Friday, September 24, 2010

Low-Tech on the Go: Cheap Pocket Pencil Hack

I've talked about pocket notebooks in recent posts, they're handy things to have for keeping organized and jotting down ideas, but what do you use to write in them?

If I'm wearing a jacket or carrying a bag it's easy enough to carry a pen, but otherwise a pen in a pants pocket, where it's subject to being bent and banged up by whatever my clumsy posterior collides with, which can lead to a messy leak. In these cases, the humble pencil is a better choice.

Carrying a pencil does have one or two small disadvantages, first, a good point on is is vulnerable and easily broken, and two, one needs something to sharpen it with. You can carry a separate sharpener and keep renewing the tip if you like, but I like an all-in-one option. If money is no object, you can get one of these (and apparently there is a more affordable plastic option which I fully intend to snatch up if I come across one), but for those of us who are looking for cheap and easy, I've got another way.

Materials you'll need are:
Your pocket notebook (of course)
A pair of small binder clips
A piece of fine-grit sandpaper
A knife
A pencil
A cheap "stick" pen

Start by cutting the pencil down to about the length of your pocket notebook. You don't have to, but I find this makes it easier to carry the two together. Then put a bit of point on it with the knife or a sharpener.

Next take the pen. Remove the cap from the pen, and toss the pen back in your desk drawer (it doesn't need a cap there). The plastic cap should fit nicely over the point of an average Number 2 pencil.

Now, cut a piece of the sandpaper small enough to fit inside your notebook. Clip it in place with a binder clip.

Attach another binder clip to the edge of your notebook, you can then slip the clip on the pen cap through that, attaching your pencil to your notebook.
And there you have a pocket writing system. The sandpaper is all you need to sharpen your pencil (with patience you can sharpen it from completely flat, but for the sake of efficiency it's easier to cut your point and home and use the paper to refresh it as it wears down) and the pen cap protects the tip in your pocket and provides a clip.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What I'm Watching: Warehouse 13

I don't get to watch much TV, and mostly follow it on the internet (Hulu, Netflix, etc, which means I'm the last person to see a given show), but one of the shows I've been enjoying on a regular basis is Syfy's Warehouse 13.

For those of you not familiar with the basic premise, the Warehouse is a storage facility operated under the auspices of the Secret Service which houses artifacts and inventions too dangerous to be allowed out in the world. Most of them have unexplained powers that do really cool things, but usually in a way that causes a lot of trouble.

The Warehouse has a small staff of agents who go out in the world and retrieve the artifacts and bring them back for storage. Apparently the current Warehouse is designated 13 because there have been 12 other locations over the millennia. Warehouses, and their employees, seem to frequently come to a bad end.

The premise is fun and the artifacts range from really clever to kind of goofy. The look of the show is pretty cool, much of the Warehouse tech itself is based around past innovations that were way ahead of their time, giving it a kind of retro sci-fi/steampunk style. The special effects are the same clever-but-low-budget computer effects as are used in the BBC's Doctor Who, they're believable enough to get the job done, but wouldn't make Michael Bay happy (but since Transformers 2 didn't make me happy, we're even). In fact, if you're a fan of Doctor Who, you'll probably like the Warehouse, they share a similar pulp adventure exuberance.

Part of what I enjoy the most, though, is the ensemble acting by the cast, especially by Saul Rubinek (playing team leader Artie Nielson) and Joanne Kelly (Agent Myka Bering). Other members of the cast are good, and the interaction between them works well, but these two have a naturalistic style that I find especially appealing.

Unfortunately, this week's season finale makes it look like Kelly is leaving the Warehouse, but I'm not counting her out yet. The first season ended with the apparent death of one of the principals, which didn't stick. Syfy has also apparently taken another cue from the success of Doctor Who and filmed an in-between-seasons episode set to air around Christmas, which will have Kelly back as Myka.

If you like science-fiction and fantasy tinged adventure, Warehouse 13 is definitely worth checking out. It's available on Hulu and probably iTunes if you've missed this season

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The "Extremely Basic" Workout Routine

I've been slacking off a bit lately, especially on the cardio, but I'm really trying to get myself in better shape. One of my big problems is focus. I've gotten sidetracked with job hunting and the million-and-one things that come up for a single parent, so my workout programs tend to get derailed pretty easily.

I've decided that rather than set myself on an ambitious program of varied exercises for maximum results, I'm going with "just do SOMETHING, dammit!"

In that vein, I've set myself on a bare minimum routine. When I have time and ambition, I can do more, but I have to do at least this.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday - upper body/core: Three sets of pushups, three sets of curls with 30lbs dumbbells

Mon, Wednesday, Friday - cardio: jog 1-2 miles, barefoot or light shoes, on flat ground (I like jogging barefoot, ok?).

Tuesday, Thursday - 2-4 miles jog around town, light shoes or barefoot

It's not the greatest program out there, but my theory is that consistent moderate exercise beats sporadic intense exercise.

Anybody else have simple ideas that work? I though I'd be able to do some bicycle commuting, but it looks like that's going to be an impossibility. And no, I can't schedule/afford anything that involves classes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pocket Notebook Throwdown - First Elimination

A little while back I mentioned that I would be test driving a few different pocket notebooks to see if I can find anything better/more affordable/sexier than my usual Moleskine Cahiers books.

I had originally started with three notebooks, the Moleskine, a no-name lookalike from Target and the Rhodia No. 11 pocket notebooks. My friend John Abella put word in for Field Notes brand, and a few people mentioned Rite in the Rain. I haven't been able to find a local source for the RitR books, (although that doesn't rule out trying them in the future) but John was kind enough to send me a couple of the Field Notes books to try.

Well, the Moleskine and Field Notes are still in the running, but today let's talk about the two that I'm eliminating.

First of, the Target notebook. On the pro side, they're cheap, at less than $5 for a three pack, and, like the Moleskine, it has a rudimentary pocket in the back for reciepts/business cards. On the con side, they're cheap, as in, the binding is coming apart after the second day in a sport coat pocket. It's one thing to save some cash, but three or four dollars is not worth your to-do list getting scattered all over the floor when you pull it out of your pocket.

Also, from an aesthetic point of view, the manufacturer felt the need, for some reason, to make the cover some glossy faux pebbled-leather finish, which looks tacky next to the plain matte cardboard of the Cahiers. If you're worried about money, you're better off just getting some 3x5" notecards and sticking 'em together with a binder clip.

Next up we have the Rhodia. This is actually a wonderful little pad, and I intend to keep a couple on hand for project notes and repair work. They're super-compact and, unlike the Moleskine, which only has a handful of tear-off sheets in the back, each sheet is tear-able.

While this pad is great for a lot of uses, and can be had for less than $2 at your local Target, it doesn't quite work for me as my shirt/jacket pocket notepad for a couple of relatively minor reasons.

The biggest issue for me is the size. It's shorter and thicker than the Cahiers, as well as a bit heavier. Because of that, it creates a bigger bulge in a dress shirt or jacket pocket, and is uncomfortable to sit on in a back pants pocket. This is really a minor gripe, but that slight bit of awkwardness in toting it, bearing in mind human nature, makes me less likely to grab it while dressing to leave the house.

The other complaint, which is probably a bit more serious for my purposes, is that the readily-available ones only come in graph paper. The lines on the pages are just dark enough that they can make it hard to read a quick pencil scrawl.

If I'm hiking or doing something outdoors that involves wearing cargo shorts or a backpack, then the splash-resistant cover and convenient tear-off pages make this a great tool, but not when I'm dressed in my work clothes.

I'm going to spend a bit of time with the Field Notes books John sent. I like the look of them, which mixes a no-frills style with a few touches of humor, and will have my thoughts on them later this week, I hope.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Off the Grid, On the Web

I have to admit that, like a lot of men, I have a certain amount of affection for gadgetry. I'm not into giant TVs or cars or gaming consoles, my favorite toys are the portable gadgets, all the little doo-dads I can jam into my briefcase and take with me. I've got my netbook, my iPod and my smartphone, enough to set up a pretty cozy digital base camp on the coffee shop sofa.

But my favorite, my "desert island" gadget is definitely my Amazon Kindle. Mostly because in spite of my attachment to my toys, reading is still one of my greatest joys in life. My e-reader lets me carry a selection of books, a newspaper and even a few word games (crosswords, anagrams) in a relatively compact space. Add the Moleskine cover I have for it and I've got my notebook and pen in the same package.

Another neat thing about the Kindle is the fact that it comes with free 3G wireless internet. It's not fast, or graphics intensive, but I can check my Gmail account and surf text-heavy blogs and other pages pretty comfortably. Did I mention it's free?

Now, just like my other gadgets, the Kindle needs electricity to function. It needs a lot less than, say a laptop computer, and in fact has far, far better battery life than an advanced cell phone (it gets about 4 days with the wireless on, but if I take it offline I can read on it for nearly two weeks between recharges).

Since it uses a pretty negligible amount of socket-juice anyway, I thought, wouldn't it be cool if I could charge my Kindle entirely on some renewable energy source, say, solar power?

I'm pretty poor, and solar cells are not as cheap as they should be yet. Most of the solar chargers in my budget are pretty weak, they can take a couple days in the sun to accumulate enough of a charge to fully recharge one of your portable devices. This means for the phone, which needs to be plugged in every day, or the laptop, which takes significantly more power, solar isn't affordable for me right now. But I can afford to wait three days to recharge the Kindle.

So I picked up a solar battery charger for $20, which stores the power for later use, and am now going to attempt to run my Kindle entirely on solar power. This means, using readily-available, unmodified consumer products, I should be able to have text-based internet, email and, of course, reading material (including many free books) for free.

Yes, I'll still be using my netbook to blog and do the bulk of my web surfing, but now I can rest assured that when I finally run out of money and am forced to live in a handmade shelter in the woods (or when I finally have had enough and decide to do that voluntarily) I can stay connected, kind of a digital Thoreau.

And yes, Walden is available for free download.