Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sheaffer Calligraphy Fountain Pens - Cheap, Functional and Just Plain Fun

A few weeks back I noted an interesting video I had caught describing how to create a quill pen. My plan was to keep an eye out for natural materials that would let me recreate this same experiment.

Instead of finding just the right tail feather, I found this sweet deal at Staples. For $5.99, I picked up a Sheaffer Calligraphy Fountain Pen Viewpoint, which had the same nib style as the quill pen that was hand carved in the video. That would give me the chance to play with granddaddy of pen types, all while avoiding the bird flu.

Staples offers a Medium, Fine and Broad version of the pen, on a whim, I picked up the Medium version.

Using a fountain pen is like shaving with a safety razor. Intimidating, steeped in tradition, and yet ultimately nearly the same as using a modern device. I hadn't plan to get into fountain pens, but the Staples deal was too good to pass up.

Once I got the pen home, I hit my first challenge: how do you assemble this guy? It's obvious how the pen screws together, but what was less obvious to me is which direction the cartridge loaded. If you look at the ink cartridge, you'll see that there's one side that has a small bubble, and the other has a larger indentation. With a bit of research, I learned that the bubble side goes towards the pen tip.

I assembled the pen and then waited for ink to gush all over my hands. That didn't happen.

Now the next challenge: how do you write with this guy? The Internet has this answer of course. The bottom line is that you need to position the pen tip at the right angle, and apply gentle pressure to cause the ink to flow.

It took far less practice than I expected. Here's some scribbling in action:

As a $6 dollar experiment, I'd say these pens are an absolute hit. They're just plain fun. I doubt I'm going to give up my Pilot Gel's anytime soon, but for a novel writing experience, you really can't beat this pen. Next time I'm at Staples, I plan to pick up the Fine and Broad versions.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

DC, Cherry Blossoms and the Trail to Nowhere

Driving in DC is a pain. Not just because of the traffic (though, that doesn't help), but because the laws of Cartesian geometry seem not apply. You think to yourself, surely if I know the general location of my destination, I can use basic logic to arrive there. This always fails, because streets simply do not connect in any sane fashion. You have to take the exact route, or you end up Georgetown. Unless of course you want to end up in Georgetown, and then you'll end up anywhere else.

Yesterday, I re-learned this lesson while trying to run from the Lincoln Memorial to Georgetown. I was enjoying the sunshine, and before I knew it, I was at the base of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge heading back to Virginia, with no obvious way to get back to DC without having to backtrack.

Not a problem, I figured, I'll just snap a few pics of the gorgeous Cherry Blossoms in view and then I'd run across the bridge, back to safe, sane, Virginia. Come to think of it, I'd been over the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge a number of times, but never on this side. Now I was curious where this path was going to take me.

I made it across the bridge. And what did I find, but this:

What the heck?!

Instead of backtracking along the bridge, I pushed forward and finally hopped the guard rail to the Marine Corps Monument. No wonder I'd never been on that side of the bridge, it's not actually a trail that goes anywhere. It's just another DC trap. Classic.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Weekly Discoveries

Jon Pardi's What I can't Put Down, is pretty solid country music, though it does hit a few too many cliches to great. Easton Corbin's I Can't Love You Back delivers the simple story telling of country music using clever wordplay, all without a girl dancing in Daisy Dukes; well done! Alas, it's also a terribly sad song, too. Oh well, you can't have everything, I suppose.

Dreams by Nuages, starts off with a simple voice over sample which sucks you in. It's a great example of how a little talking can totally pull you into a song.

Alt-J's Breezeblocks is a remarkably shot video, even if the subject matter is a bit extreme for my taste. It's racked up 129 million views, all from a band I'd never heard of (not that I'm authority on these matters, to say the least).

And there's just something disarming about Avalache's Since I Left You, that makes it my favorite video of the week. Definitely worth a watch.

On the non-music side of things, I've included one of Teoh Yi Chie's drawing tutorials. I love how he verbalizes his drawing process, taking a subject which seems mystical and turning into one that's quite logical. He describes a series of simple rules he follows that turn drawing into an almost near algorithmic process. It's awesome.

Watch all the videos here.

On A Run - Trust Me, Edition

Trust me, I said. We're on the trail, I said. I'm sure this is the right way, I said. Then we got here.

Ahhh, the joys of trail running. In my defense, the trail does sort of just end, and you're expected to pick it up later. I just hadn't counted on the sludgy stream to be in the way.

A few more pics from the run. Good times!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A No-Excuses Quickie Sketchbook - Hand Sewn Edition

One decision that worked well during my week of daily drawing was to use my own hand made sketchbook. This sounds more impressive then it was: I took a few sheets of printer paper, folded them, and stapled them together.

This approach worked well for two reasons. First, there was the psychological benefit of dealing with a low page-count, zero-cost notebook versus an thick, leather bound affair. And second, publishing my content to the web was made easy. I sliced down the center of the book with an X-acto knife, laid the half-size sheets of paper out on the counter, and snapped photos. And just like that, I was a published artist.

While the staple binding of the last notebook worked, it required more finesse and time to assemble than I wanted to spend. For my next notebook, I decided to take a page out of the book binding world and sew my creation together. Again, this probably sounds like a complicated thing to do, but it's quite easy. The steps are laid out here, and take just a few minutes to follow.

I used the most crude tools: an awl from my toolbox, some masonry line and an oversized needle I happened to have laying around. Here's some action shots:

Even with the crude instruments, I ended up with a perfectly usable notebook. Sewing was definitely faster than trying to hand place staples.

While considering my new sketchpad I realized that it had one obvious shortcoming: without a hard cover, it wasn't easy to draw on unless I had a hard surface to rest it on. In other words, this notebook worked great for drawing my breakfast, but probably wouldn't be ideal for on scene sketching.

As a work around, I grabbed an old 3 ring binder that wasn't being used. I measured it for the size of the notebook and sliced it to size. I then put some duct tape on the edges. See:

The 3-ring binder cover had a slot for holding sheets of paper, which I re-purposed to hold the sketchbook. The result is that I can stuff the sketchbook into this pocket, and then fit both items into my man-bag.

I've now got a perfectly functional, extra low stress, drawing setup. All I need is the time to put it to use.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Week of Art Before Breakfast

As I mentioned previously, Danny Gregory's Art Before Breakfast starts with a week's worth of drawing exercises. And without further ado, here's what I produced over that "week" (I fudged it a bit, and did Saturday and Sunday's drawings on Monday and Tuesday):

In many respects, I'm seeing these drawings for the first time myself. One of Danny's bits of advice is to finish the drawing and immediately turn the page. The worst thing you can do is dwell on how badly you flubbed a drawing. And so after every drawing, that's exactly what I did. To keep myself from cheating, I used a binder clip to both mark my place and keep me from browsing previous days. Here's how every day started:

And so when I look at these drawings, I'm actually quite pleased. I'm also a bit surprised. I attempted to draw our library two different times, and both attempts came out more or less the same.

While Art Before Breakfast would like to teach you to draw better, that doesn't strike me as its primary objective. Instead, it's making two key claims: first, that drawing has huge benefits. For example, you'll see details around you that you never noticed,or you'll experience the same joy of flow that comes with meditation or Yoga. Second that you can gain these benefits even if you don't think you have the skills or time.

In many respects, my little week of drawing supports these claims. While some of the drawings were frustrating to make, other's surprised me with how enjoyable they were. In a few cases, the exercise called for just drawing the outline of a scene, and I found myself itching to fill in the details (versus, say, itching to burn the sketchbook).

Perhaps the best example of Art Before Breakfast influencing me is this little sketch here:

I made this sketch in my notepad while waiting in my car for an appointment to start. I stated by just drawing the stop sign in front of me, and before I knew it I was filling in the details of the scene around it. And just like that, the 10 minutes I could have frittered away on YouTube, was spent creating something.

Before you rush off and buy Art Before Breakfast, assuming it will unlock your inner art genius, there's a few things you should know.

First, most of the advice in the book I'd already picked up from Gregory or others. Still, it's impressive to see what effectively took me years to catalog, splayed out in a couple of pages.

And second, I found the emphasis on trying to make art in just a few minutes to be stress inducing in its own right. I've learned that step one of making a drawing needs to be having a internal discussion: what am I actually seeing here?. If I feel like I've got just a couple of minutes to get the drawing done, that critical step gets thrown out.

I'm not quite sure where I'm going to go from here. But I've got an empty sketchbook, a pen and a world class cheerleader in Danny Gregory; what else could you ask for?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

LCD Hacking - Part 2 - Some Assembly Required

With my surgically extracted LCD panel and Amazon delivered LCD driver in hand, it was time to bring my repurposed LCD screen to life.

The LCD driver package came with a selection of random parts:

The only thing resembling instructions was a product screenshot labeled Wiring Guide:

I suppose a more cautious soul would have researched and carefully understood the role electronic component, and thoughtfully assembled them. Instead, I played a game of 'hey, what fits where?' and before I knew it, I had all the parts connected. The wiring diagram appeared to confirm my assumptions.

I then made my way to my defunct hardware pile and started looking for a 12 Volt, 3 amp adapter that would power this sucker. Despite a ridiculous number of adapters to choose from, I came up empty handed:

I should have been content to leave well enough alone and simply ordered an adapter off of Amazon. But no, I had to push my luck. I found a 12 volt 5 amp adapter that fit and decided to give that guy a go. This was almost certainly a very bad idea.

The little red LED did light up, but other than that, nothing happened. Did I burn out the whole system due to be impatient? Probably. I've ordered the right adapter and it should arrive in another few days. I guess I'll find out then.

For now, a wired heap of electronics is all I've got to show for my handy work. But I'm not ready to give up yet!

Stay tuned...

Monday, March 20, 2017

Weekly Discoveries

I kicked off last week's musical discoveries with some especially smooth and chill selections, including one wacky track just for Mom.

If you want to capture the fleeting nature of youth, and the longing for simpler days, look no further than Want It Back.

And check it out, Tupac made the list with Hold On, Be Strong. That there, is some powerful music.

There's a number of historical oddities on the list. First, consider the visual that runs behind Quantic's Time is the Enemy. That's a famous bit of footage filmed in San Fransisco in 1906 and titled A Trip Down Market Street. It's a remarkable snapshot in time of when the car and horse and buggy were figuratively (and probably literally) colliding. Here's one notable comment from the video:

1906... Incredible. Cars were roaming the streets. Large buildings were standing. Hitler was decades away from taking power. Baseball was the only major sport in the country. There was no television. No real movie theaters as we know them. The Titanic hadn't yet set sail. The Great Depression was still over 20 years away. World War I hadn't happened yet. Women did not have the right to vote. Slavery was abolished just over 40 years prior. The first plane was flown for only a few miles just three years before. The World Wide Web was 84 years away from being invented. There were 78 million people in the USA, compared to about 335 million now. The first cell phone was nearly 70 years from invention.

It is now 2016 (pretty soon 2017), yet in the grand scheme of time, 1906 was only a split second ago.

Cell phone video and easy publishing on YouTube may be trademarks of the amateur film maker, but the lack of these tools were hardly an impediment to those dedicated to the craft. Here's a film created in 1948 as a family lark: The Tramp's Revenge. Of course it was harder for videos to go viral back in the day.

And finally, consider Charlie Chaplin's, The Lion's Cage. Yes, this is a silent movie. But the lack of talking doesn't slow this little flick down one bit. It's 3 minutes and 25 seconds of hilarity. A must see, if you ask me.

The most powerful video of the bunch is probably Clean Bandit's, Symphony which tells the story of a devastating loss. It does this using characters that pretty much up-end most musical stereotypes, what with the African-American Gay couple, where one of them is a Classical Music Conductor. I'm not the only one who's impressed, as it's amassed 5.8 million views in just over 4 days.

This week's random hack: How to Make a Gas Mask. What can I say, I thought it was a clever build.

Watch all the clips here:

Friday, March 17, 2017

Try this: Making Wire Wrapped Jewelry

For as long as I've been traveling, I've been grabbing interesting rocks, shells and other odds and ends to remember the trip. Recently, I was inspired to pick up a spool of 20 gauge artistic wire, bust out the needle nose pliers and try my hand at turning a few of these shells and rocks into jewelry.

There are tons of tutorials out there for creating wire wrapped jewelry. And while many promise that it's easy, I've found it decidedly not so.

But it is fun to at least try!

Here's a few attempts using shells we recently collected:

(Note in some cases, I just used a 1/16th inch drill bit to drill through the shells - which are both quite hard, and super fragile)

I won't be quitting my day job any time soon. But, if you find yourself with some interesting looking shells or rocks, this is definitely something you should try!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Simple but Magical: Veggie Stock from Scratch

I find making something I've only ever bought in the store to be a most enlightening kitchen activity. Lke making pasta sauce from scratch when you've only ever had it from the jar. Or, making bread, where the first step is gathering the wheat.

I suppose going through the effort to make humble staples helps to connect the dots on how food really works. You can spend a lifetime going to the cabinet and pulling out flour without ever asking: where does flour come from? How does it work? And of course, something empowering about knowing yeah, I could make that. I may choose not to, but I could.

Today's recipe: basic vegetable stock. In many respects, this is as boring as a recipe can get. First of all, there are all manner of broth's available to you at the store. And second of all, the recipe couldn't be more simple: saute veggies for 10 minutes, add 2 quarts of water, bring to boil and let simmer for 30 minutes.

Even with such simplicity, I'm still amazed at the results: you've turned water and random veggies into soup broth. It doesn't seem like it should work, but it does. It's so basic, and yet so magical. And while soup broth on its own isn't particular exciting, it's the basis for many other recipes.

I've now tried this veggie broth recipe twice. The second time the broth came out decidedly darker and spicier than the first. Though, the spicy part was by design as I dropped a jalapeno into the collection of veggies.

Here's an action shot, where I've added sauteed mushrooms and onions to make the soup stock into something more soup like:

Oh, and it's worth noting that the recipe is: Vegetarian, Vegan, Kosher, Kosher for Passover, low-salt and can be made from whatever veggies you have lying around.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Laptop LCD Hacking - Part 1 - The Joy of Laptop Dissection

To finish refurbishing my grandparent-in-law's 1940's TV console, I'd like to stash a screen where the old school CRT used to live. I went on Amazon looking for various options, and didn't turn up any obvious solutions. Instead I'm going to fall back on a hack I've been meaning to try anyway: repurposing a laptop LCD screen as a separate monitor.

Step one was to pick out the laptop that would be cannibalized. To the defunct hardware pile! I chose an old Dell Inspiron 1525:

I'm sure I could have found the user manual online and figured out the correct way of extracting the LCD panel. Instead I just started removing every screw in sight. And when I was done, I had the LCD and a big 'ol pile of parts:

Man that was fun!

From the little research I've done, I knew I needed a LCD controller to make this work. Luckily, there was a model number on the back of the LCD:

I searched for lcd controller board b154ew02 and up came promising results. One click later, I had the controller ordered from Amazon.

And so now I wait. If all goes well, the board I ordered will be compatible with the LCD and I'll have a functional monitor. At that point, I'll just need to figure out a clever way to mount this bad boy.

Incidentally, the LCD controller I purchased doesn't appear to do sound. For my purposes, that should be OK. I'll count this as a success if I can use the TV console as an elaborate photo frame. Or better yet, I'll go full retro and use the screen to stream silent movies.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Weekly Discoveries

Till You're Loved not only has a sweet beat, but it has a slick video to match. I certainly didn't see that ending coming.

I'm not sure what the deal is with this 300 Violin Orchestra, but I know if you need a psych me up for the big game/coding session, there's your tune.

Who knew that you could learn so much just by making a quill pen. Spoiler alert: all modern fonts are based on this ancient writing tool. Now I've got another reason to keep an eye out for bird feathers, as this would be a fun How To to replicate. This project pairs well with pokeweed ink, which is easy and surprisingly effective.

The Sophistefunk channel has a couple dozen or so playlists filled with interesting tunes. This bluesy and this chiptuney were stand out ones.

Finally, the most clever video of the bunch has to be Miike Snow's Genghis Khan. Having watched my fair share of James Bond flicks, I can tell you it's perfect.

Watch all the discoveries here.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A No-Excuses Quickie Sketchbook

Being a huge fan of Danny Gregory, I was psyched to see his book Art Before Breakfast in the new releases section. Naturally, I checked it out and dove right in. Being a book about creating art, it quickly became clear that this wasn't going to be a typical passive reading experience. To get the full benefit of Danny's wisdom, I'd need to follow along with the simple exercises. No problem, I was up for this. I mentally committed myself to starting his 'Monday' exercise next Monday.

There's only one pre-requisite to to starting the exercises: you need a pen and sketchbook. Pens I got. But the sketchbook, that's another story. On one hand, I could use one of the partially-filled in books I have lying around. Or, I could buy a fresh sketchbook in honor of the occasion, but then I need to figure out how large it should be, how many pages it should contain and how much I should splurge on it. Then I thought about just using index cards instead of a sketchbook, but that got me worried that the small size would be too much of a hindrance.

I could definitely see how this one innocuous requirement was poised to derail the whole process.

And then it hit me: I'll just make my own improvised sketchbook. Surely there's advice on the web for doing this. I'd be happy if it had only enough pages to get me through the first week or two. And if I made it, it would be very much in the spirit of the Danny's advice (be creative! don't worry about being perfect!).

So, off to the web I went.

While there are some impressive How To's out there for making sketchbooks, the approach I needed boiled down to this:

  • Grab some printer paper
  • Fold said printer paper in half
  • Nestle the pages together
  • Bind
  • Admire your beautiful handy work!

Tutorials like this one are quite impressive, and take you through all the details of the assembly process. I assumed that I'd tackle the 'bind' step by using sewing technique outlined in the tutorial. However, I found this YouTube video which showed a technique for using staples instead. I figured staples would be faster than sewing, though after having gone through the process, I'm not so sure.

Anyway, here's a few action shots from my 15 minute craft fest:

A few comments on the above. First off, I was hoping I could find some high quality paper used for printing resumes on. Alas, I haven't printed a resume in over a decade, so I had no luck finding any. But I did find some random graph paper which I decided to use as a cover.

I used the sharpie as a bone folder and a large push-pin as an awl.

As you can see, I'm hand inserting and bending staples. This was finicky work and was made easier by using a needle nose pliers. Next time I'll have to try sewing, as I bet it's faster.

And the final step just shows the new notebook smooshed between textbooks. I'll let the sketchbook hang out for a day or so there and see how it looks.

The end result is that I've got an imperfect sketchbook that's perfect for what I need.

Incidentally, during my research I learned how you can quickly make a mini sketchbook by using nothing more than a single sheet of paper and one cut with a scissors. The results are too small for my Art Before Breakfast homework assignments, but they're perfect for 1000 other uses:

Definitely take a few minutes and create yourself a notebook or two.