The Downton Abbey Effect

I’m not sure what it is about Downton Abbey that has triggered such meme lust(1), but it sure has.

We are very late to this particular party, but I downloaded the first season last week, and was downloading season 2 by Friday night. Yes, my wife and I are addicted.

While there’s a lot to like about the show, it seems like every scene has someone opening, reading, writing, or discussing the contents of, a letter. They’re all written on impossibly small sheets – way smaller than would hold the contents they seem to contain. The envelopes are small as well – maybe 3 by 4 inches. Barely enough room for an address and a stamp. (photo credit to JBB on Fountain Pen Network)

So after a brief struggle with rationalization (futile when meme lust is involved) I have gave in and began looking for the implements to replace my usual stationery with new Downton-ized versions. I’m not alone – someone else had the same meme lust a while back.

Of course, it’s 2013 not 1913, and there have been changes. The post office won’t deliver anything smaller than 3.5″ x 5″. While that is indeed a small envelope, it lacks the proper squareness to satisfy the meme lust, so I kept looking. Not much point in writing a letter that can’t be mailed.

After looking a bit, it seems the next size upwards of the 3.5 x 5 inch “4-bar” is the 5.5 bar which fits a letter sized sheet folded into quarters, or a half sheet folded in half. This seemed like a flexible and sensible choice.

Off to and soon a box of envelopes and some reams of paper (which I needed anyway) were on order. I ordered Strathmore Writing paper in 20lb weight, and their A2 envelopes.

I might get the 4-bar size and custom cut some paper to fit at some point. When I say “might”, that probably means “will”, and “at some point” may well occur before the first order arrives.

[UPDATE: Ordered. Although, I believe the first order was on my doorstep before the second order was actually placed.]

1) Meme Lust is an irrational obsession with duplicating a meme purely due to irrational fascination, triggered by a movie, TV show, or even someone seen in public. For example, seeing a movie where the star carries a particular kind of briefcase and then needing to have the exact same kind of briefcase. Perhaps the most famous is the obsession with getting a bull whip after seeing an Indiana Jones movie, even though a bull whip is possibly the most useless thing a person could own. But still very cool. Entire message boards have been devoted to specific meme lusts.

Drawing versus writing pencils

I’ve been flirting again with pencils and the last few times I’ve gone back to them I’ve had sort of a thought progression repeat.

I start by using the Blackwing clones, and then try the Japanese drawing pencils – the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni and Tombow models – and discover I really like the Japanese pencils’ lead better. But there’s a problem.

They have fat leads and the Blackwing clones, and most other common pencils, have thin leads. It’s not much of a problem if you sharpen everything using a sharpener, but if you sharpen by hand and use a cylindrical point like I do it’s a problem.

As I wrote about a while back, using a pencil sharpener really wastes pencil lead. Like upwards of 80% of it. Why buy fine pencils with sweet writing lead if it’s all going to end up in a sharpener’s waste bin?

Writing with a cylindrically sharpened pencil while rotating it every word or so yields a reasonable point, and it lasts a looooong time between sharpenings. Like days. Several days. It’s also much more resistant to breakage, and it looks darn cool to boot.

Last but not least, what owner of a decent pocketknife wants to pass up a legitimate chance to use it? Sharpening a pencil by hand shows you are a rugged, self-contained individualist – a can-do person. Except on airplanes. NOT a good idea on an airplane. But I digress.

I found that by just exposing the graphite on a normal pencil I could write fine for the purposes I have. So, why not just sharpen the Japanese pencils cylindrically and move on with life? Because they are hugely fat. The Blackwing 602 clone’s lead is 2mm or so. The Tombow 3B and Mitsubishi Hi-Uni 4B are more like 3mm+. The Mitsubishi handwriting pencil is downright fat – 4mm, I’m guessing. Even the Hi-Uni 4B is like writing with a crayon on many papers after a short while.

Here’s several pencils I like to use, for different purposes. On one end we have the Papermate Mirado, from Sam’s club. Cheap, but I like it because it is darker than most HB pencils even if it is a bit scratchy. Next the two Blackwing clones. Tombow 3B, Hi-Uni 4B, and Mitsubishi Handwriting 4B.

As you can see, there’s a wide range of lead diameters. In the same order, narrow lead on the left.

This is well known, and artists probably like a thicker lead in a softer pencil. But it’s interesting that the two Blackwing clones, which are in the same hardness range as the Tombow and Mitsubishi models have significantly thinner lead. It could be that it’s a cost cutting move, but another theory is that the Blackwing clones are meant for writing, and the others are meant for drawing.

The question is whether that awesome Hi-Uni lead is available in a pencil in a 2mm diameter? I would probably go lighter than 4B, maybe 3B, or even 2B. John at PencilRevolution thinks the Hi-Uni HB is pretty close to the Palomino HB, which I find identical to Blackwing 602 clone. I suppose I’ll have to try all of them 😎

Super Simple GTD Approach For Traveler’s Notebook

How to get GTD functionality into the traveler’s notebook format? I could use an entire notebook, and many people have documented approaches to that. Patrick Ng has some really nuce lether tabs he uses in a notebook. Or, I could try something simpler.

In my former system I used a sheet of paper for each project and treated each sheet as a kind of log to keep notes and define the next action. Id then transfer those next actions to a single sheet organized by a few contexts. That sheet would be folded and kept in a pocket. The idea was that the project sheet forms a record of the project, while the next action list became an inbox as well.

I can’t recall ever using the project sheets for reference, so do I really need them? I decided to see if I could live with just a simple project list, which would be far easier to carry around me. I checked the book to see if Allen had anything to say about it, and indeed he mentions simple lists as an acceptable method.

So I took a piece of 100+ lb cover stock, folded it into thirds, and slipped it into the center of a notebook. Then did the same with a regular sheet of paper. The cover stock is the project list, and the second sheet is the next action list. I can add or cross off projects as I need to and replace the sheet when it gets too full or too beat up.

The next action has six sides which lend themselves to contexts, and so they were labeled.

I like:

  • Easy to find. The thing about traveler’s style notebooks is that the center of each book has an automatic bookmark.
  • Know where to find it.
  • Doesn’t get all beat up so easily.
  • Gives me an excuse to carry the notebook everywhere.
  • Cheap and easy to make.

I don’t like:

  • Too easy to ignore. While the center of a notebook is easy to find, it’s not usually where my focus is. When I use this kind of notebook I get used to ignoring the notebook’s tendancy to flop open to the center. Which is where the list is.
  • I hate feeling like I have to carry the notebook everywhere.
  • Slow to use. While standing in a store aisle, or wherever, a paper list is easy to pull out and add to. The notebook (particularly one loaded with stuff) is harder.

I used it for a while, and it worked ok but I don’t have as much confidence in it as my old system so I’ve actually gone back to my old system. However, for many I think this will be a good solution.