Monthly Archives: April 2015

Out of a Closet and Onto the Floor

Note: This post was edited to correct horrible mistakes.

Yesterday was Showa Day which is now officially named after the Japanese Emperor responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor but used to be disguised as Greenery Day in honor of his love of plants. Most importantly, it signals the start of “Golden Week” when three holidays and an “aw hell, let’s just give ’em another holiday here” holiday all collide in the same week.

Unfortunately for me, I’d scheduled dirty work for that Showa Day and have a bit more to do on Saturday.

Basically, at long last, I’m moving the “variety pile” and attacking the stuff inside the “variety closet” and the “variety room”. My goal was to throw away stuff I know I’ll never use and save stuff I’d like to have access to but don’t need to have out right now. I then wanted to move our earthquake kit from the floor and put it on top of the wardrobe allowing access to the rest of the kit on a bottom shelf. (Confused? You should actually see the mess and try to figure out the plan behind it.)

If I were smart, I’d basically chuck out every box I hadn’t opened in months without opening them. There are, however, a number of complications.

First, I’m not that smart.

Second, part of the reason the boxes haven’t been opened is that the “variety closet” is stuck behind the “variety pile”. This makes getting at a box a much more difficult chore than it should be.

Third, I have the hoarder’s desire to handle everything at least once before throwing it out. This triggers memories and rekindles the little spark that made me keep the item in the first place which makes me want to find a place for it or swap it out with something I don’t want to use for a while but don’t want to throw out. I did, however throw away a lot of stuff and have a bunch of stuff to donate or give away via Freecycle.

Fourth, even if I don’t experience a burst of nostalgia, I often think of a new way to use the item and justify keeping it.

Finally, there were several decisions I couldn’t make until She Who Must Be Obeyed came home. (She was working on the holiday.) I wasn’t able to finish and currently have a couple extra piles of stuff on the floor, including the trash I can’t throw away because this is Japan.

In some cases, though,  I’m actually (finally) putting the items to use. Mostly as fodder for this blog. (Pictures to follow I suspect.)

TWSBI Diamond Fountain Pens–The New Workhorse

I bought some pens from Taiwan that were designed with advice from all over the world. One of them fell apart almost immediately.

I’ve written before about how I’ve used Pilot Vanishing Point pens for decades. Last year, however, at the suggestion of some fellow pen addicts, I decided to try pens from TWSBI.

TWSBI is a Taiwan based company that used to produce OEM pens but then decided to design their own. To do so, they gathered suggestions from fountain pen forums (yes they exist) and then gave the forum members chances to comment on designs. (In fact, fans of their Facebook page still get a chance to comment on possible future designs.)

The results were a series of demonstrator (see-through) pens with piston filling mechanisms. (You twist the end to draw up ink and don’t have to mess with cartridges or converters.)

I ordered two: The TWSBI Diamond 580 Black Rose Gold and the TWSBI Diamond Mini Classic.

The TWSBI Mini (left) and the 580 (right).

The TWSBI Mini (left) and the 580 (right).

The 580 is a nice sized pen and because of its smooth writing M nib, it quickly replaced the Vanishing Point as my everyday workhorse pen. (It even appears on this blog along with the Vanishing Point.) Although I miss the nock mechanism on the VPs, and the ability to operate a fountain pen one-handed, I like the ink capacity of the 580. I was worried I wouldn’t like the Rose Gold, but once I had it in hand, I immediately liked the copper look of it.

Also, TWSBI includes tools that allow the user to disassemble and clean the pen. I haven’t done that yet, but I have had to replace the cap and the nib assembly on the Mini. (And the nib, but that’s not TWSBI’s fault.)

The Mini is designed for pocket carry. It is small, but the cap posts making it much longer and much easier to use. I also got it with an M nib and even though it’s smaller, I like the ink capacity.

The only thing I didn’t like was the cap. I noticed out of the box that the clip on the Mini moved side to side. I though it was simply too flexible but over time I realized that cap was cracked. Eventually it cracked all the way around the entire finial fell off.

You can see the damage. This is a but not a feature.

You can see the damage. This is a bug not a feature.

I also noticed, after a couple rounds of inked fingers, that the MIni leaked ink. Careful inspection with a loupe revealed that the end of the nib assembly was cracked. I contacted TWSBI and without any proof–although I did offer some–they sent me a new cap and a new nib feed.

Unfortunately when I was reinserting the nib and feed, I didn’t set the nib correctly and when I put the new cap on I felt the nib go crunch and ended up with a nice hook nib. I ordered a new nib from a local vender, installed it correctly, and now the pen works perfectly.

The 580 nib (top) and the Mini nib (minus the hook).

The 580 nib (top) and the Mini nib (minus the hook).

Despite these issues, and stories of cracked plastic from other users, I recommend TWSBI pens for those looking to try a fountain pen for the first time and for those who’ve been playing with cheaper mass-market fountain pens and are ready to move up in quality. The customer service alone is worth the price and the risk. Also, if there are a series of common complaints, TWSBI usually redesigns the pen to fix the problem.

I’m not as big a fan of the Mini as I am of the 580. The Mini’s grip section is a bit too short and something about the balance with the cap posted doesn’t feel right. I am tempted to sell it and get a second 580 (either clear or orange).

A dirty pen and whiskey in a dirty glass. Bad ideas ahead.

A dirty pen and whiskey in a dirty glass. Bad ideas ahead.


Stuffed Blind While Barely Drunk

I’ve written before how I’ve learned to stop drinking after I’ve had too much to drink. What I haven’t learned to do, though, is stop eating after I’ve had too much to drink.

Today was the welcome party for the new teachers at the school where I work. After work I had a few hours to kill which involved me having coffee and a tiramisu at a coffee shop and doing some writing. After that it was shopping and after that a moment of ESP.

I went to a place I knew was open and stumbled across a couple colleagues. We had a couple beers and some food.

(Note: Japanese parties often have a lot of food, but that food often comes slowly. As such, I usually have a snack before I go to the party.)

Because it was “all you can drink” I set about trying various cocktails, including a fresh lemon sour (which required me to do work by squeezing the lemon and pouring it in the drink myself) and a “tomato hai” which is tomato juice and alcohol and which, thanks to soy sauce, lemon and some hot sauce I managed to turn it into something resembling a Bloody Mary. After that i switched to iced tea.

The problem was the food was surprisingly good. The restaurant’s specialty is various forms of chicken. There was chicken soup (with a creamy sauce) we had to cook ourselves and a plate of chicken bits with onion and some kind of salty black sauce.There was also an odd side trip to calamari and deep fried fish bones (which are kind of like salty crackers served with squeezed lemon).

The most addictive, though, were two dishes that resembled lemon pepper chicken which was one of my go to “I’ve been drinking” foods in Mississippi. To make matters worse, I’d had just enough alcohol to get the munchies. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that if I’d dropped some chicken down a crack in the table I’d have eaten the table to get at it. I’d normally have ordered French fries but I’d actually had those before I went to the party.

Then, right when I was full, they brought out noodles we were supposed to cook in the remaining soup. When that was gone they brought out a small dish of matcha ice cream.

Now, the funny part is, I actually feel kind of drunk, but mostly from overeating. Tomorrow I’ll regret it, but not as much as I’d regret the hang over.

WC Knives Woodlore Clone and Woodcarver–Down Home Custom Knives

A couple years ago, on the recommendation of a guy I’d only seen on YouTube I sent money to another guy I’d only seen on YouTube. Oddly, I think I got my money’s worth.

The Knife Maker:
As part of the tithing I’ve talked about before I ordered knives from a writer and knife maker named William Collins the founder of WC Knives. Collins is based in Texas and at the time I ordered my knives had only been making knives for about eight months. (He began in December 2012.)

One of the interesting features of sending him your money (he insists on partial payment up front to cover materials) is that he sends you frequent videos of the progress of your knives. This includes his mistakes–he made one on mine which slowed things down–and the answers to any questions you may have.  He then includes the videos as part of the package he sends with the final product.

In my case, his charming nature actually helped sell the purchase to She Who Must Be Obeyed. I was mostly impressed that his workshop seemed to be mostly outdoors.

The Knives:
I ordered two knives, the WC Knives Woodlore Clone and the smaller Woodcarver.

The Woodlore Clone (top) and the Woodcarver with their sheaths.

The Woodlore Clone (top) and the Woodcarver with their sheaths.

The knives have single bevel or “Scandi” grind drop-point blades and are made from 1095 steel which sharpens easily, holds an edge reasonably well and rusts at even the mention of water. They have hunter orange G10 handles with black G10 liners, brass pins and brass lanyard holes. The Woodlore Clone has a 4 inch blade and is 8.67 inches long over all. The Woodcarver has a 3.16 inch blade and is 7.16 inches long.

I chose Kydex sheaths with leather loops. Collins gives you a choice of sheaths, although it’s also possible to get them without sheaths.

For a new knife maker Collins did a terrific job. There are a few flaws: the “Scandi” grind is uneven on both knives–annoying mostly because it affects cutting–and the lanyard hole is partially blocked on the Woodlore Clone as if the G10 liner slipped after it had been drilled.

I’m also discovering I’m not a big fan of “Scandi” grinds, but that’s not Collins’ fault.

A close up of the blades.

A close up of the blades before any use.

The best part, though, is the handles. Collins does a terrific job producing beefy handles that don’t seem to have any hot spots and there are no gaps where the handle material meets the tang. They are easy to hold barehanded or with gloves and are so comfortable you actually want to go out and cut stuff with them. (Meaning I need to repatriate them to the USA so I can actually use them more.) I’ve used them as much as I can around the house and used them enough on wood and cardboard to dull them but they are really meant to be used outdoors.

I like them enough I’m considering another purchase. Until then, I can’t recommend his knives strongly enough. He’s always coming up with new designs and tests them on his YouTube channel. Lately he’s been working with better quality steels which has driven up the price some, but he’ll make whatever you order.

He’s also an avid hunter who’s not afraid to use one of his knives to butcher a squirrel or pig on camera. He will also show you the time he spent in the woods without getting a deer.

That said, anyone interested in ordering a knife should know that he has a large backlog and that he takes deer season off until he fills his tag.

Detail of the WC Knives logo, which he hammers in with a sledge hammer and the G10 handles.

Detail of the WC Knives logo, which he hammers in with a sledge hammer and the G10 handles. Note the thumb grooves in the handles.

You Don’t Have to be Crazy But it Helps

Several hundred years ago, when I was at university, I had a teacher take out a gun and shoot a student who was waving a sword at him. This teacher has had a lot of influence on me and the way I teach.

He also helped me solve a mystery.

The class was an introductory history class called “The Rise of Europe” and took place in shockingly dungeon like rooms in the old Dennison Hall at Kansas State University. (No windows, partly underground, men with swords.)

At first the class was taught by a TA who learned public speaking from the “Read Text In Monotone Lifeless Drone-Like Manner With No Expression At All” school of speech. (It exists.)

Then, on about the third class, I noticed there was a new, rather rickety looking, podium in place of the old podium. There was a also a mustachioed man in a cowboy hat who introduced himself as Professor Robert Linder and explained that everything we’d heard about him being tough was a lie. This lie upset him so much he started shouting and knocked the new podium over and it broke into several pieces.

At this point, a young man ran into the room and pointed a sword at Professor Linder and demanded that he tell the truth. Linder took out a small revolver and shot the young man. A couple TAs quickly cleaned up the mess and disposed of the body.

We immediately realized our professor was probably crazy.

That turned out to be his gift, though, and made his advanced classes the hardest to get into in the university. (With one exception.) At various times during the year he would give out Gummi bears if we answered questions. He also once stripped his shirt off and invited students of the same ethnicity to join him in a ritual bath. (Something to do with Swedes and/or Vikings, I don’t remember.)

He’s the only teacher I ever had who made us sit in alphabetical order and took roll in a large lecture class. He also would pick chairs on the front row and repeatedly take the same line to the person in that chair. A woman in the front row to the right of the podium would always hear about a historical person’s “piercing blue eyes” as Linder leaned in and stared at her. (One time the woman was absent and he mentioned that if she’d been there he’d have mentioned the blue eyes.)  A man in a seat to the left of the podium would get shaken by the shoulders (for various reasons).

After finishing his class, I managed to land a spot in his History of Christianity course. During that class he solved a mystery.

At various times, during classes in Eisenhower Hall, we’d hear someone yell “SHUT UP!” somewhere down the hallway. We never knew who this was.

The mystery was solved in History of Christianity when Professor Linder explained how St. Francis of Assisi had dealt with noisy birds in the church belfry. Linder said Francis had walked closer to them (as he himself walked to the door) “He looked up at them” (sold with a dramatic hand gesture) “and said” (Linder leaned out the classroom door into the hallway) “SHUT UP!” (Yelled at the top of his lungs.)

Mystery solved.

I’ve adopted the alphabetical seating and the habit of taking specific lines to a student in the front row. I also brought a sword to class once.

Nowadays, though, that would probably get me sent to jail.

My Brief History of Dance

I was watching a video today and in the background I heard the song “867-5309 / Jenny” (you don’t have to play it, it’s already in your head) and that has me thinking about cocaine.

My only experience with cocaine happened back when I lived in Hayden, Colorado. For some reason I don’t remember there was a dance in the old elementary school gym and for some other reason I don’t remember I went, which is not something I was wont to do. (To this day it requires copious amounts of alcohol and/or viable threats to get me on a dance floor.)

I vaguely remember a dance when I was in sixth grade that involved sixth grade boys standing on one side of the room and all the sixth grade girls standing on the other side. All were waiting for either 1) the dance to end or 2) a sacrificial lamb to be the first to the slaughter.

I, of course, was that lamb. Our teacher, Miss Trimble, went around trying to get people to dance. She then suddenly grabbed me and ordered me to dance. Of course, for a few minutes, we were the only ones dancing which remains a horribly surreal moment in my life, especially when one group of students applauded my sacrifice. (Something like that.) Eventually everyone danced, but I don’t remember if I danced after that.

The incident involving cocaine happened after that (I think). All I remember about that dance is that there was a mix of ages and there was a dance contest that somehow I got roped into.

Although I’m sure my goal was to get thrown out of the contest as soon as possible, what complicated that plan was my partner and I kept passing through to the next phase of the competition. At some point the song of choice was “Cocaine” (I don’t remember if it was the J. J. Cale original or the Eric Clapton cover). Thinking back, although Clapton has always claimed the song was anti-cocaine, I’m still amazed it was possible to play a song with that title at a school function.

I the end my partner and I didn’t win. I think it was cocaine that ruined it for us. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Now You Don’t Need It Now You Do But Now You Don’t Remember

Every now and then someone asks me how I teach a particular unit in the textbook. At first, I can usually only give them a blank stare and a couple semi-coherent grunts. By the time I think of the advice I should give, they’ve already dismissed me as brain damaged and/or insane.

Sometimes when I’m teaching a class, I suddenly remember how to teach the lesson and suddenly have to change plans on the fly.

Part of the problem is I suffer from an extreme case of what I call “Actor’s Memory”. Actors memorize a surprising amount of lines and blocking over the course of months in order to be able to do a few performances (in the case of plays). There’s constant repetition and review in order to make the blocking second nature and allow them to work on the emotion behind the lines.

When those plays are over, though, the lines go away. In my case, I remember performing in the plays, and I remember a lot of the problems involved with a couple of the plays, but I only remember a few lines despite spending two months saying them.

I suspect this stems from a kind of compartmentalization of memory. I needed the lines when I needed them and reserved a portion of my brain for them. Once they were no longer needed, I freed up that bit of memory for important stuff like Bloody Mary recipes and movie lines. In some cases I forgot the lines within days of the play finishing, even when I only had a few lines.

This also applies to computer related stuff and visa renewal tasks. I study how to do something and then spend time doing it but then a year later I’ve forgotten what I did and have to study it all again.

In the case of teaching, I try to remember what I did but it’s not until I’m actually up performing that my lines begin coming back to me. That happened this past week when I suddenly remembered the activity I’d done the year before and started doing it.

Granted, I’ve written all this stuff down but just staring at the script doesn’t bring back the blocking, so to speak.

Also, sometimes I just forget where I put the notebook.


The Problems With Pen Cases

When it comes to the stuff for my stuff I’m pretty choosey and quickly recognize the flaws in everything. When I get something I like I tend to keep it a long time, but all good things eventually pass.

Several hundred years ago (plus or minus a few) I bought a brown leather pen case from Levenger. It was designed to hold four pens and had a pocket in the middle that was supposed to hold refills and random bits (a technical term). It had slots for four pens.

That led to the first problem. Because the slots weren’t staggered, pens pushed against each other making the case wide and hard to close.

The Levenger pen case opened to reveal the guts.

The Levenger pen case opened to reveal the guts. The leather center is close to the original color.

Also, the case was badly stitched in one random spot at the bottom and putting a pen in the slot put pressure on the bad stitching. I also never liked that it couldn’t open fully. I ended up putting pens in the slots on one side and between the slots on the other. It also had room for an EDC flashlight.

Over time the leather got a great patina but eventually wore out and I had to replace it.

The dried leather, the great patina and worn out spine.

The dried leather, the great patina and the worn out spine.

Because it was difficult to find a leather pen case that met my standards (lots of slots, less than the cost of a new car) I opted for a Maxpedition Mini Pocket Organizer. The Mini had the requisite slots and was the right size for large pens and a flashlight. The problem was it had lots of dangly bits, including a loop handle I never actually needed. It had a large velcro rectangle and a mesh pocket on the front. It had molle webbing on the back. Overall, it had a tactical look more at home in Afghanistan than Japan.

My Maxpedition Mini load out. Ready for service in one of the 'Stans.

My Maxpedition Mini load out. Ready for service in one of the ‘Stans or for a trip to Tokyo.

It also had to be loaded carefully or it would bloat out and be too thick to carry comfortably. Like all Maxpedition organizers it had a key hook attached to a strap that did nothing but take up space and make it more difficult to load.
Eventually I discovered Kickstarter and my next pen case.

I ordered what was then the complete line up of goods from Nock Co. The cases were designed by an actual Pen Addict for other pen addicts. Once I got them, I settled on the five slot Sassafras for my everyday carry.

The Nock Co Sassafras with the cover flaps folded back.

The Nock Co Sassafras with the cover flaps folded back. There are four Kickstarter projects in this picture.

The Sassafras folds but doesn’t zip closed. it has a pair of flaps that serve as pen protectors and which help keep the pens in the case as it gets jostled around. I’ve had it flop open but have never lost a pen. It’s well staggered and doesn’t get too thick when it’s carrying a lot of pens. That said, I’d love to have a zippered version of it. (I’ll do a proper review of all my Nock Co stuff another day.)

The Final Choice:
As much as I like the Nock Co cases, I still prefer the look and feel of the old leather case. The Maxpedition was khaki and after a few months it started getting grungy which is a lot different than the patina on leather. The Nock Co is dark blue and doesn’t show grunge as easily but it will eventually begin to fray and fall apart without having a “this looks awesome” phase as it does.

My goal now is to convince the Nock Co people to make a leather version of one of their cases or find someone who can make a leather version I can afford without selling pens.

I’ll also keep looking for a good leather case.

Not What I Intended At All

I just spent the better part of an hour trying to find a couple pictures I probably took. Because I couldn’t find them, today’s post is brought to you by bad planning and disorganization.

I had intended to write about various pen cases today until I started looking for the pictures I was going to need to do it. After a relatively thorough search of my computer and extra storage I couldn’t find all the pictures I was looking for. This means a couple things:

1) I’m looking in the wrong place.
2) I need to label my pictures better and learn to use keywords.
3) I accidentally deleted the pictures.
4) The pictures don’t actually exist and I only imagined taking them.
5) I took the pictures but they sucked so I deleted them on purpose.

All of these, especially the latter two, are strong possibilities.

One of the curses of modern cameras is actually caused by their strength: because they no longer require film, pictures are cheap to take and, because you’re not limited to rolls of 24 or 36, you can fire away with reckless abandon. The trouble is, you end up getting random details of stuff you don’t know what they are:

There must have been a point to this but I didn't label it.

There must have been a point to this but I didn’t label it so I don’t know what it was.

At the time this probably seemed like a good idea but I don't remember.

At the time this probably seemed like a good idea but I don’t remember.

I now have thousands of photos to sort through on just one computer and that doesn’t count the external hard drives. If I were more industrious I’d sit down and sort and relabel them all to make the searchable.

Instead, I’ll probably end up retaking photos of all the pen cases I wanted to talk about for the post. The problem is, there’s at least one pen case that’s been been put somewhere where I won’t forget it.

That means I’ll have to search until I remember where it is.

A No-Name Notebook from the Balkans

When I was in Albania one of the few things I found that I still wish I could find was a bunch of cheap notebooks.

Although very little seemed to work in Albania from 1992-1994, someone managed to produce surprisingly good notebooks. They had plastic covers with an odd internal pocket and came in pocket and large size. They were about the same size and thickness as modern Moleskine notebooks. They had stitched and glued spines that laid flat when open.

I bought a stack of them as they were only 15 lek (about 15 US cents at the time; 25 cents with inflation) and used them while I was in Mississippi and after I came to Japan. They are among the few thick notebooks I’ve ever completely filled. The plastic cover made them comfortable to carry in the pocket but they were sturdy enough to write on without needing a hard surface.

My Albanian notebook compared to a Field Notes notebook. You can see the damaged spine.

My Albanian notebook compared to a Field Notes notebook. You can see the damaged spine at the right..

Inside the notebook. You can see the construction and deconstruction.

Inside the notebook. You can see the construction thanks to the deconstruction.

The paper seemed to be one part pulp paperback and one part newsprint. It was not especially fountain pen friendly as it was rough and scratchy with fine nibs awhile thicker nibs tended to cause feathering. That said, although it had a little ghosting, it didn’t have much bleedthrough so it was possible to use with fountain pens.

You can kind of see Noodler's Old Manhattan and and Apache Sunset.

You can kind of see Noodler’s Old Manhattan and can see Apache Sunset pretty well. You can also see the roughness.

I had two of the pocket sized notebooks that have long since been scanned and retired. I’m tempted to try to use the cover for something but it tends to chip off plastic bits as it’s carried around. I still have half of one of the larger ones that started out as scrapbook that was eventually abandoned. I’m also tempted to start carry it in order to finish it, but I don’t really have a use for it. I’d be carrying it out of nostalgia not need.

That said, I wouldn’t mind picking up a few new ones if I ever get the chance to go back to Albania and if they still exist.