Stupid, maybe, but probably not all that unusual

27 11 2020

I recently read this on the often thoughtful blog A Day In The Life Of Really Not A Guru. So true how we drift through life and seem shocked when those around us go and make their own choices or have good/bad shit happen to them too. And without consulting us! I hope Sheri won’t mind me re-blogging her piece by Mr Greer. (Who isn’t germane to this. Sorry. I’ll see myself out…)

A Day in the Life of Really Not a Guru

“I hadn’t known that I assumed he would wait there forever in that white bed below his window. I hadn’t known I needed him there. Like a landmark, a pyramid-shaped stone or a cypress, that we assume will never move. So we can find our way home. And then, inevitably, one day–it’s gone. And we realize that we thought we were the only changing thing, the only variable, in the world, that the objects and people in our lives are there for our pleasure, like the playing pieces of a game, and cannot move of their own accord; that they are held in place by our need for them, by our love. How stupid.”

“Less,” Andrew Sean Greer

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KoInkyDinky? I think not!

7 11 2020

So I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology“, which while totally enjoyable as a read is a little disappointing in that it’s a pretty basic retelling of many stories I’m already familiar with (“with which I’m already familiar”?). I think I was anticipating his more twisted, tangential treatment but got a pretty vanilla rendering of the familiar tales.

No matter – the tales are as believable as any other religious fare and there’s even a bit of sex and violence. Norse mythology – along with that of the Romans (what have they ever done for us?) and the Greeks – is so much less complicated than that of the Judeo-christian variety. They’re up-front in stating the gods are a fickle bunch and pretty much anything good, bad, or indifferent can happen to you on any given day, so you might as well just get on with your life and leave them to it.

Today, we call this physics.

Friday, being the first Friday in November was celebrated by some as “Fountain Pen Day”. It’s a thing. It’s no less contrived than Father’s Day, and serves the same purpose – artificially stimulating the economy and giving us an excuse for another sale day.

At least “Left-hander’s Day” (August 13th) brings focus to people for whom the struggle is real. (Don’t mock me until you’ve tried using scissors in the opposite hand for which they were designed!)

Where was I? Oh yes – Fountain Pen Day (FPD). OK, so let’s just say I’ve been a little free and easy with the keyboard and my credit card of late. Months of home arrest due to COVID can do that to a bank account. Contrary to many others who celebrated their lack of control on FPD, I didn’t hit “Add to cart” once on Friday.

That said, it isn’t as true that I was so restrained in the previous few weeks. That, plus the UK’s Royal Mail and Canada Post – and perhaps even Loki – conspired to cause the postman/woman to deliver two fountain pens, a replacement nib for a previously purchased pen and an alternative width nib for one of the new acquisitions.

Kaweco AL Sport with EF nib in Stonewashed Blue; Replacement B nib unit for previous Lamy Brass Sport; Lamy Studio Lx All Black with F nib and B alternative also in black

The arrival of all these fountain pen goodies “on the day” was quite the coincidence and quite unplanned. What made the whole thing ever so slightly eerie though was that I also received a postcard from my daughter currently in Den Haag, Netherlands. Because her student residence had been temporarily locked down in mid-October, she, along with the other inmates residents had been given a free postcard and stamp, and the one she’d picked for me was quite apt, and also arrived on FPD.

Coincidence? Je ne pense pas!

An apt choice of postcard!

51 Clones

4 11 2020

Not unlike many fountain pen users I have acquired a couple of examples of the classic Parker 51 along the way. One I paid for, one I inherited. I love both, but not in any particularly sentimental way – they just write really well.

I’m not a complete philistine though – I acknowledge their age and look after them as well as I am able. That means no fancy inks that might damage their innards, and being careful they get no more scratches than their lives thus far have bestowed.

My “Made in USA” teal P51 has a barrel stamp declaring “51” which though coincidental actually indicates it was manufactured in 1951, according to the awesome Parker dating references at It has a fine nib and is a lovely smooth writer.

1951 Parker 51 – Made in U.S.A.

My other – black – P51 is Made in England and dates from the second quarter of 1942, as indicated by the older dating system of “2.”. The nib on this is more medium and is really smooth on most writing surfaces. It was originally owned by a lady before it came to my father, and it’s in better condition than the one made almost a decade later.

Q2 1942 Parker 51 – Made in England

I do enjoy using these venerable old stylos, but feel restricted by the need to treat them with a modicum of reverence. They are, after all, 70+ years old!

Two old dears waiting for a hand

I read somewhere of Parker’s brief flirt with potentially manufacturing Parker 45s in China with the HERO company. Indeed, there was totally legitimate transfer of intellectual property from Parker – these were no mere “cheap knock-offs”. It ultimately stalled, but I was left to ponder whether a HERO clone of the Parker 51 might give me a route to using a pen with a similar feel to my two lovable old dears but with modern materials and a price I could afford to replace if things went horribly wrong with some dodgy ink or other (I’m looking at you, Noodler’s!).

A few minutes with Aunty Google and I discovered the HERO 616, for the princely sum of $1.42. Canadian! What could possibly go wrong?!

OK – so (very) superficial evidence to the contrary… this is no Parker 51. The pen feels very light – 12g versus the genuine 20g, and looks very much like the $1.42 it cost was mostly spent on sandwiches rather than manufacturing.

There is a sharp, catchy burr on the “jewel” – which looks more like a piece of pressed or even poured aluminium. Unusual for these days, it has an aeromatic filler rather than a converter/cartridge. On arrival however, the outer squeeze tube wasn’t even properly in place. An easy fix, but what turned out to be an indication of the general build quality. I’m trying to be objective, and please remember this only cost $1.42. The fit of the cap seems secure enough, but as you may be able to see in the photo below, there is a lot of space around the opening with the pen inserted, and the cap lip itself is quite thin, if not actually sharp. The cap is firmly held though – the clutch is deep inside and holds the section firmly in place.

The clip is a poor copy of the Parker arrow and is cheaply pressed steel. The sharp “jewel” turns out to be a simple bolt and the clip can be easily removed and replaced if you’d like to greatly increase the value of the pen with something more aesthetic from say Beaufort Ink.

Metal shroud wasn’t properly pressed over the sac on arrival
Catchy molding on “jewel” – the bolt holding the clip on, and poor clip alignment
A poorly stamped, fake arrow
Poor fit of cap showing square-cut opening and uneven loose fit

OK – enough grumbling. At the end of the day, a pen is a way of delivering ink to a page. What kind of a job does the HERO 616 do for it’s sub-Biro price?

My particular HERO 616 was a horribly scratchy writer

Well – I tried to be as kind as possible and filled it with blue Quink – a very reliable and forgiving ink. The nib is nominally EF with a stated width of 0.38mm. I may have got unlucky, but my pen was unusable! It was so scratchy it gouged up the Fabriano paper I was using and got paper fibres stuck between the tines. I pulled out the tubular nib and did some judicious flossing and tweaking, but to no avail. Later I might try swapping in a Jinhao nib – I’ve had a lot of success with them in the past. For now though – this pen is barely worth the $1.42 for a spare sac!

Next, I’ll move up to a pen worth twice as much! Yup… a whole $2.80 Canadian.

I have many vices, but if we focus for a moment on those related to fountain pens I have 3 primary ones. Well 2½. I love utilitarian “tool-like” pens, typically all in metal. Steel, aluminium, brass, etc. Related to that, I have a soft spot for Parker’s so-called “Flighter” offerings which are all-steel (or more properly “Lustraloy”) and began with the Parker 45 in the 60s I believe. Finally, I have a thing for “stealth” pens – all matte black, preferably including the nib.

So while I was checking out the HERO 616, I came across the Jinhao 911. At 19g it’s slightly lighter than a real Parker 51, despite its metal barrel. Now Jinhao occupy a slightly higher perch in Chinese pen making, and I’ve had great success with several of their offerings in the past, as well as using their easily obtainable nibs to resurrect some otherwise defunct old pens.

Jinhao 911 with grandad Parker 51

Despite their Jinhao 75 model sporting a decidedly Parker-esque arrow clip, and more than a passing resemblance to a Sonnet, they are confident enough in their own identity to proudly brand their pens with their name.

The Jinhao 911 is a slimmer pen than the Parker 51 and does not sport a Parker-like clip. It seems well-finished and has nicely machined “jewels” in steel at both cap and barrel end.

Nicely finished steel “jewels”

The cap fits snuggly and as mentioned, proudly declares both the Jinhao brand and the 911 model.

Proudly branded Jinhao

The section is slightly longer and slimmer than a Parker 51, but the styling is obviously heavily influenced. There are steel threads on the section making for a pleasingly solid connection with the barrel, unlike the vaguely uncommitted plastic threads of the HERO 616. The 911 comes with a standard international converter of Jinhao’s own making and unfussily gets the job done. Actually – there are TWO “standard” converter widths. This is the wider 3.4mm opening. There’s a 2.6mm one as well. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. Occasionally it does!

Seems well made with good fit and finish

Not a lot more to say really. It looks handsome, well-made and could easily have come from Parker’s own stable. As I’ve come to expect from Jinhao EF/0.38mm nibs, it wrote perfectly straight out of the bubble-wrap (AliExpress vendors aren’t big on packaging!) If you’re not a pen-snob, this is a very capable solidly built pen with a few design nods thrown towards Parker’s 51, but plenty of its own style.

No messing – writes smoothly, straight out of the envelope

One final pen that caught my eye on AliExpress was another Jinhao. Another hike in price and a bit more blatant of a clone. The Jinhao 51A (Yup – they went there) comes in at $4.32 Canadian – still less than a latte at several well-known coffee chains I refuse to mention. Remove the cap, and this could almost be a Parker 51… with a wooden barrel! The attraction for me was the rosewood barrel, so I paid the extra few dollars to see if it looked as good in the flesh. It does. It’s also available in maple, ebony, peach and tiger wood. Possibly others too.

Again, I wasn’t expecting much for less than $5, but this is as well made as the 911. The wooden barrel has a brass insert to provide a good solid screw connection to the section. The section itself is almost identical to that of the Parker 51, save that the hood is slightly more rounded than the original.

Parker 51 (left) with newcomer Jinhao 51A

Despite the wooden barrel, it actually comes in slightly heavier than the original at 21g.

Hard to see in the photo above, but the Jinhao 51A cap is much more like the Parker 51’s except for a distinctly different clip. Again proudly stamped with Jinhao and 51A, but also with the Parker 51’s band etched a couple of millimetres from the cap opening. The steel jewel much more closely echoes the Parker 51 than did the 911 because the cap and entire pen is slightly fatter to match the original.

Another smooth writing experience. This time from the Jinhao 51A… likely with the same nib as the 911

So – conclusions? Well there’s no denying the Parker 51 spawned many lookalikes and even bare-faced clones over its illustrious career. Parker themselves are even re-releasing a lookalike at a laughably high price point.

Family resemblance? Jinhao 51A, Jinhao 911, HERO 616, a brace of Parker 51s

The HERO 616 unashamedly attempts to copy a Parker 51. It’s an aeromatic-like filler and even has an arrow clip. But it uses cheap components and is poorly finished. I could even forgive all that if it had a half decent nib and at least put ink on paper. It does not, and though I have had similarly poor performance from pens costing very much more, this is unforgivable in a pen. Its sole job is to write, and if it can not perform that task, it is of no use no matter its price or prettiness. The HERO 616 is not pretty, despite its pretensions, and though this particular specimen may be saved at some future date if I ever bother swapping the nib, it is not high on my priorities!

I hesitate before commenting on the Jinhao 911. I think I might argue that it is not so much a copy of the Parker 51 than it is heavily influenced by it. It is slimmer, echoes some of the later model Parkers, has a bit of the “Flighter” vibe about it, but is undeniably a Jinhao. It doesn’t pull the old arrow clip trick (though they’re not above it on other models), but it does use higher quality materials, and the attention to fit and finish is noticeably higher than the HERO 616. And for a mere $2.80 Canadian, I think you’d be hard pushed to find a similarly smooth writer with a metal body and decent build quality. I bought disposable plastic Pilot V-pens on clearance at Walmart for more! (Though I re-use them as eye-droppers rather than dispose of them).

The Jinhao 51A is different again. This treads an interesting path between copy and homage. Remove the cap and it could easily be a Parker 51 “lunchtime project”. The dimensions of barrel and section are identical and it’s as if the Parker marketing team had said “make them out of other materials and see what you can do”.

Of course, it’s a steel nib rather than gold… but it cost less than $5 Canadian, and it still writes remarkably well. It’s a handsome pen and I look forward to seeing how the wood changes over time with oil from my fingers.

But I said homage as much as copy. Plainly Jinhao have the capability to copy as close to the original as they choose, and with the 51A they choose to go pretty close. But they do draw a line. They use their own branding prominently and use a drastically different clip stamped with their chariot logo. Just for shits and giggles, I tried one of the genuine caps and it fitted perfectly, so obviously they could have gone the whole hog if they’d chosen to. The 51A barrel won’t fit your old Parker 51 though, so this isn’t a way to give your old pen new wood. As it were.

I’d like to think they drew the line as a professional courtesy. Almost as if to demonstrate how the venerable old Parker 51 still had some steam in it and could have moved into other materials to keep itself fresh and interesting even to today’s new pen buyers. The Jinhao steel 0.38mm nib is used in several of their offerings (599, 992, 911 to name three). It’s nothing special, but I have now used 4 without incident and much pleasure.

Bottom line? Ignore the HERO 616, primarily because the nib was diabolical, but even if you were lucky enough to get a good one… the build quality is terrible. This proves “you get what you pay for”.

Consider the Jinhao 911 on its own merits as a sturdy capable inexpensive pen, and a counterexample that sometimes “you get a lot more than what you pay for”.

The Jinhao 51A is a modern copy, without the Parker gold nib. It’s own is a capable enough nib though and if you’ve got a thing for hooded nibs and wood – for $5 Canadian you’d be greedy to expect much more than this.

A Stitch in Time

14 10 2020

OK, so that’s not quite right. The axiom really refers to making timely fixes to avoid long-term larger issues. In this case, it’s more a case of my OCD hating broken things that I know even my limited skills could address, if only I had the requisite parts.

Years ago in the UK, a neighbour gifted me a Parker 25, because, he said, I looked like I knew how to use “an ink pen”. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I graciously accepted the gift and left him to his pigeon loft. Once home, I was a little disappointed to discover the nib was in fact buggered*.

This was some 25 or so years ago. The pen was already old then, being at its height of popularity in the late 70s and early 80s. Though my interest in fountain pens was waning in those days I kept the pen in the expectation that I’d fix it one day. How hard could it be?

Well, scroll forward a few years and a continental move of the family and here we are in BC in the next century and already a good year or so into a “proper” look for a replacement nib for the iconic English-made Parker 25. It turns out that they’re not so easy to come by. In fact, for ages, the only “lead” I had was for a a rare green-coloured section complete with the nib. This was at the joyfully playfully named Battersea Pen Home. This was new old stock (i.e. old stock but never used), but a complete mismatch for my blue trimmed Parker 25.

I should at this juncture point out that I also have two other Parker 25s with a fine and a medium nib. Thanks to the excellent online resources below, I managed to identify the buggered unit as a Mk II (pre 1980) pen, with my others being Mk IIIs from Q4 1980 and Q1 1985.

After many rabbit holes (some expensive for only vaguely related reasons) I finally came across the Pen Museum in Hornsea, in my home county of Yorkshire, run by Peter Twydle, a very friendly and knowledgeable self-acclaimed “pen wizard”. He not only had a selection of Parker 25 nibs/feeds, but could also offer Esterbrook nibs. So – why not?

A quick email exchange and my credit card was a little lighter and the nibs were on their way via Royal Mail/Canada Post. Today the little beauties showed up in perfect unused condition. (I oped for a B nib for the Parker 25 to compliment the F and M I already had).

Straight out of the envelope -English-made (no sunburst) Esterbrook 3556 and Parker 25 B nib/feed

Even my basic skills could manage the simple friction fitting of the Parker 25 nib/feed and the simple unscrewing of the Esterbrook.

Safely installed in their new homes

I’ve recently been buying a few inks in sample sizes of 2-5ml, and only a couple of hours after getting the nibs one of my trial pens ran dry, offering me the opportunity to see what Noodler’s Ink Black Swan in English Roses could do in the B nib. Pleasantly less pink than the Australian version for sure!

I’m little more cautious with what I put in my vintage pens, so the Esterbrook will likely get a dose of either Quink (boring but reliable) or perhaps the slightly more jaunty Sheaffer Turquoise or “Peacock Blue” as it used to be known. I was recently surprised to discover when using it on Tomoe River (old) 52gsm that this actually showed some red/magenta sheen. Totally unexpected. Seems like a safe but fun way to play with my older pens.

*buggered: Technical term, meaning unusable in its current form.

One Shrump at a Time

5 10 2020

I am a fortunate man.

I have three children who by and large don’t seem to object to acknowledging me as their father and if not out and out affectionate at least occasionally generous in their actions toward me.

Last Christmas, FirstBorn demonstrated this filial generocity by purchasing me a voucher for a foraging workshop at Deerholme Farm on the island. We coordinated our vastly complex social calendars (well – she did: mine was empty except for a couple of dental check-ups and an annual appointment with my doctor’s finger), and picked a date in March, which we booked via the website.

Something exciting to look forward to through the early months of 2020. Remember those? The early months, when 2020 still looked pretty much like any other year. You know, forest fires, Ukrainian passenger jets getting shot down, locust invasions in eastern Africa. The usual…

But as March approached, so did “the new normal”. Suddenly, wearing a mask while you asked a bank teller to give you money was perfectly normal, and ferries to and from the island ceased to operate to help protect the inhabitants from the mainlanders and their pestilence.

I got a very polite email from Bill Jones, the owner, apologising to have to cancel the foraging workshops until the proverbial dust settled. As summer came and things tentatively poked their head above ground to see if it was safe to emerge, I got another email inviting me to rebook. This last weekend, in October, was the date that worked for me and FirstBorn, and we had high hopes of it being during mushroom season.

Of course, this being 2020, the weather suddenly got warm again and an Indian Summer dried up what should have been a bumper ‘shrooming season. Mrs E. and I headed over to the island for the weekend and on Saturday, undeterred, FirstBorn and I asked the Google lady to show us the way to Deerholme Farm.

Not somewhere you’d accidentally happen upon, it turns out! Definitely out in the sticks, in a lovely part of Vancouver Island. We even passed a couple of vineyards I’d hitherto been unaware of. Something for our next visit.

We arrived in good time and joined the other 8 people for the small, socially distanced event. We were sat outside, shaded from the steadily warming sun and educated in the mystic arts of mushroom foraging and not getting lost in the forest. Bill is a very colourful character (as was his language on occasion), and full of life stories and deep knowledge.

Oliver, the energetic greeter

As is typical on these niche events there were one or two people who felt the need to measure their “wedding tackle” against each other by asking random questions that other attendees at best found irrelevant and at worst annoying. Bill’s lecture included lots of tales of his own education “in the field” in Alsace and samples of the various mushrooms he’d documented in the take-away notes he’d supplied us all with.

After we were suitably pumped full of information, there was a very convivial lunch. The starter consisted of pickled nectarine, cylindrical beet, mushroom-infused hummus, and of course a sampling of sauteed mushrooms, with homemade bread made with mushroom powder to mop up the drips.

Bill Jones in his natural habitat

The main course was a congee with more locally foraged chanterelles, and we were much in need of the up-coming walk and tramp through the woods by the time we’d finished.

Congee in custom made glazed pottery

All these wonderful dishes, or at least their variants are documented with lovely photos in Bill’s large repertoire of cookery books, highlighting foraged food and North West cuisine.

Bill then took us for a walk through the local woods and byways showing us the various plants that could be eaten. Of course, the main attraction was the amazing variety of fungi that grew on his property, including the amazing lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum), which is actually a parasitised fungus that smells, remarkably, like lobster! There were several other varieties including white chanterelles (Cantharellus subalbidus) and hedgehog, or yellow tooth mushroom (Hydnum repandum).

Lobster mushroom

One of the phenomena Bill showed us was when a new mushroom was just beginning to fruit and was pushing its way through the mossy floor of the forest. As you know, moss can be quite spongy and so can stretch quite a way before giving way to the fruiting body that we know as a mushroom. This allows the possibility for quite a marked hump to develop before the mushroom is visible to the naked eye. These mushroom humps or “shrumps” are highly sought as they indicate mushrooms that have a much lower chance of being mouse or worm-eaten or attacked by slugs, since they’ve yet to be exposed to the air.

Lobster mushroom making a shrump of itself

After a couple of hours of very pleasant meandering, we arrived back at the farm and were treated to a tisane made from grand fir needles with a splash of honey. It was refreshing and surprisingly citrusy. Highly recommended! Alongside that we had a wonderful crumble and homemade sorbet made from foraged fruit and berries.

White chanterelles

What a day! It was almost a year in the making, but it was an amazing Christmas present. The best part, of course, was getting to spend a whole day with my daughter.


EDIT: Bit of Lloyd Cole for musical accompaniment…

Source: YouTube

Throw That Shade You Shade Monster You!

26 09 2020

So, regular readers may recall a while ago I wrote about my acquisition of a MUJI Aluminium. If not, or you want a reminder, it’s here.

Image Source:

I really enjoy the sleek “engineered” look to the aluminium body and definitely appreciate the clever design that allows for the cap to fit over the nib and posted (if you’re that way inclined) without actually increasing the profile of the pen. Over time though I’ve come to realise I really wasn’t feeling the love from the nib. It wasn’t exactly scratchy, but more recently bought pens like a brace of Moonman T1s has illustrated what a fine nib really can feel like, and this one just wasn’t doing it for me.

Totally asynchronous to my pen hoarding, I’ve also been looking at some fascinating inks and come to really appreciate those that can offer lots of “shading” – basically having large differences in opacity depending on their thickness on the paper as they dry.

On the right kind of papers (typically coated with kaolin or some other coating), the ink can’t quickly soak into the paper fibres and so surface tension has a few seconds to cause the ink to pool before it slowly dries on the paper. This allows these shading inks to develop more saturation in the pooled areas compared to the start of the strokes where the ink is drawn away, following the nib’s path.

In a typical piece of writing then, shading inks will tend to be paler at the start of letter strokes and more saturated at the end (broadly top to bottom of the letters, but not exactly).

Personally, I find the effect very attractive, and hunt out inks that are particularly good at showing this property, papers that allow the ink to do so, and (here’s the crunch) pens that allow enough ink to flow to allow the effect to be noticeable.

You see – finer nibs put down a lot less ink for their finer strokes and the drying time is therefore shorter, masking the shading property to a large extent. Basically – you tend to look for broader nibs or even italic/stub nibs that can put down a very broad stroke with lots of ink.

Of course… putting down a lot of ink means, well, you need lots of ink to put down!

Rewind to the MUJI Aluminium. It comes provided with a standard short international cartridge, and though the pen is long enough to take the full length alternatives that are readily available, the ink selection is relatively restricted.

I’ve often remarked standards are a wonderful thing… there are so many to choose from! Even ink converters for pens that take “standard” cartridges come in a variety of fittings. Though a standard international cartridge has a neck with a nominal internal diameter of 3mm and an external diameter of 4mm, “standard” converters fall into internal diameters of approximately 2.6m and 3.4mm, so it was with some frustration that I discovered that none of my existing “standard” converters fitted the MUJI which appears to require the narrower “standard 3mm” fitting.

In the end I read that Pelikan converters are of the narrower variety and after a few days wait on Canada Post I received one and found it to be true.

Pelikan Ink Converter – Image Source Amazon

My MUJI Aluminium could now take a long drink of pretty much any ink I wanted to try. The only remaining issue was the fine nib it had come supplied with. A quick bit of research told me it was a standard (yup – another one) #5 nib. These are essentially 5mm at the non-writing end, and typically an inch long. (Hey – mixing your measuring standards is a rite of passage if you were born in the UK in the 60s!)

If you’re lucky, they’re standard enough to have the right curvature to fit over the 5mm feed provided with many modern pens. After some hunting on AliExpress, I found a source of 0.7mm and 1.1mm “stub” nibs for the #5 format for mere pennies. They took a looooooong time to arrive, but the nibs (including shipping from China) were less than a letter across Canada, so can’t complain too much. In the end I settled on the 1.1mm stub to lay down a really nice line variation and offer the ink as long as possible to settle and show off its shading.

Of course, when I came to do this post I didn’t have any Tomoe River or other decent fountain pen friendly paper readily to hand, but even with this cheap, absorbent graph paper you can see what Noodler’s Ink Apache Sunset is capable of offering in the shade department…

MUJI Aluminium, Pelikan converter, Chinese no-name 1.1mm nib, Noodler’s Ink Apache Sunset
Close-up to show shading of Noodler’s Ink Apache Sunset even on non-fountain pen friendly paper

This Thing Called Self-consciousness

16 08 2020

Frequent visitors (are there any?) will recognise that my posts are often spurred by odd coincidences in my life – most usually in threes. We all perceive patterns that aren’t necessarily there (pareidolia anyone?), and in my case something flicks a switch when I at least perceive that I’ve noticed three related things pass through my consciousness.

The first item – a singleton of no particular note at the time – was my wife remarking that she was enjoying a Netflix series called “Love on the spectrum“. It’s an Australian 4-part reality show about various people on the autism spectrum trying to find life partners.

Netflix trailer: Love on the Spectrum

I admit to being pretty sceptical. It sounded like pure voyeurism and I suppose I anticipated something on the lines of the Bachelor or Love Island (neither of which I’ve actually watched so perhaps the comparison is even less meaningful!) I wandered into the lounge because my wife kept laughing out loud. I was prepared for producing a negative response, but I was actually very impressed.

The clip I saw involved a date at a restaurant. I was struck by the fact that the production team had obviously selected a quiet, reasonably isolated locations to reduce stress on the participants. Michael in the above clip, was one of the participants. Anyway, his date suddenly felt overwhelmed and stood up from the table. I was very impressed by how the film crew audibly asked how she was doing and made it clear she could move off camera and collect her thoughts in privacy and in her own time. Humane behaviour over “getting the shot”. Michael to his credit was most concerned for her well-being and it all felt respectful and compassionate whilst still being “real”.

Sure, they had some cheap caricatures of each participant’s likes and dislikes (i.e. potential behaviour triggers), but I thought the programme did an amazing job of showing humanity in all its shades. The clips of home life were well selected to show caring, supportive families going to great lengths to point out that their children’s “love issues” were the same for everyone – shown clearly in the above clip of Michael’s family dinner. These were family members to be supported like all others, not “projects” to be endured. Some class parenting on view here.

So anyway, this was the first as-yet unremarked corner of my triangle.

The second corner came last night when I was trouble-shooting why Spotify refused to play any music. It was bouncing rapidly down my playlists without actually playing anything and occasionally saying it couldn’t play that tune just now. Not in the mood?!

Eventually I figured out that when Windows put my HDMI-connected monitor into sleep mode, it was also turning off the connected speakers. No issue – it only powered it down after 30 minutes of disuse, to save power. Trouble was that when it re-woke the monitor, the PC was no longer able to reconnect to the monitor’s speakers. Only the directly connected headphones. Go figure. It knew they were still there, but somehow “out of reach”.

Anyway, once sorted, I randomly selected a Kate Nash playlist, and enjoyed remembering a very low key concert she gave in Vancouver a few years ago. Listening, as I do, to the lyrics, I noticed that a few of her more recent songs explicitly referred to mental health issues. She’s often blunt in her lyrics, but they’re raw and real and all the more powerful for that. I was particularly moved by “Don’t You Want to Share the Guilt?” with its lyrics:

The sun is going down now
And it’s been okay
You tell me all these things you did
While I was away
And this worries me somewhat

I don’t know how more people haven’t got mental health problems
Thinking is one of the most stressful things I’ve ever come across
And not being able to articulate what I want to say drives me crazy

I’m not sure about rivers, they scare me
But I love swimming, I’m good at it
And when I swim I think about numbers
And count the laps

It starts as a rational statement then spirals out into self-referential stressful thoughts which I think many of us experience to some degree on the way to anxiety. Rivers scare me, but I love swimming, but I zone out and count the laps in the pool, but… We over-think so many aspects of our experiences.

YouTube version of Don’t You Want to Share The Guilt?

Anyway, it struck me as a clever treatment of mental stress and how it isn’t a digital “normal/not normal” thing. There’s a whole spectrum of mental health issues and we travel up and down it (actually – in multiple dimensions) constantly. I’m not sure if Ms Nash was making a statement about her own mental health or just putting a spotlight on the general issue. Either way, it was very well done I thought.

Corner three was in the same sort of vein. Having figured out how to get Spotify to reliably play my “tunage”, I dipped into Mother Mother this morning.

One of their later songs “It’s Alright” from their “Dance and Cry” album really moved me.

Mother Mother: It’s Alright on Vevo

It has a simple message:

It’s alright, it’s okay, it’s alright, it’s okay
You’re not a monster, just a human
And you made a few mistakes
It’s alright, it’s okay, it’s alright, it’s okay
You’re not gruesome, just human
And you made a few mistakes
It’s alright

How many of us suffer in silence because we need to hear that our behaviours are not enough to label us as demons or monsters? Someone to take the time to listen to us share our thoughts, coupled with our own willingness to share those thoughts in the first place and listen when someone is kind enough to tell us that it’s alright – humans being. (sic)

My perception is that as a society we’re a lot more able to share our inner thoughts and fears than we were say 60 years ago. Mental health is no longer seen simply as an issue for the fringe, or an excuse for avoiding military service. We’re not “there” yet though, and depression is still often seen as weakness.

Mental health is important, and many of us are still unwilling to acknowledge it even within ourselves. We can all help though: ask someone how they’re doing, but really listen to their response. Don’t judge. If that seems too much, try simply smiling at someone that looks like they need it. It may well help them and it will definitely make you feel good about sharing some good vibes. Need some practice? Try this at Movember’s site.

I’m no psychologist but I know we’re social animals and when we feel emotionally isolated, especially when we’re physically not, it can be a strong driver towards depression and any number of negative behaviours.

November’s a way off yet, but don’t wait – consider supporting Movember or other mental health charities.

A Nosey Observation

10 08 2020

I was on an aeroplane the other day. Saturday.

The young woman in front of me was travelling with her mother who was sat in the row in front of her. She never spoke to her once after she’d seated her.

I could see her writing notes on her phone. Journalling, I suppose. I couldn’t help peering in what I admit was actually an intrusive, voyeuristic way. Blogging about it now seems both confessional and also multiplying the error of judgement.

Her typing was all mushy stuff about positive thoughts and about her relationship with “Dom”. He was off to Moscow it seems. She had guilt issues about their physical relationship (no details unfortunately), and its “sinful” nature. They had mutually agreed to abstain, but since he was in Mocow and she was currently headed to Nice it all seemed rather moot!

I felt a little sorry for her that in the 21st century after the birth of a little jewish boy of questionable parentage, the cult that grew around him and his story-telling was causing this young woman such emotional turmoil.

And yet, for all the hemming and hawing she was recording about this supposedly sinful nature of her relationship with Dom, she never once passed a remark – kind or even casual – to her elderly mother sat between two strangers on a lengthy international flight.

How odd that we find it more comforting to dwell on the restrictions imposed by the tzars of our chosen religion than on its positive recommendations. It’s as if we’re more at ease beating ourselves up over trivial human failings than spending a little effort being kind to someone else. Even our own flesh and blood.

Lessons learnt

18 07 2020

This tale spans several years, and at least tentatively seems to have a happy ending.

Years ago, I was in Vicotria on the island, and perusing an art shop. I forget the name, but they had all manner of pens, inks, papers and other goodies. At that time I was dabbling in calligraphy (one of many times I’ve dabbled in it but never got above ankle-depth unfortunately). With dip pens I’d acquired somewhere in life’s great meanderings and some bold calligraphy inks from J. Herbin I’d picked up at Paper-ya on Granville Island.

Image Source: J. Herbin

These were naïve days, well before the only slightly more educated days I now pass, with respect to fountain pens, dip pens and inks. My calligraphy dabblings with dip pens weren’t “bringing me joy”, and I saw a relatively cheap fountain pen in the shop that offered a broad (B) nib. It was a brand I’d never heard of – “Pen & Ink”, and the pen was simply called “Sketch”. It was aimed at pen illustrators and there were various nib widths available. Looking back, I possibly over-paid at what I recall was around CAD $30. The other day I saw my local art shop stocks the same pen for CAD$23, several years later. No matter – it was what I wanted at the time (cheap access to a B nib) and it was there when I wanted it. I’ve since learnt that the brand is from “Art Alternatives” and is actually an employee-owned company distributed exclusively by MacPherson’s. The current packaging brands it more forcefully as Art Alternatives, and downplays the “Sketch” model which is etched into the pen lid.

Pen & Ink Sketching Fountain Pens – Rileystreet Art Supply

Image Source: Riley Street (not where I bought it)

It came with a cartridge, a converter (branded oddly Faber-Castell) and a cute faux-leather wrap to store it in. So back to the naïveté …

I had calligraphy inks, a fountain pen which I was much more accustomed to using, and we were now off to the races… I’d found dip pens fraught with usage issues and scratchiness and figured that a B nib in a fountain pen might at least let me continue to explore “fancy writing”.

So innevitably I got bored with quick foxes and “Happy Birthday”, let alone the EXTRA pain there was in swapping inks with the converter over just cleaning a dip pen nib. Bored at last, I gave the pen a last clean out and put it away.

Fast forward a decade or thereabouts and my love of fountain pens resurrects (can’t attest to whether there was a full moon). I recall I had one pen with a B nib, and dug it out of the drawer. I inked it up with FOUNTAIN PEN INK (note the subtle emphasis?!) and found it to be less than stellar at writing.

So I started to educate myself with such weightly and knowledgable sources as YouTube and various Google discoveries. Ouch! So though it is not 100% – by and large, if an ink is pigmented (i.e .has solid colour particles – like paint) it should not be used in a fountain pen. There are a few notable exceptions, such as “shimmer” inks, but even these come with dire warnings about vintage pens and recommendations of fastidious cleaning.

What we normally think of as fountain pen inks use competely soluble dyes for their colour, which is why they can sometimes have issues with saturation. The light passes through a dye/ink, bounces off the underlying paper and comes back to us as a composite of the filtering effects of the ink, its thickness and the colour of the paper. A pigmented ink (or paint) is more opaque and reflects directly. Its perceived colour then is less impacted by the colour of the underlying paper.

So – calligraphy inks are typically pigmented, and can have rich colours (or even textures) because they are largely independent of the underlying medium. These pigments though… are not water soluble. Instead, they are held in suspension (in the UK, water based house paints are generically called emulsion which is actually the technical term for these suspensions). Unless you’re very careful (and I would add – lucky!) at least some of the pigment particles will remain behind after even the most thorough of pen cleanings. These may then dry to a pretty hard-wearing solid. If it’s in the converter, it may be reasonably benign. Most of us don’t have that kind of luck, and there’s a high likelihood you’ll end up with deposits left behind in the feed (the plastic/ebonite bit that manages ink flow to the nib), which these days typically has lots of tiny little fins that can catch the particles and allow them to dry… and be hard to shift. Particles may also settle/dry on the nib itself.

Pretty much any of these places will modify the physics of the flow of any subsequent ink to the nib… and basically bugger things up. The general advice to remedy the situation is lots of patience (“does not compute”) and lots of luke warm water and washing up liquid – specifically “blue Dawn”, because it’s gentle on baby ducks if nothing else. I’m beginning to think Dawn sponsor all these pen DIY sites.

So I began. Sure enough, over the space of a few hours/days, first the recent “proper” ink flushed out of the pen, and then gradually I began to see remnants of the bright orange J. Herbin calligraphy ink I’d used all those years ago. One of those (typically blue for some reason – Dawn influence?) ear cleaning bulbs is a great aid, and can really get some water pressure through the pen section, feed and nib, to safely dislodge loosened particles.

Image Source: Amazon

With seemingly no end to the slow expulsion of orange pigmented particles, I got more bold. I read that often the nib/feed could actually be removed from the section for additional cleaning (or indeed to swap the nib for a different width). This isn’t recommended generally, but since this was a cheap pen, and plainly didn’t work anyway, I had little to lose.

The little I lost first was a couple of the fins on the feed. These got bent as I struggled to free up the feed/nib. Then I read that gentle heat could help loosen components up. I didn’t feel comfortable using a hair-dryer (the most common recommendation), so I opted for hotter water than I’d been using thus far. This worked and I managed to removed the nib and feed… and a substantial amount of yet more orange pigment. I could now see that the feed was indeed covered in dried-on orange pigment and as well as the fins, the very fine channel along the top of the feed was clogged, essentially guaranteeing the nib would get no ink.

More soaking, but no improvement. I read that a weak solution of household ammonia can help dislodge ink too. The only thing I could find in my local supermarkets was window cleaner (also blue… hm, trend now firmly established). This had no noticeably better effect than warm soapy water… and on reflection may have made the plastic feed more brittle.

I don’t possess an ultra-sonic cleaner – often used for jewellery, rings and the like – so I went to the next best thing… a toothbrush.

You remember the “does not compute” comment above? Yeah, patience and me are not well acquainted. One brush too hard, and I snapped off the thin plastic tube at the rear of the feed which brings the ink initially from the ink reservoir to the feed’s many intricate fins and channels. This may not actually have been fatal, but it was excuse enough to draw a line under my attempts and change tack.

As a side-effect, all the hot water baths had dislodged whatever adhesives were used in the pen’s manufacture and I could now totally disassemble it, right down to the trim pieces which I discovered now unscrewed.

I carefully dried all the pieces and put them in a used Altoids tin, labelled “needs fixing”, and began looking online.


Fully disassembled – note remaining stubborn orange stain on trim and broken feed

I discovered an online shop in the UK called Loft Pens. They make hand-turned beautiful, reasonably priced fountain pens, but also sell Jinhao brand fountain pens… and several accoutrements such as converters, replacement nibs… and feeds! I pulled out my broken feed and sure enough, it looked like a close fit for a “Jinhao number 6”. Given the price of the pen, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it wasn’t actually a Jinhao or similar component anyway. I ordered the feed and a couple of other odds and sods… and waited. And waited.

And waited.

In the end, I contacted Loft Pens who very quickly refunded me, and suggested I re-ordered since it would seem the order had fallen into the COVID mail void. This I duly did, and reset the wait clock. A couple of weeks later, the original order turned up! I contacted the customer-caring folks at Loft Pens and offered to refund them back for the refund (if you see what I mean), but have yet to hear their preference. I underline that the delay was not of their making, and they behaved impeccably throughout.

So… now I theoretically had all the bits to rebuild Steve Austin my pen.


Broken feed and new feed from Loft Pens


Re-assembled, ready to ink up and try…

First attempt was a little unsteady, if I’m totally honest. I’d foolishly “gone for gold” and tried it with some Noodler’s Pushkin. It’s a lovely green colour, but I’m discovering, can be a bit temperamental. It’s supposed to be one of their forgery-resistant inks so I think it’s got odd things in it. It began well, a lovely so called “wet” line and quite happily wrote a side of my notebook without issue. I was right on the verge of declaring problem solved when I got a series of “hard starts”. A quick check showed there was still ink in the converter, so I was back to failure mode. Oddly, the pen still wrote “reversed” (nib upside down), so I had a pleasantly diverting hour or two tuning my nib as the tines weren’t quite aligned and I vaguely suspected this might be the issue (ignoring the fact it had written perfectly well for a full page of writing to that point). Eventually the converter ran dry, so I cleaned everything (lesson learnt for sure! I do this every ink refill in every pen now), and tried a bit of Parker Quink.

This is well known as a lubricated quick-drying trouble-free (if slightly boring) ink. I actually quite like the shade of Quink blue and was very relieved to drain out the fill onto a couple of pages with no issues at all. I really do think the issue is now resolved (essentially by replacing the clogged feed), and I’ve regained another fountain pen to the stable.

So – what did I learn in all this?

  • Not to use pigmented inks in a fountain pen!
    • India ink is a big no-no, by the way: it’s essentially a suspension of soot in water.
    • Iron gall inks can corrode the metal parts of a pen even though they say they’re for use in fountain pens, by the way – different issue.
    • Winsor & Newton inks contain Shellac which is similarly death (or at least a solid wounding) to fountain pens.
  • J. Herbin make lovely inks (including a scented range safe for fountain pens) – but be sure to get the ones for the writing tool you intend to use. They do ranges of metallics and shimmer inks, but not all are suitable for fountain pens.
  • Modern mass produced pens have a lot of plastic components and can often be disassembled right to the ground with patience and a little gentle heat.
    • I wouldn’t recommend this for vintage or expensive pens, but it can be educational if you have a pen you don’t mind risking.
    • Even so-called disposable fountain pens like Pilot’s V-pen (currently CAD$3 at Walmart) can be disassembled when empty and refilled with an ink of your choice. There are others like Zebra and Uni-ball. Cheap but quite servicable steel nibs from these Japanese vendors.
    • Another little “hack” – you can gently wipe the plastic barrel of these cheap pens with acetone/nailpolish remover and the printing will come off, leaving you a clear view of the ink level inside… basically a cheap demonstrator eye-dropper.
  • Cheaper pens likely have Chinese components and you may be able to find replacement parts from generic sources.
  • Not all fountain pen inks behave the same – try Parker Blue/Blue-black/Black Quink or a similarly old/boring ink such as Waterman’s or Pelikan 4001 to make sure it really is the pen and not the ink before you start taking things apart. Modern inks have way more complex chemistry than blue/black from older brands.
  • If you find yourself cleaning pens often, consider a cheap ultra-sonic cleaner. They dislodge the most stubborn of ink by creating minute bubbles to “scrub” the inaccessible parts of the pen.
    • Too much, too long can damage some components and materials, so be mindful of this if dealing with delicate or vintage pens.

The Subtleties of Racism

17 07 2020

So one of my LinkedIn contacts posted this recent Apple ad about Working From Home.

I do have to say, it’s very slick and well put together, as one might expect from a major company with an endless marketing budget. It captures charicatures of several typical Apple customers – “creatives” of a studiedly diverse demographic, and gently introduces a few cool tools available to iPhone,  iPad, iWatch, Macs etc – some of which are built in and users may not even be aware of. I learnt that my iPhone can act as a scanner for example. I never even knew there was a “Notes” App, let alone how powerful it was!

Then around the 2:45 mark I was suddenly brought up short. There was a jokey remark about Canada. In reference to the boss’s new assistant – the fourth one this year, we’re told:

“What happened to the one who cried all the time?”

“She had to go back to Canada” divulged the young, vegan, yoga-cat-lady, munching on a carrot.

At first, I shrugged it off. The piece is crammed with stereotypes, so why was I so bothered by this one? Stereotypes – particularly in short marketing pieces – help us short-cut the context and backstory, so we can focus on the message they’re trying to give us. Background things fit the expectation, so we notice the new things – “the message”.

So was a “delicate” Canadian PA sterotypical? Or was it racist?