Saturday, November 15, 2008

Y Strap: First Impressions

Y Strap InstalledThe Problem

One huge difference between SLR and point and shoot cameras is that you can't just store the SLR in your jeans pocket. If you want to carry a SLR around ready to shoot, you'll want a strap of some sort.

The neck strap that arrived with my Canon 40D dSLR camera drives me bonkers. It's ugly, to start, with lots of colorful branding calling attention to the camera. It gets twisted up, it blocks the viewfinder when I try to take photos, it makes my neck sore, and it makes me sweat on hot days. In some ways, a simple rope might be better.

If I actually wear the strap, it bounces and smacks me in the chest while I walk. Sometimes the bounces activate buttons on the camera. It protects my camera from drops, but not from smacking tables when I lean forward. It does prevent the camera from hitting the ground, but so would gluing the camera to my hand.

The R-Strap

I've been searching for a replacement strap ever since getting the camera. I strongly considered getting a Black Rapid R-Strap. Instead of going around the neck, the R-Strap goes over a shoulder and across the chest. The camera clips to the strap via a threaded bracket screwed into the tripod socket. It sounded great until Scott Bourne published his Black Rapid RS-2 review on TWIP.

Scott had such a bad experience with his RS-2 that he intentionally destroyed it. Scott had two incidents where the strap malfunctioned and dropped (or nearly dropped) a Nikon D700. In one case, the clasp holding the strap together accidentally opened. The other time, the camera actually fell off the clip. He felt that the strap was so dangerous that he destroyed it to prevent further mishaps. I immediately scratched the Black Rapid from my list.

The Y Strap

I learned about the Y Strap at my Austin flickr meetup. An attendee uses the strap on his tiny Leica M8. Like the Black Rapid, it's meant to be worn over the shoulder and across the chest. Unlike the Black Rapid straps, which monopolizes the tripod mount, the Y Strap attaches to one of the normal strap mount points on the camera.Shooting with the Y Strap (1)

The Y Strap is handmade by Stephen M. Schaub. It cost $25 + shipping at the time of this review.

The Construction

The Y Strap is very simple: there are four parts. There is a loop of nylon webbing, a slide for adjusting where the camera hangs, and two key rings. One large key ring is attached to the webbing, the other is shipped loose. The optional smaller ring can be used as an adapter for certain cameras, like my 40D (see photos).

The camera attaches on one side to the key ring -- the maker suggests attaching the camera on the same side you wear it. The strap goes over the shoulder and across the chest. When you raise the camera to take a photo, the key ring slides up the strap.

Unlike the R-Strap, the Y Strap can't become unbuckled. There are no fasteners holding the strap together, just an adjustment slide. In the unlikely event the slide were to fail, the camera won't fall. The ends of the strap fed through the slide are sewn together so that the nylon makes a continuous loop even without it.

The point where the two ends of the strap are sewn together is quite clever. Others might just overlap the ends and sew, rivet, or buckle them together. Instead, the ends are stitched together a few inches shy of the ends, and the loose ends are sandwiched into the stitching, forming a tiny "Y" shaped tail (see the photos). This construction means that there are no exposed rough ends to fray or irritate your skin.

Do it Yourself?

Wearing the Y Strap (1)The beauty of the Y Strap comes from the simplicity. There are no complicated moving parts. There aren't even any markings except for a hand-written serial number hidden inside the "Y" where the ends are sewn together.

Not everyone likes simplicity though. They point out -- correctly -- that most anyone could probably make an approximation of the Y Strap for much less than $25. You can find plans out on the internet for DIY straps. Most of them seem to imitate the R-Strap.

I'm okay with paying for labor, craftsmanship, and design though. Considering the thorough stitching holding the strap together, I'm surprised it's worth Stephen's time to sell these at $25 -- around half the price of the Black Rapid straps. The materials seem good too. The strap has a pleasantly soft and smooth texture. It's not the rough nylon strapping that you might use to lash a kayak to your car.

If you don't care about the details and just want something better than a normal neck strap, the DIY option will probably work fine. Just be careful to choose a design and materials that won't drop your camera on the pavement.

Possible Issues

My one reservation about the Y Strap was the reliance on key chain rings. I've never heard of a normal key ring failing, but it felt weird hanging an expensive SLR off of one. Incidentally, most of the reviews of the Y Strap are from users of the Leica cameras, not large SLRs. I'll be monitoring the condition of the rings closely.

Stitching DetailI haven't spent much time using the Y Strap in the field, but my initial impressions are good. If the strap length is adjusted correctly, the camera doesn't move too much when walking.

With shorter lenses, like my 50mm f1.8, the camera tends to prefer resting with it's back against my side instead of, say, the back facing forward. This has resulted in accidental button presses. Since my neck strap had the same button issue, I won't call it a deal killer.

Longer lenses seem to do fine pointed backwards along my side. More field use will tell if walking around will cause zoom lenses like my 20-135mm to telescope out.

The key ring slides smoothly up the strap, but the strap still shifts some. Since there is no padding on the Y Strap, this isn't too big of a deal. The little tail of excess strap material does work lower and lower as the strap rotates. Field use should reveal if this is problematic.

The Advantages

Just to quickly sum up, here are my initial thoughts on why you might want a Y strap:
  • Simplicity & elegance. The Y Strap doesn't attract attention (unless, maybe, you get it in red) or look goofy
  • It doesn't put pressure on the neck
  • It makes the camera less conspicuous
  • It keeps the camera near your hands
  • The camera bounces less
  • It interferes with camera operations less
  • It supports craftsmanship
I'll give more impressions later when I've actually had time to live with the strap.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Joel on Software MBA: Peopleware

SunfishNot long after I graduated from college, I stumbled across a book which explained exactly why my employer's quarterly performance reviews felt so frustrating and useless. The authors of Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead went to great length to demonstrate that performance reviews were worse than useless.

When I told my supervisor about my discovery, her reaction surprised me. Rather than being interested in the book or the findings, she was totally ambivalent. If anything, she seemed to believe more strongly in the value of performance reviews. The reviews made sense to her. It didn't matter that there was research and data indicating otherwise.

I suspect that Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams* falls into a similar category: books big companies are immune to. Having read Peopleware for my virtual Joel on Software MBA, I'm confident that the book's ideas would work great. I'm sure Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood agree -- they advise managers** to staple Peopleware to their face.

Like Abolishing Performance Appraisals, Peopleware resonates with me, but doesn't mesh well with the status quo. This sort of book would interest and inspire the engineers, but -- at large corporations -- ultimately let them down: most managers couldn't implement the suggestions if they wanted to.

For instance, about 58 of the 174 pages concern the work environment. If you work in the typical large office, this third of the book will explain how you couldn't design worse conditions for productivity. Cubicles? Noise? Interruptions? You might as well have your developers code from the local Jiffy Lube. Think of the money you'll save on office space and free Folgers coffee!

Peopleware explains why Joel Spolsky went to such great lengths to give his developers Bionic Offices, complete with windows and closing doors. Good luck convincing your typical corporation to give their engineers offices with windows. They'll have all sorts of excuses explaining why offices are a perk for management, cost too much, or don't allow for proper teamwork.

Aside from environmental issues, Peopleware addresses how to motivate developers, hire the best people, retain them, build awesome teams, and fight counter-productive bureaucracy. In other words, it's more about the engineers (and sociology) and less about technology.

This might seem like an indirect approach to productivity. It doesn't involve bossing people around, demanding long hours, or hiring consultants. You won't find justifications for treating your engineers like factory workers, buying fancy tools, or flying to exotic locations. Instead, it advocates making engineers happy and simply making productivity possible. Psychology and sociology do the rest of the work.

Unless you work at a very progressive company, Peopleware will have you constantly fighting bureaucracy, trying to fix the office environment, and struggling to make time so you can have conversations with your team. Worse, your peers probably won't understand or appreciate what you are trying to do.

Ultimately, you may find it easier become an entrepreneur and start your own people-friendly and productivity-friendly company. But maybe that's the point.

* I'm reviewing the first edition of the book, but there is a second edition of Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition) available as well. You can help me and my publisher by purchasing from these links. In association with Amazon.
** Peopleware concerns the field of software development, although I believe it applies equally to other engineering fields. It probably applies to just about any intellectual and creative effort, especially those requiring teamwork.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Best Engineering Books According to Mechanical Turk

BoltMy first Mechanical Turk experiment asked for the worker's favorite engineering book. See my previous post for a little more background.

This HIT has not received many responses, but I'm not very surprised. There are still assignments open on Mechanical Turk if you wish to contribute.

I asked the following questions:
  1. What is the title of your favorite book on the subject of Engineering? The book might be your favorite because it is fun to read, because it has great ideas, because it is so useful, or some other reason.
  2. Who is the author of your favorite book on the subject of Engineering? This should be the author of the book you mentioned above.
  3. What engineering specialty does this book apply to? Civil engineering? Software engineering? Engineering in general?
  4. Why is this your favorite engineering book? Is it practical? Entertaining? Or something else?
  5. Do you have any feedback? If you're curious, the results of this survey will likely end up on
Below are the responses I received so far.

Artificial Intelligence (3rd Edition) (A-W Series in Computerscience)

Author: Patrick H. Winston

Specialty: Artificial Intelligence/Software Engineering

Reason: Very well written and covers many topics. I took Prof. Winston's class and this got me interested in the field, and I have since then followed a career path in AI and machine learning.

Civil Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam

Author: Michael R. Lindeburg

Specialty: Civil

Reason: It is efficient and practical. Most needed information for general civil engineering issues are included in this book.

Feedback: I will try to remember to check it out. I'm curious how many other relevant turkers there are.

Post-Capitalist Society

Author: Peter Drucker

Specialty: industrial engineering / industrial psychology

Reason: Peter Drucker wrote "The Post Capitalist Society" more than ten years go, just as the Internet was starting to come on line. He was prescient in the view that the information of the world would begin to upwell and then overflow. His discussion of the commodification of information, the need to train people how to search and research, the psychology (and growing frustration and dropping out) of the rapid evolution of society are coming true. The evolution of knowledge work into low, medium, and high skill sets are something I struggle to implement in the IT system architecture and user interfaces I help implement. Seeing information as a new commodity, a product to be processed, sorted, transformed, and handed off to users in a final and finished form on demand is becoming critical to apply process improvement methodologies to the IT world.

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource

Author: Marq de Villiers

Specialty: Civil Engineering with an emphasis toward our water resource

Reason: Unlike other mundane engineering books, the flow (pardon my pun) of this book is smooth as it describes the various challenges and engineering feats concerning the water industry. In fact, I have lent the book to other friends and family members who are not of an engineering background, but have exactly been left impacted by the central message. It is that central message is sometime that I try to instill to up and coming engineers back at my alumnus school; that the field of engineering is laid out by formulas and pratical sense, but our ultimate work is dictated by social constructs and attitudes. Most people in America expect to have water, which is defined as a luxury, though really it is a resource. Anyway, it is a very enjoyable read.

Feedback: Good luck finding engineering books, they are certaintly rare, or at least those which are a good read.

* You can help me and my publisher by buying the book using These links. In association with Amazon.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Project Turk

Red FezI was reminded of Amazon's Mechanical Turk a few weeks ago by a story on Boing Boing. In the article, a passenger stranded at Dulles used Mechanical Turk to collect stories and illustrations about cats. He later turned the stories into a book he sold on Blurb.

It seemed like a fantastic idea to me. I wondered how I could use the power of the Turk's hive mind to improve my life. Project Turk was born. Let's see if Mechanical Turk can help me live a better and richer life.

The first idea I settled on was to ask engineers what their favorite engineering book was. I'm a big reader. Perhaps it would be fun or inspiring to read a book from a different engineering field.

To start, I created a qualification to act as a prerequisite to the HIT. This basically amounts to a quick survey that established that the worker was an engineer or engineering student. Once a worker gets the qualification, he or she can perform any HIT (Human Intelligence Task) requiring it.

Next, I created the HIT itself, which pays a few cents in exchange for the name of a favorite engineering book. So far I've only received three responses in the past few days. I'm not too surprised; how many engineers would operate on the worker side of Mechanical Turk? I'm going to give it more time to collect data.

The next HIT I created requires no qualification except that the worker live in the US. I'm asking folks about the habits that drive them crazy, and their own worst habits. It's only been online a few hours and already I have 18 responses.There are a few really interesting themes developing. I'll probably post the results in a few days.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Learning Business: The Joel on Software MBA

More than a NumberI've decided to read the books from the Fog Creek Software Management Training Program. Well, at least the top ten books.

Why? I'm a big fan of Joel Spolsky's writings and musings. Joel's almost like a software folk hero. When he and Jeff Atwood picked out their favorite books in StackOverflow podcast #12, I knew I had to read them.

Second, I'm a software henchman with entrepreneurial aspirations. Aside from losing money on a small business, I need to take some actions towards the dream. Maybe these fancy business books will help me with my biggest failings: sales and marketing.

Finally, despite my title, around 80% of my real job becomes software engineering. I don't want to be a big-company manager, but maybe knowing a bit about the management side will prove useful. I've always wondered what my management actually does.

I'll report back on what I learn.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Fighting for Vacation

Platform at Union StationAfter I graduated from college, I used to start my vacation planning process by talking with my boss. I would propose a date and duration -- in essence asking permission to take vacation. Then the boss would veto or approve it and I could buy tickets, hotel rooms, etc.

This approach to vacation had several flaws. First, I behaved like vacation was a privilege instead of a right. I strongly believe that vacation is a right and a necessity. Vacation hours are not a favor or a bonus -- they are part of your compensation.

Second, it made changing my plans complicated -- if I couldn't get tickets for those dates, did I have to go through the process again? The extra step also makes it harder to get a good deal on hotels or travel. Friction of this sort discourages vacation rather than encouraging it.

Now that I'm slightly wiser, I use ideas I stole from negotiation tactics. I start with the Fait Accompli. Instead of asking and then planning, I buy all the tickets and hotel reservations first. Only then do I tell my boss the dates I'll be gone.

This way, I've put myself in a strong position. If the boss objects to my choices, his recourse is limited. If the dates are bad, he gets to worry instead of me. If the boss demands I stay, he looks unreasonable. Am I supposed to just abandon all the money I put into the plans already?

Even if the boss insists you stay, it will be perfectly reasonable for you to demand reimbursement for your losses. Just the prospect of trying to expense such an absurd thing -- the cost of ruining your vacation plans -- may change your boss's mind.

The key to this tactic is to act assertively but always appear in control and reasonable. I'm not saying you shouldn't act surprised if your boss objects -- a good negotiator would. But you should always be in control so that any objections sound unreasonable.

Another tactic is to always announce your vacation two or more weeks in advance if possible. Two weeks has the advantage of a strong association with the accepted notice when quitting. If you really felt strongly about taking this vacation, you have the (risky) option of calling your boss's bluff. "You say three weeks notice isn't adequate, but if I were quitting this would be a week more than the standard two weeks notice."

Equally important, you must always carefully communicate your vacation plans. If you use some sort of online vacation system, immediately put the dates into it. Send your boss and coworkers an email too. Don't act passive-aggressively. If anyone has objections you want them to come out immediately or never.

Planning vacation this way also helps to train your boss and coworkers. He or she will start to realize that there are consequences for poor planning and communications. It will become obvious that last minute crises and under-staffing can't work when engineers actually use their vacation. It also provides a useful reminder to both the boss and you that the boss is not a master, but a supervisor.

Keep in mind that these tactics can hold risks for you. Your boss may not be used to engineers taking charge of their own lives. If so, this is one way to start getting him used to the idea. It's also possible, although I think unlikely, that you may end up faced with the choice of losing the money you spent on tickets or taking vacation without your boss's blessing.

Despite the risks, I think defending your vacation is important. Although there are certainly some engineering jobs out there which are adventures in themselves, I think a balanced life requires an escape from the work environment. Unpaid activities are often the most memorable and rewarding.

If you want to learn more about negotiation, I suggest the book Secrets of Power Negotiating. You can find more information about this book in my recommended reading list for Engineers.