Paper: the other factor when writing

An often overlooked element in writing: paper. Especially when you’re used to using ballpoints. Ballpoints seem the thrive on bad paper. The rougher the fibers, the better! Anyone who has ever tried their hands at a puzzle in the newspaper knows what I’m talking about. And if I do have to write on cheap fibrous paper, a ballpoint will be my first choice.

It’s different with a fountain pen. Yes, the fountain pen, smooth writer, is eager to deliver ink. Give it paper that soaks up the ink and things get ugly. Instead, you want smooth, coated paper. Not too smooth—try writing on the cover of a glossy magazine to find out what that means.

Don’t go blindly for expensive paper either though. Moleskine notebooks are trendy and freakishly expensive, but don’t get remarks too well on the FP Geeks website; the paper is too thin. At the other side of the spectrum, I got some $5 notebooks at Staples that did very well.

You can’t go wrong with brands like Rhodia and Clairfontaine, and apparently Leuchtturm 1911 is also very good. Personally I have good experiences with “Markins by CR Gibson” notebooks, but far less with Eccolo. Experiment, don’t be afraid to get hurt, and try out a lot!

Your most important camera setting

Your most important camera setting… Is it autofocus? Is it exposure? Is it whitebalance? Is it daylight savings time? No, no, no, no… It is a very utilitarian setting, that you will probably never use. And it’s harmful when set wrong. So why does your camera have it?

No memory card = it no worky! Or not?

No memory card = it no worky! Or not?

You see, your camera needs to be sold. Even if you curse to Vile Capitalists and their hated Bean Counters, the reality is that you won’t be buying your next gizmo if the factory went titsup.

So… it sells a lot better when you can try it in the store. But memory cards go missing. People want to see how the shots come out on their own computers. They just want to steel those expensive $10 memory cards. Whatever. Now your camera can’t shoot, since there’s no card in it.

“Well let’s make it shoot without a card in it then.” That’s like shooting without film—an exceptional bad idea in real life. Unless… unless… the camera is in a store.

So cameras have this “demo” setting. Or “lock release,” or whatever they call it. When you get the camera, make sure it’s set to the setting “don’t take pictures when the memory card is missing” because that day will come.

I’ve been lucky. But I’ve been turning this setting off religiously. One of my coworkers asked me a couple of months ago. His daughter was down the shore for a weekend. Took tons of pictures, “but they’re stored on the camera’s memory and she can’t get them out.”

What do you mean? I asked, being familiar with that camera. There IS no internal memory, they’re on the memory card. “No, it’s not on the memory card, see, she discovered that she forgot to put the memory card in. But the camera took the pictures. So they have to be somewhere, right?”

Find it. Lock it. Now.

On random numbers

Let’s start with a quick quiz.

  1. Pick a number under 10
  2. You throw a die 5 times. What’s a more likely outcome? 1 2 3 4 5 or 2 1 4 3 3?
  3. You flip a pure coin three times. The outcome is H H H – what are the chances of the next flip being heads?
The ultimate in random numbers - a die

The ultimate in random numbers – a die

So, what did you pick?

  1. 7? Congratulations, you’re not alone. About 45% of the people asked about a number “between 1 and 10” will pick 7.
  2. Did you say “they are both equally as likely?” Congratulations!
  3. A pure coin, not a weighted one, will have a 50% chance of heads, every single time. Yes, there’s a 1/16th chance of having heads four times in a row. But that’s when you start out with nothing. After three times heads you’ve already weeded out 14 of 16 permutations… giving you a chance of 50% to make it H H H H.The problem with random numbers is (a) it’s really hard to get truly random numbers, and (b) if it doesn’t “look” random people won’t believe that it is. Throwing 1 2 3 4 5 with one die is not more or less likely than a “random” sequence of numbers, or five sixes (or five ones, for that)

Does it matter?

Well, if you play online games that depend on chance, it does. Consider Backgammon. A double in backgammon counts double. So a double six is really four sixes and getting two or even three in a row can turn the game quite around.

Now, how do you play backgammon online? Do you trust your opponent? “Dude, believe it or not but I totally just threw double six. Again.” Of course you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t.

Enter a service like Games By Email where you can play various games, at your own pace, against opponents. Including games that rely on random things like dice throws. As a neutral party, one can expect Games By Email (hereafter called GBE) to be a neutral party in this, right?

Well of course, unless your opponent does get those three of four doubles in a row. Obviously there’s some sinister scheming going on! “But I’m using a Mersenne Twister to generate dice throws!” Well then, never mind that the chances of getting four doubles in a row are only 1 in 1296 and you’re producing thousands of dice throws per day… Obviously your algorithm is wrong!

A brute force solution

So, what do you do then? You build the dice-o-matic, a Rube Goldberg contraption that can generate a freakish 1.3 MILLION dice throws per day. And you post a video of that machine to prove that your dice rolls are actual dice rolls, to quiet the critics.

Then you read the youtube comments. “LOLZ ur an idiot. Dont u know u can use the mersenne twister 4 that? lolz”

Sometimes you just can’t win.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not affiliated with Games By Email nor the Dice-O-Matic. Stumbling on the Dice-O-Matic on youtube my first reaction was “why?” but after reading the description I could totally understand it. Given the many comments about “a computer can do this just as good, dude!” one can only conclude that understanding math is apparently a lot easier than understanding the human mind.

Ink fill mechanisms

One of the fascinating things about a fountain pen is the way it is filled. The history of the fountain pen is mainly the history of the filling mechanism. If you’ve ever worked with ink or paint you can see why: failure of the pen, either when carrying, using, or filling, is a nasty business.
Even today there are a handful of different mechanisms on the market. Which, when you think about, tells you one thing: there’s no such thing as The Perfect Mechanism. Why is it so hard? Because some of the design criteria are at odds with each other:

  • The mechanism should have a high ink capacity
  • It should be reliable even after years of using it
  • Refilling should not result in bringing your clothes to the drycleaner and scrubbing your hands like a surgeon

If it weren’t for the capacity, the solution would be simple: cartridges. But if you use a fountain pen, you generally use it and the pen running dry all the time becomes very, very annoying. Besides that, cartridges never offer the wide choice in ink as bottled ink does.

THe most common ways to fill a fountain pen

THe most common ways to fill a fountain pen


If it weren’t for the very limited capacity, limited choice, and relatively high price, everyone would love cartridges, because they are perfect in any other way. Maintenance becomes a matter of dunking the section in a cup of water once in a while, and that’s it.

Converter mounted on a cartridge-pen

Converter mounted on a cartridge-pen

Of course, you can use a converter. And that is almost perfect. The converter mechanism is easy to clean, and if it ever started to leak, or became stuck, it can be replaced. But the less-than-1ml ink capacity is a huge, huge turnoff for fanatic users.


This is one of the oldest mechanism. The ink is stored in a rubber or silicone bladder. By squeezing the bladder the air is pushed out, and by releasing it, its volume returns to original size, creating underpressure that is used to suck in ink through the nib.

You will hardly ever encounter these pens under that name because a myriad of mechanism to do the squeezing without removing the barrel sprung up. One of the most popular was the lever filler, where a little lever on the side of the pen was pushed out (squeezing the bladder) and released to fill up the pen.

Limited capacity and a tendency of the bladder to dry out and crack over time makes these pens a relative rare sight these days.


By far the most popular filling method of the more upscale pens is the piston filling mechanism. The reservoir is a straight tube with a piston in it. The piston is connected to a rod which in turn is connected to the knob at the end of the pen. The rod actually consists of two parts with threads; the outer part rotates with the knob, the inner part doesn’t and thus moves up and down the reservoir. From there it’s the same story: move the piston to the bottom to expell all the air, move it back up, and the resulting vacuum sucks in the ink.

The mechanism requires some maintenance (which is usually not easy to do for the owner): the piston seal requires lubrication once in a while, as does the piston mechanism. Aside from that, piston filling is nearly perfect: much larger ink capacity than cartridges, converters and sacs, and easy to fill the pen up (without having to take it apart).

The downsides: Due to the extension mechanism the piston can never travel further up the barrel than halfway.  Although the ink capacity of piston fillers is in many cases respectable, it is still limited unless the barrel has astronomical proportions.


The vacuum filler has a reservoir that, like that of a piston filler, is straight, but it tapers out near the section. A thin rod connects the piston which in normal position is near the section. To fill the pen, the piston is pulled up all the way to the top of the barrel. A one-way valve releases the pressure that gets built up above the piston. Then, the piston is pushed down again, creating a vacuum behind the piston while pushing the air out of the pen in front of it. Once the piston reaches the bottom of the barrel and enters the tapered section, the vacuum is “released” and ink is sucked into the pen.

The mechanism is elegant, and unlike the piston filler, the barrel gets used almost all the way to store ink. The downside is that the main part of the reservoir has a smaller diameter (because it needs room to taper out near the section of the pen) and that the rod attached to the piston takes up (a very little) bit of space as well.

Add to it, that the mechanism is simpler to operate (no rotating parts) but requires two vacuum seals. One where the rod passes through, and the piston of course. On top of that, the piston seal needs to be constructed in such a way that it only seals off when pushed down, and not up. All that makes the vacuum filler a more expensive mechanism; its main benefit, larger capacity, can be simply offset on a piston filler by increasing the barrel size.

Eye dropper

The oldest fill mechanism is seeing a bit of a revival: the eye-dropper. Simple screw off the barrel, and fill it with ink. The easiest way to do that without making a tremendous mess is with an eye dropper (hence the name), or a syringe.

Eye-droppers have huge capacities. But filling the pen is potentially messy, and the threads on the section need to be greased before screwing the barrel back on to prevent leaking. It’s not a miracle that other methods have sprung up over time!

Why the revival? Because a significant amount of modern fountain pen users are passionate fountain pen lovers who do not mind a little bit of inconvenience, and the eye dropper has an ink capacity that is simply unrivalled. Pens are usually not sold as eye-droppers but any cartridge-pen is a candidate.

Not every pen can be “converted” to an eye-dropper though. Ink is highly corrosive (which is why nibs are plated with corrosion resistant metals like gold or nickel) which means that metal barrels are out of the question. Also, some pens have the cap screwing on the section, not the barrel. From time to time, when you unscrew the cap, you end up unscrewing th barrel instead. Not a big deal with a cartridge pen. But with an eye-dropper…

So there you have it. Various filling mechanisms, and a reason for collectors to buy certain pens, because they want to have a pen that uses a special filling method. For daily use, piston fillers and converters are by far the most popular choice.

My oldest fountain pen (that I own)

After finding my old fixpencil I discovered that I only had about 2.5cm (1 inch) of lead left. Searching for 2mm leads online (trust me you do not want to buy them at Staples, unless you really want to get rid of your money) lead me to fountain pens. At that point I thought “I should really start writing with a fountain pen again.” Some searching turned up an old pen. And ink. Victory! This was a freebie from the Postbank, in the USA better known as ING.

Open a savings account, get a cheap pen...

Open a savings account, get a cheap pen…

This pen has been reviewed by fountain pen reviewer/god Stephen Brown, who pretty much has the same opinion about the pen as I do: it looks great, and for a pen that was given away for free it’s fairly well made. Of course, it writes horribly, and one of my biggest beefs was the fact that you couldn’t push a spare cartridge in the barrel (which makes using a converter also impossible).

At one point I asked my mom to send me some cartridges (they are freakishly expensive here in the USA). What I did learn was that your ink does matter. The pen wrote horribly bad with brandless “Bruna” (a large chain of magazine/office supply stores) cartridges and worked a lot better when I filled up a modified converter (to make it fit in the barrel) with 15 year old Parker Quink. Still, not the best pen around but it fixed my “need… fountain… pen…” needs until the much, much better Nemosine Singularity arrived.

I had two much better pens. A Diplomat Attaché. It used cartridges and it started leaking when capped, significantly reducing my enthusiasm for that pen. And a Pelikan piston filler. No idea what model, maybe an M150 or M200? I actually had two Pelikans; in both cases the clip broke off very quickly, and the piston mechanism jammed within two years. Of course, little did I know about cleaning pens and emptying them during the summer when I was not using them… It’s ironic that a $5 swag pen got me back, not the more exclusive brand pens.

My oldest writing instrument

I have always like fountain pens. I just haven’t written with them for a while. How did I get back into the groove? One thing leading to another… The older I get, the more habits I seem to pick up from my father. One of those habits: “the one writing tool that always works… is a pencil.
HA! You didn’t expact that, did you? But bear with me. When I was in college I had to draw. A lot. It comes with mechanical engineering. And unlike some other studies at our college, *cough* construction *cough*, mechanical engineers tend to be really, really finicky about their drawing. I guess it has to do with the fact that in construction you’re happy when things are within 2″ if your specificationsm, where in mechanics you’re going to be upset if something is not within specified tolerances, which is usual .5 mm to .1 mm (an inch is 25.4 mm)
So, drawing with pencil we did. And again, not with what you’d think: “Well, if precision is desired, you are probably drawing with a .5 mm mechanical pencil.” And again, no. Not precise enough. We’d use a 2 mm mechanical pencil, and sharpen the tip on a piece of wood with some sandpaper stapled to it. Sharp as a nail, quite literally since we’d be using 2H (that’s #4 for you Yanks) leads as well. The pencil holder used was recommended by school—reliable, cheap and very, very uncharming.
Then, at an art store, I saw the Caran d’Ache Fixpencil. It looked simple, elegant, and with its roughened tip, very friendly to use. And it was enourmous out of budget for a college student. Luckily, when I encountered it, my birthday was coming up (I think) and one of my beloved sisters gave it to me.

The Caran d’Ache Fixpencil—a nearly 100 year old design classic

The Caran d’Ache Fixpencil—a nearly 100 year old design classic

Now that I wanted to write more with pencil I started looking for that old fixpencil again. I have a beautiful 0.5 mm mechanical pencil made by Staedler (one of my favorite brands for writing utensils) with a rubber grip, indicator of hardness of the fillings, etc. But, quite frankly, 0.5 mm mechanical pencils just don’t write very smoothly. So I dug up the good ole’ fixpencil and… bliss!
Later I learned a few things that I did not know about the fixpencil. For instance, that there’s a sharpener in the red cap on the back, or that it was one of the first mechanical pencils on the market and the design has, since 1929, basically not changed. My quest of finding decently priced 2mm leads got me back in using fountain pens… but that’s a different story.

It’s not the material

Wheter it is bikes, skis, amplifiers, fountain pens or cameras, enthusiasts always obsess over the material. Not surprisingly, because better material means better quality, right? Well… partially. But not quite all the way.

The aluminium bike

When I grew up, bikes were made of steel. Steel comes in many gradations, the lowest being FE360 or as we were taught in college, “PBS” which is a Dutch abbreviation that can be politely translated as “UGS” or “Urinals grade steel.”

Back in those days, when men were Men and we walked every day to school, barefeet, in snowstorms, and we liked it, the more expensive racing bikes were made out of the exotic light-weight aluminium. Of course, those bikes were more expensive, but they were stiffer yet smoother, etc.

Over time, aluminium trickled down the production line to cheaper bikes. Nowadays, it is known as a material that is cheap and durable, but also known for “a harsh ride.” Have the physical properties of the material changed over time? No. What changed was with how much care the product was made.

Race bike

The big misconception is that it is the material that makes the difference. “Made from expensive materials. Must be better.” No, since it is manufactured with more care, the product is more expensive. And at that higher price, you might as well use more expensive materials that make it even better. But the material follows the quality, not the other way around.

Is gold a better material for pen nibs than steel? Not really. And in the end the tip that is touching the paper is different material anyway. But, if you’re making a $200 nib you might as well gold plate it for an additional $20 and give your customers a reason your high-quality nib is so expensive. Even though the material has little influence on price, and is actually inconsequential for quality.

Why I like RPN

RPN Notation in calculators is unique to HP these days, and even then only limited to very few calculators. Personally, I love RPN entry and think it’s way better than DAL (Direct Algebraic Logic) that is used by all other calculators.

Wrong reason

First let me explain what is not the reason I prefer RPN. Somehow the “lesser keystrokes” argument always comes up, but I don’t think it is that convincing. Consider this calculation that HP uses as an example to tout how much more efficient RPN is:


In algebraic notation you would enter it like either like this:

( 3 + 5 ) ÷ ( 7 + 6 ) =

Which is a whopping 12 keystrokes. Or, if you have a primitive desk calculator that doesn’t offer parenthesis, you would enter it like this:

7 + 6 [M+] 3 + 5 ÷ [MRC] =

Which is an impressive 10 keystrokes! No, then RPN:

3 [ENTER] 5 + 7 [ENTER] 6 + ÷

Which is 9 keystrokes. Wow! The difference! “But with complex calculations the difference will add up.” Well yes, with complex calculations your numbers tend to get longer too, so the relative difference will only get less. Will it really matter if a calculation takes 35 keystrokes or 40?

So what is the advantage then?

The example is actually good, but for the wrong reason. What I truly like about RPN is that it makes entering the calculation so much easier. Let’s review the same example and see what happens when you enter it:


First you calculate the numerator:

3 [Enter] (“start a new calculation with this entry”)
5 [+] (“take 5, and add it to the running total” — Calculator shows 8)

Then you calculate the denominator:

6 [Enter] (“start a new calculation”)
7 [+] (“take 7, and add it to the running total” — Calculator shows 13)

Now, take the original total and divide that by what I have right now:

[÷] (Calculator shows 0.6154)

Because previous calculations are automatically stored in memory (“the stack”) complex calculations become far more logical to enter. Consider this calculation:


In algebraic notation you’d enter this as:

(( 1 × 3 × 5 ) + ( 2 × 4 × 6 )) ÷ ( 1 + 3 + 4 + 7 ) =

Or maybe as:

1 × 3 × 5 = + ( 2 × 4 × 6) = ÷ ( 1 + 3 + 4 + 7 ) =

But you’ll have to pay attention to the parenthesis. How much easier in RPN!

“Let’s do 1×3×5 first” 1 [Enter] 3 [×] 5 [×]
“Then do the other half of the numerator” 2 [Enter] 4 [×] 6 [×]
“Add those two together” [+]
“Now let’s do the denominator…” 1 [Enter] 3 [×] 5 [×] 7 [×]
“…and divide by it” [÷]

Entering your calculation, despite the “reverse entry” goes in a much more natural fashion than the acrobatics with memory and parenthesis that algebraic input demands.

(Equations provided by the online latex equation editor)

The little calculator that could

In high school I didn’t know about HP calculators. I don’t think you would even have been allowed to use one, since they were programmable. Never mind the fact that if you were able to program one, math was probably the least of your problems for an exam…

I started out with a Casio FX-80 clone made by Philips, mainly because my grandma worked at Philips so we could get them at a discount. It was large, ugly, and slow.

Then one of my classmates turned up with this tiny, truly pocketable calculator. Not only was it faster than the Philips, it had colorful keys and it retained its memory when you turned it off (which is more convenient than it seems).

A cheap 1980s calculator, the 506P was a tough little machine that never let me down.

A cheap 1980s calculator, the 506P was a tough little machine that never let me down.

I really don’t use it anymore, but after 30 years (and replacing the batteries once in those 30 years) it is still going strong. Here’s a cheap calculator I will never throw out…

HP Current option

So, if you want a scientific RPN calculator but you’re unwilling to pay prime coin for a used device, what options are left? In the early 2000s it meant getting a 33S, developed when HP was led by Carly “why do we employ engineers” Fiorina. I held out as long as possible,  and eventually after clenching my teeth got a butt-ugly HP 33S when it became apparent that there was not going to be a successor any time soon. That was about one month before the HP 35S was announced, it seemed.

The keyboard of the 33S was hardly better than that of ZX Spectrum computer and when I was able to offload the 33 to some dude in Australia I happily did so, to upgrade to the much more classic feeling 35S.

The HP 35S is far from perfect but signalled a return to the design that made HP calculators great.

The HP 35S is far from perfect but signalled a return to the design that made HP calculators great.

What’s great about the 35S, and what’s not great? Great are the slope-fronted keys, just like the classic models. Not great is that the text is printed onto it, unlike the double-shot molded keys of yore, that could not rub off. Ironically, the keys on my (now dead) HP DV7  rubbed off as well, although my 35S is still holding out.

Speaking of keys, when using the calculator in hexadecimal mode the keys labelled H-M are used for entry of A-F. Why the alphabetic keys (for programming) were not simply labelled in rows going up instead of going down (since it is not a Qwerty lay-out it doesn’t really matter anyway) is beyond me. Carly oh Carly, why did you lay off the engineers…

At least the Enter key is large, the calculator is fast and while the “cheat sheet” is missing it does have a ton of conversion functions onboard. I still like the 15C more but it’s an acceptable replacement that found a place at my desk both at work and at home.