot to complete, only to discover, to my dismay, that it rebooted again… and again… and again… During those brief moments when it was up, the red light switched places, moving from the 3TB hard drive to one of the existing 2TB hard drives. This wasn’t good. I decided to shut it off completely and unplug it. I filed a ticket with Drobo Support and waited.

This horrific experience came after I experienced catastrophic data loss on my USB Drobo just a couple of days earlier. That Drobo was and had been plugged into a surge protector (unlike my Firewire Drobo, which had been plugged into a UPS). The electricity had been cut off and when it came back up, the USB Drobo wouldn’t mount to the desktop. No big deal, I thought. The electricity had gone off before and when the Drobo wouldn’t mount, I would run Disk Utility on it and fix it right up. That’s what I did this time, only Disk Utility couldn’t repair it. Oh boy… I filed a ticket with Drobo Support. They told me they couldn’t help and that I should buy Disk Warrior or send it to a data recovery firm. I called the firm to get a quote, which they said would be anywhere from $1,200 to $7,900, depending on how much data they recovered. They told me that realistically, it would cost at least $4,000 if they recovered any data at all, and that it’s difficult to get the data off a corrupt Drobo volume, because of their complicated storage algorithms. They said it’s much easier with traditional RAID systems.

So I bought Disk Warrior and tried my luck. It was able to mount the Drobo temporarily, but couldn’t fix it. The error it gave me was that Disk Utility had messed up the catalog file when it tried to fix it and they couldn’t recreate it. I called their Tech Support and one of their technicians stayed on the phone with me for over an hour. We did a Screen Sharing session in iChat, where he kept running scans on the volume and checking the diagnostic files. Same result. Couldn’t be fixed. He suggested I get whatever data I could get off it directly through the Disk Warrior’s Preview feature. I started to copy off the data and got about 70GB off (onto the Firewire Drobo) which hadn’t crashed yet. Then the USB Drobo decided to call it quits and became completely unusable.

Out of over 3TB of data, I was able to salvage temporarily about 70GB. I lost the rest: over 15 years of personal and family information, photos, personal videos, letters, our movie collection (which I had painstakingly digitized and edited from VHS tapes and TV recordings over several years), our cartoon collection (also painstakingly digitized and edited from VHS tapes and TV over several years, and which I was looking forward to watching with our unborn baby — my wife was pregnant at the time; our daughter is now almost six years old) and other various files.

I decided not to send the Drobo to data recovery because the price to recover the data would have been higher than the price to buy all of the movies and cartoons on DVD once more, and because I don’t feel comfortable with other people rifling through my personal files. I didn’t know how much they’d be able to recover, if anything, and I consoled myself with the notion that at least my Firewire Drobo was still fine and I had my work files (my photo library of over 100,000 photos, the footage and FCP and iMovie events and projects from our shows (Romania Through Their Eyes and Ligia’s Kitchen), various other personal and published videos, etc. — basically, my creative work over the past 6-7 years.

Then, my Firewire Drobo went AWOL. As mentioned above, I filed a ticket with Drobo Support and waited to see what they would say. Their advice: buy Data Rescue 3 and run it on the 2TB drive that showed up with a red light next to it. Apparently the drive went bad during the data sync for the new 3TB drive. With Data Rescue 3, I could in theory clone it, then insert the cloned drive into the Drobo and recover my data. Well, I couldn’t clone the whole drive. I tried it a couple of times, but whenever the head came to a certain point on the platters, the drive would disconnect itself from the computer. So I did a reverse clone (where the cloning process begins at the end, not the start of the drive) to try and recover the rest of the data after the bad section on the drive. After that completed and with the blessing of Drobo Support, I called that a “best try” clone, stuck the new drive into the Drobo, put it in Read Only Mode and through Data Rescue 3, began to copy off my data.

Things looked good at the time. The software seemed to see all my files and although the copying process was slow, I had access to my data, which was the important thing. After 4-5 days of data retrieval, I was done and at Drobo Support’s advice, I reset the Drobo and formatted a new volume onto it, then began to copy my data back onto it. It was deemed healthy once again and I was sent a new power supply. I’m still not sure why the new power supply was needed, but alright.

After all my data was back onto the newly formatted Firewire Drobo, I began to access it. Only then did I discover data corruption at the file level. Photos, precious memories which I’d trusted my Drobo to keep were now forever lost. Photos of when I met Ligia (my wife), photos from the wedding, from our first years together… they’re gone now. Videos have turned into audio files (the video track can no longer be seen by video players or video editing programs. Just from the year 2007, I lost well over 17,000 photos (about 80% of them). The same percentage applied to the years 2000-2006, when I took less photos but lost the same proportion of files (about 80%). I still don’t know the exact number of photos I lost, but I estimate it to be well over 30,000. I still dread to open older video libraries in Final Cut Pro, because when I access my projects, I always find video clips that are either missing or completely unusable.

When I updated my ticket with Drobo Support to let them know about this, data recovery services were once more suggested. Now I’m not a data recovery expert, but after you’ve formatted a volume and written a LOT of data to it, doesn’t that make it harder, if not impossible, to get the old data back?

If you’d like to see what file-level corruption looks like, it’s not pretty. Here are a few screenshots. Those thumbnails are all I have left of photos I wanted to keep forever.

Let’s look at this thing from both sides.

The pros:

  • These two Drobos worked for five years, flawlessly;
  • My experience with Drobo Support was good from 2007 till 2012; even though the warranty had expired on both of these Drobos, they took up my cases and tried to help me;
  • I should have had my data backed in other places, I know, I know; That’s exactly what I as doing as the Drobos failed. I was reorganizing files and reshuffling my archives when it happened. If you were to ask me, as an IT professional, what I would recommend to others, it would have been the following: have the data in its primary location on a reliable and fast device, back it up to a server or NAS on the local network and also back it up offsite. I was caught in-between, with no access to my old backups and no proper backup plan in place. Crashplan, the offsite backup company I was using at the time, had been throttling my uploads to conserve their bandwidth, and the offsite backups hadn’t completed. If they hadn’t been actively engaged in throttling user uploads, as was their practice at the time, I could have recovered all my files.
  • Drobos are easy to use and allow one to consolidate their data on one volume that can keep growing and growing and growing with the addition of new drives — that part I always liked;
  • Even if one drive fails, the data’s still safe; I had that happen to me once in years past and yes, the data was fine — that part I also always liked;
  • I should have had the USB Drobo plugged into a UPS, just like the Firewire Drobo. Should have, would have, could have…

The cons:

  • Two catastrophic failures within one week… c’mon, this is ridiculous to say the least…
  • I had no idea you could lose all your data from the Drobo if the power went out, and that it would cost upwards of $5,000 to get it back. Ugh… if it costs so much to get the data back, Data Robotics should seriously consider doing what ioSafe has been doing from the start: offering Data Recovery Services standard with every one of their products.
  • Apparently the newer Drobo products, like the 5D, the Drobo Mini and the 5N, have a built-in battery that protects against power outages, so what happened with my USB Drobo won’t happen to them, theoretically. Well… if they knew about this, couldn’t they have put that battery/capacitor in the older Drobos as well? I sure wish they had taken every step possible to make sure any data placed on a Drobo stayed safe. After all, they’ve been saying for years that they “protect what matters”. Do they really?
  • Earlier this year, a friend of mine wrote to me telling me of his experience with his USB Drobo. It was the very same thing that happened to mine, minus the power outage. He would eject it from the desktop and unplug it from the outlet, thinking that was safe. It was, for a while, until he lost all his data. At the time, I thought he must have been doing something wrong. Until it happened to me. Is it just me, or do we not do the same with a regular external drive? Do we not eject it then turn it off? Does the electricity not go off sometimes, and even if the Drobo is plugged into a UPS, the electricity may be out for more than 10 minutes, meaning the UPS will also go down? And when the electricity comes back up, could we not also lose our data even though we did everything right?
  • I remember jokingly asking someone from Data Robotics in years past what would happen if a drive went bad right after you inserted a new one and the Drobo was still in Data Protection mode. Their response: not very likely that could happen. The Drobo would know that a drive was about to go bad and would give me warning. It’s quite apparent to me now that that’s not the way things work sometimes. Sometimes a drive does go bad during Data Protection and not only do you get no warning, you also get catastrophic data loss. Double whammy.
  • Someone from Drobo Sales happened to write to me to invite me to a webinar as I was in the throes of my data loss. I replied and told him of my troubles, and that was the last I heard from him. Was that the way to treat a long-time customer? An adequate response would have been “Hey, I’m really sorry about that. Are you getting the help you need from Tech Support? If not, do you want me to step in for you?”

This whole affair left me exhausted and completely disappointed. I wasted so much time trying to recover my data and my bearings. The experience has taught me a few things, one of them being the loss of my trust in Drobo. It is a beautiful little black box. It works great and you begin to rely on it more and more, till you can’t do without it; till you think it works so good your data’s going to be fine all the time. Then it fails and your data is gone.

If you’d like to know how I recovered some of my data, I wrote about it here. I also experienced another major data loss event with my Drobo 5D just last month, and that was after more data loss with my 5D in 2015 and 2017. Add to that ongoing file system corruption in one of my Drobo 5N units and the “Drobo data loss package” is complete. I don’t know, I must have unlocked some kind of secret data loss level-up in the data storage game…

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Thoughts

Where’s the Netflix Shelf?

The more movies and shows Ligia and I watch on Netflix, the more convinced we become that Netflix lacks a vital feature. We call it the Shelf. Where is it?

The Netflix Shelf would hold titles we’ve seen and loved. It would contain two collections: a smart collection, which would automatically bring together the titles we’ve rated 4 stars or higher), but more importantly a manual collection, where we could add titles we’d like to watch again in the feature — movies and shows we really love, perennial favorites if you will.

Within the Shelf, we could sort titles by genre, keywords, actor or director (using the metadata added by Netflix staff or metadata we could add ourselves).

There were so many occasions we saw a movie, loved it, wanted to store it somewhere so we could see it again in the future, but didn’t want to leave it in the queue, cluttering up the list of titles we still haven’t seen. There was and is no place for them yet, and that’s regrettable, because it’s a lost opportunity for Netflix to create customer goodwill at a time when they need it.

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Reviews

Nokia: from a bright past to a dim future?

A few months ago I bought a Nokia X3-02 “Touch and Type” cellphone, and I’m sorry to say that I’m disappointed with it. I’ve been gradually let down by it over time, and in the end, it’s just not what I’d hoped it would be. In the store, I was dazzled by its small, thin design (I love thin phones). I loved its metal shell as well. It felt the proper weight as it sat in my hand.

After I took it home, I started to see the defects. This was a brand new phone mind you, and already one of its clamshell latches (on the back) refused to close properly. And the more I used its touch screen, the less I liked it. I’m accustomed to working with quality touch devices like the ones on the iPod Touch, the iPad and the Magic Trackpad. The touch screen on the Nokia X3 is just not as good. It feels like a sad, cheap imitation of a great original.

Granted, this is Nokia’s first touch-and-type device, as they say in their intro video for the phone.

But they have other touch screen devices in their product line-up. They’ve had time to perfect their touch screens. Why launch a phone with an inferior touch screen?

Once you ask that question, then you have to ask a bunch of other questions as well:

  • Why are they using so many versions of their operating systems on their phones?
  • Can they come up with common design elements and aesthetics on their phones, to make them seem like they’re part of the same product line-up? Because right now, if you were to look across the whole Nokia line-up, you wouldn’t know all the phones are from the same company unless you looked at the logo.
  • Can they reduce their product line-up to something more manageable? Why have a gazillion phones? What’s the point of that? I understand the need for targeting products at various audiences and at different price points, but do you need tens/hundreds of phones to do that? Why not have at most 10 phones in the line-up?
  • Why launch the phones with lackluster features? As an example, the X3 has a 5 megapixel camera, but it’s a sad facsimile of the 5 megapixel camera on my old Nokia N95, which was launched in 2007. And there are less in-software options available on the phone, so it’s even harder to get better photos out of the camera. It also doesn’t have a flash.

Another thing I quickly discovered about the X3 is its annoying sleekness. Normally, a sleek phone is a good thing, but somehow, the X3 has the annoying characteristic of being very likely to slip out of your hand. You’re afraid to hold it by its top half, because you’ll press the on-screen buttons. You can’t hold it by its lower side, because that’s where the keypad is. So you hold it by the sides, but they’re rounded and thin, so the phone slips right out of your hand and falls to the ground. To its credit, it’s pretty sturdy and unless it’s going to fall on bare concrete, it’ll probably be fine, but the design was not well tested before it was launched.

Another problem which I discovered, and I’m not sure if this happens on just my phone or on all the Nokia X3 phones, is a software bug that lets the built-in @Mail application access the internet when the phone is on a WiFi connection, but will not let it access the internet over WAP or GPRS. I’ve sent the phone in for service and it remains to be seen what Nokia will do with it (if anything).

I can’t help comparing the phone with my Nokia N95, which as I mentioned above, was launched in 2007.

I bought it in 2008, brand new, unlocked, and have been using it ever since. I’ve used it, by my count, on four different mobile networks, one in the US and three in Romania. It worked just fine on all of them, did what it was supposed to do and it has served me well. I’ve recorded more video and shot more photos with it than I remember, and some of those videos and photos came out quite nicely. I still use it today, though it’s now my backup phone.

The N95 is Nokia at its best (for its time). It was compatible with a ton of cell networks, was even capable of 3G speeds, could use WiFi networks, had a 5 megapixel camera with a built-in flash, a ton of options for manipulating the photo software, recorded video at 640×480 resolution in stereo sound, it could play music and movies, it had Bluetooth, Infrared and USB 2.0 connections, it could use MicroSD cards, it had a second camera for video calls or video conferencing and best of all (for me) was the ability to sync it with my Mac using iSync and tether it to my MBP via Bluetooth.

The only things I didn’t like about the N95 were its operating system, which was (still is) a bit wonky, and the incredibly expensive apps (at the time) on the Nokia (now known as Ovi) Store.

Fast forward four years, and what has Nokia done since then? The software for their phones is still wonky and still looks the same, I’m still confused about where to find certain phone or system options when I look for them, their new phones still only have 5 megapixel cameras (some still sell with 2 megapixel cameras, like my wife’s new C3), most of their phones record almost unusable 3gp video with crappy sound (the X3 is a prime example) instead of mp4 or mov files, and I’m sure I could keep adding to this litany of complaints if I tried. Meanwhile, other phone manufacturers are doing unbelievable things with their phones.

One other thing comes to mind: Nokia Maps. In recent years, Nokia keeps advertising this app and the fact that their maps are free, but what they fail to mention is they’re not really usable. Sure, the maps are free. You can download them from the Nokia website at any time. But the maps are no good without an extra internet option on your phone’s monthly plan, and more importantly, you also have to pay extra in order to get the driving instructions (the voice guidance files and the step-by-step turns). So really, all the maps are good for is to give you general guidance about your whereabouts. But they won’t tell you how to get to your destination unless you pay more. Sure, you could futz around with your mobile phone, zoom in and out of the maps and eventually figure out how to get there, but that’s not going to be possible if you’re driving.

To be fair, I haven’t used today’s equivalent of the N95, which would be the N8 (or the E7). How much do you want to bet the Maps app has the same shortcomings on those devices as well? They’re supposed to be better. Unfortunately for them, they’re still using the Symbian OS, which from my experience is wonky and ill-organized, as mentioned above. I’ve heard Nokia plans to launch a new smartphone this year that uses a new and better OS. We’ll see how that works out.

There is a saving grace for Nokia though. Do you know what my favorite phone right now is? I’m using it and I love it. It’s the Nokia E63. Yes, I know it’s old, and it’s actually a hand-me-down phone (I bought it for my wife about 1 1/2 years ago), but I love it.

It’s got a surprising amount of options (if you keep digging through the OS screens). The camera is only 2 megapixels and the video camera only records at 320×240 pixels, but as far as the rest is concerned, it has the same options as my Nokia N95, and it has the incredible bonus of an actual keyboard. Of course, I can sync it to my Mac, just like the N95 (and unlike the X3, which still has no official sync plugin).

I never realized until now how useful an actual keyboard is on a phone. Sure, the virtual keyboard on an iPod Touch or iPhone is nice, but there’s something wonderful about pressing actual rounded buttons. I was so frustrated with buttoning on keypads and using predictive text (which sucks for anything other than simple messages). Now I can easily send emails and text messages from my phone at any time. It’s made my communication so much easier!

As a matter of fact, do you know what our current phone line-up is? It’s this: a Nokia E63, a Samsung Ch@t GT-C3222 and a Nokia C3. Notice something common across all of them? They all have keyboards. I think the Nokia keyboards are better designed. The buttons have rounded edges so it’s easier to press them. But there’s no mistaking the productivity gain from having an actual keyboard on a phone.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? The point is this: phones with keyboards are awesome. Nokia should focus on them. If they’ve got to use their kludgy old Symbian OS, then simplify it and put it on nice phones with nice keyboards and nice cameras. That will work well and won’t disappoint. And if Nokia’s bent on imitating Apple and putting touch screens on their phones, they should work on the quality of those touch screens. They should make sure they’re just as good or better than what Apple’s got. I know that’s a hard standard to beat, but if they shoot for that, they’ll probably end up with 80% of what Apple’s got in terms of touch screen functionality, and that’ll do just fine.

I’ll end on a final note, with a pet peeve of mine. If all these phones from Nokia have Nokia Maps and access geo satellites, why in the world aren’t they geotagging the photos I take with them? This has been bothering me ever since I bought the N95. It started as a nagging wish on the back burner, but now it’s a full blown pain in the derriere kind of thing. The iPhone’s doing it. Now consumer-grade digital cameras, cheap ones, come with built-in GPS chips. Here Nokia’s had this in their phones for 4 years or more, and they still haven’t bothered to do it right. It’s not even a hardware upgrade. It’s just a software upgrade that checks for an internet connection, goes out, gets the geo coordinates when the camera app is activated, and applies them to the photos. And if there’s no internet connection, then the photos don’t get geotagged. How hard can it be? Sadly, this is yet another example of Nokia’s inefficiency.

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Initial thoughts after installing OS X Lion

I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts about OS X Lion, having just installed it on my MacBook Pro. I looked forward to getting it for months, and as luck would have it, I happened to be out of town with little internet access when it was released on the 20th.

  • The upgrade was painless. I bought it from the App Store, it began to download, and when it was done, it ran and finished without any bugs.
  • Without a media disc of some sort, or at least an image file, I am somewhat concerned about a re-install of the OS, should I need to do a fresh install. I hear there’s going to be a Lion Flash Drive available for sale in a month or so, but short of paying for that as well, is there some way for me to burn Lion on a DVD or make a bootable flash drive?
  • Overall, I like it. The design is more refined. It feels like a more mature OS.
  • I like the full-screen functionality of the apps.
  • The login screen is interesting. It’s a departure from what we’ve seen thus far. I like it, but I’m not sure what to think about the round thumbnails for the accounts yet. I’m used to square thumbnails. Photos are rectangular. Square photos? They used to be en vogue in the late 1800s. But who knows, maybe those round thumbnails will grow on me.
  • I do wish iCloud were launched at the same time as OS X Lion. For example, I don’t know if I did something to cause this, but every time I start up Safari, it wants to log me into MobileMe, where I don’t have an account. (I only have a .Mac email address.) If iCloud had been available right now, this glitch wouldn’t have occurred, because .Mac and MobileMe would have been unified already. And I think more people are going to run into it as they poke around in the new OS.
  • The hidden scrollbars are great, but they’ve changed the direction of the scrolling, haven’t they? It’s counter-intuitive… and yet it’s not. You now push up with two fingers on the trackpad to scroll down, and pull down to scroll up. If you think about it, it makes sense, but it’s been the other way around until now, so it’ll take a while to get used to it.
  • I like Launchpad. I think it’s a visually appealing way to present a list of all the Apps on my Mac, and to allow me to easily choose which one I want to run.

A couple of pieces of advice before you upgrade:

  • Run Software Update to make sure you’ve got the very latest version of Snow Leopard and whatever other updates you need.
  • Run Time Machine to make sure all your stuff’s backed up, just in case something goes wrong.

For those who like this sort of thing (I do), I’ve included a couple of before and after screenshots of my “About This Mac” window.

Before the upgrade to OS X Lion

After the upgrade to OS X Lion

That’s it for now.

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A Guide To A Good Life

Shaving: art versus design versus profit

Where’s the art?

When I think of shaving razors currently on the market, I think of cartoon fights where everyone pulls out a bigger gun. Razor companies are constantly trying to outdo each other with more blades. If it’s not the blades, then it’s a “microcomb”, or a vibrating handle… which brings all sorts of other imagery to mind, the kind that has nothing to do with shaving, unless you’re into weird fetishes.

It’s the same kind of approach that software companies use these days. Their code gets so bloated, because they never take the time to clean it up, that all they can hope for is that hardware manufacturers can throw more RAM and MHz at the problem so they don’t have to optimize their code. Apple took a different approach with the Snow Leopard operating system: they took almost a year to clean it up, throwing out the junk. That’s why I admire Apple.

Made better through improved design? Not really.

On the other hand, companies like Gillette and their competitors lost sight of the art of shaving and figured everyone was a nitwit who couldn’t learn to shave properly and couldn’t take care of their razor, so they overdesigned their razors for the lowest common denominator. In the process, the razor became a plastic toy, not a tool, a crappy little thing you throw away instead of something you respect and maintain, because it keeps you looking civilized.

Designed for profit? Thank you sir, may I have another?

Because it became a throw-away toy, their profit margins increased. Because the razors no longer lasted a lifetime, they could sell more of them. You just look down the line of razor models from the Gillette over the years, and you’ll see they get more and more plasticky, with less metal parts. If they have metal in them, it’s not in the head (certainly not where the cartridges attach to the handle); that part needs to be plastic so it breaks after a while.

Don't let its flashy looks fool you. It just can't compare to a good safety razor.

The cartridges have started to cost more as well. A pack of eight cartridges for the Gillette Fusion ProGlide razor (the latest flashy gimmick from Gillette) runs about $30 at Amazon. That’s $3.75 per cartridge, and from my experience, they last about 3-4 shaves. By contrast, a pack of 60 assorted safety razor blades costs $18. That’s 30 cents per blade, and they last about 6-7 shaves. (By the way, I’d recommend that pack for those learning to shave with a safety razor, because it’ll let you try different brands to see which blades work best for your face.)

The real deal.

Wait, it gets worse

They also polluted the environment with all that disposable plastic crap. Now you throw away the razor, not just the blades. And the blades aren’t just steel, which is perfectly recyclable, but they’re plastic and metal, which is annoyingly difficult to recycle, because you need to separate the two materials from each other, and it’s just not worth the trouble.

It’s such a shame. I used to admire Gillette about 10 years ago, before I got disappointed with all the stuff they’re doing these days. I still shave with a classic Gillette Safety Razor, pictured below. I still keep my grandfather’s Gillette Heavy Duty Safety Razor, and plan to use that when my own breaks down. Things used to be simple and beautiful. Where did they go wrong?

The classic Gillette safety razor.

If you’d like to learn how to shave properly, check out my wet shaving guide. And there’s also a video, embedded below.

Image of ProGlide Razor courtesy of Gillette. Image of Merkur Heavy Duty Safety Razor courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Thoughts

It’s time to demand reliability from DSLR manufacturers

Update: After sending the camera in for service to a Canon authorized repair facility, it turns out I took somewhere between 75,000 – 100,000 shots with my 5D when the shutter mechanism failed. Still, most of what I wrote below is appropriate commentary on the whole situation. 

When DSLRs (and now HDSLRs) cost thousands of dollars, and the manufacturer makes a promise that the shutter in said DSLR is rated for 100,000 shots or 150,000 shots, I think it should no longer be a promise, but a guarantee, and the manufacturer ought to be responsible for the repair to a DSLR whose shutter failed before its rated number of shots.

Look at cars. Some cars cost little more than a top of the line DSLR, but cars have serious warranties. These days, some cars have 10-year warranties on everything. Historically speaking, even if most cars haven’t had good warranties on everything, they’ve had good warranties on the power train — on the basic stuff that makes them go.

On a DSLR, the shutter is part of the camera’s “powertrain”. Without it, the camera can’t take photographs, and a full-frame DSLR that can’t take photographs is a very expensive paperweight.

It’s high time we demanded that DSLR manufacturers come up with warranties for the more expensive DSLRs, where they’ll guarantee that the shutter and the motherboard (pretty much every part that takes photos and writes those photos to a card) will work for a certain amount of time.

If we don’t, we’ll likely run into the situation I’m in right now, where my Canon EOS 5D’s shutter started to fail at under 50,000 shots. Initially, photos taken at 1/6000 sec or higher (1/8000 sec) would come out black or almost black. Now, months later and at around 52,500 shots, even photos taken at 1/1000 sec are severely underexposed.

Have a look at three photos taken with the 5D. The first two were taken at 1/8000 sec shutter speed a couple of months ago, and the third was taken at 1/1000 sec shutter speed a few days ago.

It’s not right that the shutter has started to fail at half its projected life span of 100,000 shots. And what’s even more improper is Canon USA Support’s reply to me. They told me the shutter’s rated life is not a warranty, not even a promise, but an expectancy (an anticipation if you will).

What that means is they can advertise long shutter lives all they want, but they’re not accountable for actual, real-world results from its customers. It’s irresponsible, and it shouldn’t be allowed. When we pay thousands of dollars for a fancy DSLR, we as customers pay that money with certain expectations in mind. Those expectations entail (among others) a need for durability and reliability.

I propose that a set of benchmarks be set for the entire photography industry, where shutter life is one of the differentiating criteria. Processor and camera motherboard life should be another. Manufacturers would then have to offer warranties on these benchmark criteria. I propose 4 or 5-year warranties on the circuits, and on shutter life, the warranty should go as far as its stated life span. If it’s 100,000 shots, then by Noah, it should be 100,000 shots, end of story.

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Bring back POP3 for Gmail, Apple

Due to some file corruption issues, I’ve recently had to re-install Snow Leopard on my MBP. Afterward, as I set up Mail, I found out there was no way to configure my Gmail account for POP3 access. IMAP was the only choice. I searched for this on the internet, and it’s a confirmed “design” behavior in Snow Leopard.

I really dislike it when I’m told by someone else how to manage my digital stuff. I’m an IT professional, and I like the POP3 protocol. I don’t care if IMAP is better. I use IMAP on my iPod Touch or iPhone or iPad or Nokia N95, and for those, it works great. But all I want to do on my laptop/desktop is to download my emails via POP3 and archive them by year, then move them into long-term digital storage. (I have an email archive going back to 1996.)

I also want to keep the emails in my Gmail account, so I have them in two places, just in case. You can’t do that with IMAP. You drag an email onto a local folder, and it’s gone from the cloud. I also dislike the fact that IMAP stores a local cache of the cloud emails, eating up space on my hard drive.

Thankfully, I was able to use Time Machine to retrieve a previous version of the Mail Preference file, restored it, and I was back in business with POP3. But everyone who chooses to do a fresh install of Snow Leopard (not an upgrade) is out of luck if they want to use POP3 for Gmail.

Now along comes Apple and says I can’t use POP3 for Gmail anymore, because they don’t feel like including it as a config option in Snow Leopard’s Mail. That really bugs me. It’s not like it cost them anything to have it in there. The code for POP3 was written more than a decade ago. It’s a simple, light protocol (much simpler than IMAP).

Apple, why are you forcing me to do something I don’t want to do? If I like using Mail and POP3 works for me, why take it away? That’s rude. Work on improving the OS, and making it do more, but don’t take away something as basic and simple as POP3!

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Neat infographic about Walmart. See below:

  • Last year’s sales: $405 Billion.
  • Walton family’s net worth: $83.6 Billion, out of which they give 2% annually to charities. By contrast, Warren Buffett’s net worth is $47 Billion, and he gives 78% annually to charities.
  • It has 1,400,000 employees.
  • The average salary of a Walmart employee is $20,774/year. The annual salary of Walmart’s CEO is $19,200,000.
  • Walmart’s “Buy America” campaign showcased “Made in America” banners hanging over imported goods made in China and other countries.
  • Walmart imports over $30 billion in merchandise from China every year.

Walmart: The Stats
Via: Home Loans

The stats on Walmart

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Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro
Reviews

What happened to Sigma and FujiFilm DSLRs?

A few years ago, there were two companies which had some interesting opportunities ahead of them: Sigma with its revolutionary Foveon sensor and lens-making know-how, and FujiFilm with its remarkable Super CCD SR sensor and long-term experience with professional lens-making.

They didn’t stay on course. Sigma’s continued development of the sensor has been much too slow to keep up with the market, and FujiFilm seems to have dropped out of the DSLR game altogether.

Back in January of 2007, I wrote about the Sigma SD14, a camera I thought was revolutionary because of its capability of capturing every color (Red, Green or Blue) at every pixel, due to its layered Foveon sensor. This was something no other camera on the market had.

The megapixel game isn’t everything and I was willing to believe so in the case of the SD14. Its advertised resolution was 14 megapixels, but its true resolution was about 5 megapixels. That’s because each layer of its Foveon sensor (there are three layers, one for each color) only captured 5 megapixels. When you looked up the photos resolution in the EXIF data, it came out to 5 megapixels. When you zoomed in at 1:1, the photo still only covered a 5 megapixel area. People pointed out that you could safely increase the resolution of processed images to 12 or 14 megapixels and they would still have the quality you need but in my book, 5 megapixels is still 5 megapixels even if you can multiply it by 3 and get 14 megapixels.

Regardless of my disappointment with the camera’s real resolution, I still thought Sigma had a gorgeous sensor on their hands. The ability to capture color accurately at every pixel is something other sensor manufacturers only dream about. Their sensors don’t do that. Instead, they spread Red, Green and Blue pixels around the entire sensor area using a mathematical algorithm called Bayer interpolation, then they do some very serious calculations to de-mosaic the resulting image, make out the right colors, and give you as accurate a color reproduction as they can give you. The Foveon sensor didn’t have to do all that complicated stuff. Supposedly, it already knew which color belonged at each pixel, because it captured said color from the get-go. Wasn’t that an amazing capability?

Look what’s happened in the 3½ years since I wrote about the SD14… Sigma launched the SD15 only a few months ago, and guess what its resolution is? It’s the same 14 megapixels if you play their multiplication game or 5 megapixels if you go by the book. Sure, they upped the ISO sensitivity to 1600 from 800 (3200 in extended mode), which is okay, but the AF is slow and the max shutter speed is still only 1/4000 sec when other cameras in the same category offer 1/8000 sec. And there’s no video, HD or otherwise.

In case you aren’t already thinking it, let me sum it up for you: Sigma’s product offerings have fallen behind the times by at least a couple of years, if not more. Some might say they came out with the DP1 and the DP2, and those cameras are interesting in their niches of the market, but they still offer subpar performance in low light and they still don’t record video (unless you count tiny 320×240 video as real video).

I’d like to ask the folks at Sigma this question: What have you been doing these last few years? You had an amazing sensor in your hands, but you didn’t develop it while others took their Bayer pattern sensors to incredible heights of performance. Your Foveon sensor ought to develop 14 or 16 real megapixels now, on each of its three layers. It should go to 6400 ISO or 12800 ISO natively. Then it’d be competitive in today’s marketplace. Instead, it’s the same sensor I saw more than three years ago, installed in a new camera body.

 

In early 2007, FujiFilm also launched a new DSLR. That camera was pretty amazing in its own right, like the SD14, except the FujiFilm FinePix S5 Pro actually met the demands of the marketplace of its time.

It had a wonderful resolution of 12.34 megapixels, an 11-point, 7-area AF system, a 14-bit A/D converter (most DSLRs at the time were still at 12-bit), ISO sensitivity that went all the way up to 3200 ISO natively, and 1/8000 sec max shutter speed.

Most of all, it had a revolutionary sensor developed in-house by FujiFilm. Here’s what they said about it in the S5 Pro press release:

“Fujifilm’s Super CCD SR II will be updated to the new Super CCD SR Pro. Using a unique layout of twelve million paired photodiodes (6.17 million larger ‘S’ photodiodes for main image information, combined with 6.17 million smaller ‘R’ photodiodes for bright area information), the S5 Pro will deliver improvements in noise, dynamic range, colour and tonality. Further improving the capability of the sensor, a new, improved low-pass filter will ensure that moiré and noise are kept to an absolute minimum. Fujifilm believes improvements in these key areas will be of more true value to professional photographers – the challenge is quality of information, not quantity of information.”

In layman’s terms, it had both large and small photodiodes, clustered together in a beautiful geometric pattern, to capture as much image information as a single-layer sensor could capture, and a powerful engine to analyze that information and turn it into beautiful photographs.

People who used the S5 Pro loved its image quality. And even now (in 2010) when you look on Flickr you see that people are using it and the quality of the images they post very good.

So what has happened since 2007? It looks like FujiFilm dropped out of the DSLR market altogether. The S5 Pro is listed as discontinued on their website and there’s no other model to take its place. None. Instead, FujiFilm is focusing on regular digicams, and seems to be leaning toward cameras that exploit the higher end of the focal range (15-30x zooms).That’s a losing battle as far as I’m concerned. High zooms suffer by default of aberration and other artifacts as one gets above 15x. And in order to get the proper magnification in a smaller camera body, the sensor needs to be made really small — so small that you run into significant noise issues and photo quality suffers even at low ISO and at close range.

What FujiFilm did makes no sense to me. They have incredible know-how in the production of professional, high quality lenses. Their Fujinon lenses are used in satellites, in high end telescopes and in broadcast-quality TV cameras and camcorders. They have the know-how to design really nice camera bodies. I used the FinePix S9100 and I loved its body design. And you only need to look at their current digicam models (S200EXR or HS10), at they way the controls are positioned and the grips are designed, to realize that Fuji knows a lot about camera body design.

When it came to digicam design, they also had what was a big plus over other camera manufacturers. Most of their zoom cameras had manual zoom and focus, and the ability to use regular AA batteries. A manual zoom is just nicer than a servo zoom. It’s more responsive, more controllable, doesn’t eat into the battery life, and it’s more reliable over time. And isn’t it nice when you’re in the field and your camera runs out of juice, that you can just pop in a couple of AA batteries and keep on going? That’s such a practical design aspect, but people tend to forget it when they focus purely on battery life.

Now you look at their line-up, and only two cameras still offer manual zoom: the S200EXR which B&H Photo says was discontinued by the manufacturer even though it’s still listed as an active camera on the FujiFilm website, and the HS10. The rest all offer electronic zooms, which I don’t like.

Keep in mind all the good things I told you about FujiFilm’s know-how, and let’s look at the S5 Pro again. The sensor and the engine was clearly Fuji’s. But the body design was similar to Nikon’s body design. The camera was made to work with Nikon’s lenses. It’s as if FujiFilm didn’t want to own the very camera it made, the camera which contained its revolutionary sensor. This makes no sense to me. They knew how to make fantastic lenses, but didn’t make them for their own flagship DSLR. They knew how to make fantastic camera bodies, but didn’t make one for their own flagship DSLR. Does that make sense to you?

I wrote to FujiFilm PR in January and March of 2007, asking for a review unit. They were willing to send me one, but they didn’t have any lenses to loan me. I needed to supply my own Nikon lenses for the camera, and since all my equipment was Canon, that was no good. I gave up on reviewing the camera. And I bet you I wasn’t the only reviewer who would have liked to write about the S5 Pro but was turned off by the lens issue.

I’m really sorry to see that today, FujiFilm isn’t even developing their revolutionary sensor any more. Sure, they’re using a variant of it in some of their point-and-shoots, but that’s like saying your lawnmower has a Lamborghini engine inside. You can’t get the performance of a true Lamborghini engine from a tiny, cramped 2-cycle engine made to cut grass, and in much the same way, one can’t expect to get the true performance of the large sensor found in the S5 Pro from a tiny 1/1.6-inch sensor.

Don’t tell me CCD sensors are inferior to CMOS. They each have their pluses and minuses. CMOS sensors were thought to be inferior to CCD just a few years ago, but there was a real R&D push to make them better, and look at them today — they’re incredibly good. Don’t tell me you can’t get great video from CCD sensors. Professional camcorders use either CMOS or CCD sensors to record full HD video, depending on the model and brand, so I know that’s possible.

I know that with continued R&D effort, both the Super CCD SR Pro sensor and the Foveon X3 sensor could have been improved greatly, making them competitive and even dominant by today’s standards.

I feel bad for FujiFilm and for Sigma. Perhaps FujiFilm feels the market is already too competitive and has enough business from its other sectors. And it could be that Sigma is focused on its lenses and is satisfied with only a niche of the DSLR market. I don’t know, but I would like to find out more. If anyone has any additional information, please chime in.

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Stats about cigarette companies

The following infographic presents some interesting facts about big tobacco:

  • The largest US tobacco company, Philip Morris International, is the 94th most profitable company in the country.
  • The top three US tobacco companies made over $50 billion in revenues in 2009.
  • China is the largest cigarette producing country in the world. Tobacco companies from that country made over $443 billion dollars last year.
  • Federal tax on a cigarette pack has gone up from 5 cents in 2002 to $1.01 in 2009.
  • Many life insurance companies in America are major stakeholders in tobacco companies.

Cigarette Companies

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