Archive for the ‘Random Office Supplies & Stationary’ Category

Connecting Digital Items to Analog Notes   Leave a comment

There is a growing community of folks who prefer, to varying degrees, analog tools, such as pens, paper, and pencils. Lots of people are sharing ideas, be it Sketchnoting, Bullet Journals, and blogs such as The Cramped or, appropriately enough Write Analog. I have several hypothesis as to why. It may legitimately be a way some folks can think and focus. I know I have those tendencies. As with distraction free text editors, for some people, obsessing over tools is a good way to feel like you are getting something done while avoiding the task at hand. Finally, some folks simply enjoy old-school office supplies, and, in a world which is increasingly paperless, want to find a way to use these tools in their day-to-day work, rather than simply admire them.

However, much of my life these days tends to exist in the digital realm. I know my Outlook inbox has a lot of mail in it, in part because it has an attachment or link to a SharePoint that I need to access. I keep both my professional and personal calendar online, and occasionally make a pass at getting the whole household on one system. Much of the information I generate tends to wind up stored as ones and zeros.

This spills over into my journals and notepads. My handwritten activities often bounce between things that come from my head (which is put on paper) and things online that relate to it. For instance, something I read in a blog post will spawn an entry in a journal. Or, I might take a digital photo of a whiteboard that I want to associate with the notes (but, at the same time, share with my team). Creating these connections is the challenge of analog tools in a world that want to be paperless.

Most of these sorts of things are either conventional web posts, or stored “in the Cloud,” using SharePoint, Evernote, or other cloud storage options such as Copy or OneDrive. What all these things have in common is the ability to point to something with a uniform resource locator, or URL. You may know this as a “web address.” This blog, for instance, is That one is fairly simple, and could be written down in a notebook fairly easily. But, when you start to get to specific items, it gets long. The URL for my post about the Riverbanks Zoo is While relatively long, it is clear what it points to.

However, you have to write down the URL exactly for it to work, and then type it into the address bar of your browser exactly for it to work. URLs can be tricky this way. Evernote is a good place to stash a picture of a whiteboard. However, a share URL from there is quite cryptic:–and one wrong character (even the wrong case) can throw it off. Microsoft SharePoint is commonly used to store and share files in the corporate world. However, its URLs are even longer and more challenging:,%20Ohio/A%20Subdirectory%20Power/Really%20Important%20Spreadsheet%202015.xls. There is no way this can make its way reliably into the analog word, much less the return trip.

ME Journal PageThere are a few products out there that try to bridge this gap. One example is the Quo Vadis Multimedia Enhanced journal. I won one over the summer, and played with the system a bit. The basic journal is nice. Mine is just shy of US letter size, and filled with Clairefontaine paper–the same used in my beloved Rhodia pads. This means it is great paper, and the very definition of “fountain pen friendly.” As a notebook, there is nothing to complain about.

What makes it unique is that, on each page, a QR code is printed. With a SmartPhone app, you can scan the code, and attach and view digital objects to the page. The objects can include video, audio, pictures, files, or links. The app is a bit quirky, with an awkward interface, and periods where I have to reset my password. It does an OK job capturing and storing items. Unfortunately, a code I scanned a few months ago doesn’t show up in my “library” (though scanning the code gets me to to item–strange). Also, it is somewhat of a dead end. I can’t share things out of it, and it doesn’t link to more common tools. I could muddle through with it, if the overall system held value.

There are other flaws as well. There is only one QR Code per page. On some pages, there may not be anything to link to, which, at worst, makes the QR Code meaningless. On other pages, I might want to make multiple links. Further, I’m tied into using that notebook, or ones like it. I couldn’t use other notebooks, nor can I tie it to other documents, such as a map or brochure. The pre-printed code doesn’t offer the flexibility you might need or desire for an analog/digital system.

StickyBitsThere was a service called StickyBits that was a similar implementation of this idea, but enhanced the flexibility of the system. Rather than having the QR Codes pre-printed into a journal, you could either print or purchase stickers with the QR Code on them. When you needed to make a connection, you could put the sticker in your notebook, scan it with their app, and then create what you needed. At the time it was released, I didn’t really think through the utility: I played with it for a day or two, then let it fade. Unfortunately, it has since joined other Web 2.0 start-ups in, well, closing shop.

I actually started to consider building StickyBits on my own, doing some coding in Perl and HTML. It seemed like a major undertaking, and it’d be something just for myself–after all, one start-up already failed with this concept. It is a bit of a niche intersection of folks who use analog tools and digital tools and want to somehow create interoperability. Simply put, I had better things to do with my time.

Short URL Mark-UpThen, I read an article, “Connecting Your Paper Notebooks to the Digital Age,” which made me realize that I was out-thinking this. Rather than being dependent on the QR Code, it leverages a URL shortener, such as Bitly. By assuming that there is the same domain and server name (the part), the shortened URL is written down with some demarcation (he uses greater than/less than symbols). The article suggests also underlining upper case letters for clarity.

Using this scheme, I would write “<1HGmax9>” in my notebook, and it would point me to the article that inspired this. The author suggests Bitly, as you can forward your own domain to it, but it doesn’t sound like a hard requirement, so long as you can use the same URL shortener. Multiple URL shorteners could be used with a different demarcation symbol–brackets could be used, for instance, for my company’s in-house shortener.

This scheme has several advantages. First, there is no need for a sticker or something printed on the page. You simply write it on the fly wherever it is relevant. This also means you are not tied to a specific notebook-or even a notebook. A Post-It, margin of a magazine, or any other relevant place can be used. The short URL frees you from having to use a specific application or a device with a camera. This is quite a flexible solution.

One other advantage is from other features of the URL shortener. Most URL shorteners can allow customization of the short URL. A meaningful title, such as “DataCenterMap” could be used. In addition to making it easier to write down, it makes it easier in other contexts. I have even been taking greater advantage of this in my emails that I don’t expect to wind up on paper, as I think it makes it more obvious what a given URL is for.

My quest to link my beloved pen and paper to the omnipresence of digital media has taken me from specialized tools to a very simply DIY approach. In doing so, I’ve come to the conclusion that this will be a niche interest, and each individual will probably find an approach that best suits them. I am doubtful that specialized products, such as the ME Journal, will find much success. But I have found that there are ways to achieve the end which offer the flexibility I desire in the analog world, and can extend their utility in the digital one as well.

Books I’ve Read: The Sketchnote Handbook   1 comment

Sketchnote Handbook 2
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Notebook Strategy   Leave a comment

Over on the Pen, Paper, Ink, Letter blog, they spent some time considering “notebook strategies,” what notebooks the writer was using, and for what purpose. He observed, correctly in my opinion, that office supply fans tend to have multiple notebooks–something I think is very true! The author asks what the readers’ system is. I thought I’d share a view into my primary notebooks here.

Much of what I do at work is all-digital. However, we still have to take notes in meetings, or at the data center. I also find I focus better with pen and paper, so I capture information that way as well. My work notebook is a disc-bound notebook. In addition to blank Rhodia paper, I have a variety of reference materials, such as process guides and inventories. This is all punched with an Arc punch. This notebook goes to work with me every day, but is taken out of my bag for other occasions.

I have a similar sized disc bound notebook, which I carry with me when I want to have a notebook that looks professional, but does not have work things in it. Mostly, it has blank paper in it, though I’ve clipped in all sorts of other documents into it, as the situation dictates. I got it for free at Staples.
Non-Work Professional Notebook

I keep a small notebook with me, stuffed into a jacket or pant pocket. this is around A6 size. This carries a few notes I like to have with me, along with a place to capture running thoughts. For instance, when preparing for a trip, I keep a running list of things I want to make sure I bring. It also keeps a list of blog posts I want to make. I add to that as I think about it. Some of the reference things find their way onto Evernote, as it becomes a pain to transcribe from notebook to notebook. Right now, I’m actually carrying two, as one is nearing the end.
Pocket Notebook(s)

I have a journal. Sometimes, it’s just thoughts I want to get out of my head. Doing so helps me refine them, and decide if it is worth sharing further. More than a few blog posts started this way. I’ve also written down notes about events I want to remember, even to the point of documenting something so I could have a timeline later. I honestly don’t expect the contents to be read, straight from the notebook, by anyone but me. But it is comforting to have written them down. I prefer A5 size for this purpose. Right now, it’s a Leuchtturm 1917, which is adequately fountain pen friendly for the cost, and has some handy features.

Inside my camerabag lives a notebook I call the “Zoo Notebook.” It used to primarily log the animals I saw at the zoo, especially species I wasn’t as familiar with, or names of the animals I learned. It expanded to be my photography notebook, with a different section flagged (I’m addicted to Post-It tape flags) for recording film camera activity.

That’s the primary set. I used to keep my bike log in a notebook, but, once I got a cyclecomputer I could download the stats to my computer, that’s gone all-digital. I think having several notebooks allows me to take what I need with me into the world, and keep some level of separation to task.

Customer Service Through Social Media   Leave a comment

I’m impressed by companies that give good customer service. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to it: you see chains that have a reputation for superior customer service, and mom and pops that act as though they are doing a favor by being open. At the end of the day, it comes down to the culture of the organization, rather than size.

Social media has helped a lot more companies respond to their customers a lot more quickly. The other advantage, I think, is that the companies are getting better insight not just to large complaints that can make or break a company, but little annoyances that probably wouldn’t change the relationship negatively. Social media allows companies to interact with individual customers, and on issues that they may not feel the need to escalate to them. I’ve experienced it many times myself.

The first time was a few years ago, when I was having trouble with my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. I made some grumbling on twitter–not that I saw it as Kitchen-Aid’s fault, but just an issue had to deal with. Within half an hour, I got a message from their twitter account asking for details. This lead to a phone conversation, which helped pin down what I was doing wrong. I don’t think I would have bothered to call on my own, and they wouldn’t have known there was an issue. But the fact that they could say “how can we help” definitely raised their esteem in my eyes.

A @Levenger Circa disk broke. #officesuppliesThis week, I had another incident. My disc-bound notebook is a blend of many companies’ products, thought the core is the Levenger Circa system. One Wednesday morning, I discovered the bottom-most disc had cracked in half. I have no clue how that happened, though I suspect it was somehow my fault. I noted that I’d need to go get a replacement, but, as is my way, griped about it on twitter.

Levenger noticed this, and inquired about it. I got the sense that it was a fairly uncommon occurrence. We exchanged a few messages, over the course of which they offered to replace the disc. By Friday afternoon, I had the replacement back in my notebook.

They certainly didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to monitor twitter and respond to me. Any reasonable person could look at my broken disc and say that it was an accident that had nothing to do with Levenger. But the fact that they both monitor twitter, and were willing to replace my disc was definitely above and beyond the call, and makes me much more likely to do business with them in the future. I truly don’t think this would have come about in the absence of social media, and companies that know how to take advantage with it to interact with their customers on a one-on-one basis.

Round Inventory Stickers   2 comments

Inventory StickersMy first job after moving to Cincinnati was in an IT contracting company. While I did get a lot of experience with both desktops and servers, there was also a fair amount of grunt work that was contracted out to us, either as part of a larger contract, or in and of itself.

For instance, within my first two weeks, I was doing an inventory of computers at a client site–going to each one and capturing some details (hard drive and RAM size, serial numbers, etc.). After touching each workstation, we would put a half-inch diameter sticker on the unit, to show that someone on my team had visited it. When we made a second pass, a similar sticker, but a different color, was added, this time with our initials. That was the first time I had consciously encountered those stickers professionally.

I immediately realized just how handy they could be. As I continued to work for that company, they were my go-to for any “touch every box” activity. The first man would put the sticker on after, say, installing a bit of software. The next guy, who was doing a “quality assurance” pass would initial the sticker.

I brought them with me to my next job, where they filled a number of roles. Right now, I have one batch flagging equipment marked for decommissioning. Another notes some configuration differences between some externally identical devices. They have served as temporary cable labels, and even serve ersatz tape.

I’ve come to view these as one of my go-to tools–a sheet of them lives in my bag, and I have many more stashed at my workplace. They have a lot of qualities that make them useful:

  • Small enough that I can stick them on a device, even when there isn’t a lot of space on it
  • Takes all sorts of ink well, for a bit of information or initials to be recorded
  • Come in a variety of colors
  • Most brands can come off leaving little to no residue
  • Readily available–while I typically go to an office supply store, I’ve seen them at many drug stores (like Walgreen’s)

I admit they are a rather prosaic thing to write about. However, they offer great utility when trying to keep track of things when moving quickly, or handing off from one person to another.

Pen Profile: Found Uniball Vision   Leave a comment

I was walking back to my office from the data center on a Friday afternoon. As I crossed the last corner, I noticed a pen on the ground. I risked an extra two seconds as I crossed, bent down, and picked it up. It was a Uniball Vision rollerball. It had no scratches on it, and seemed full of ink. Pretty much, it looked like a brand new pen that had fallen.

Abandoned Celeste Green Uniball #rollerball at Fourth and Main. #officesupplies how sad. I'll give you a good home, little guy.

The right guy happened by. Rather than letting it get knocked around the mean streets of the ‘Nati, I decided to give it a home.

While I’ve seen these pens around, I don’t think I’ve ever actually owned one. The one I found was a fine point green–a quirky choice, which made me wonder who had it, and why they wanted green. Was it for some functional purpose, to color code something? Or is it simply a quirky nonconformist act of someone living in an otherwise stiff corporate culture–someone after my own heart? When I get a vintage pen, I often wonder about who had this pen before me. Whose hands did it pass through. How many events did it mark, singing mortgages, report cards, and letters. I like to think every pen can tell a story, be it literally, like Neil Gaiman’s Lamy 2000, history made with Douglas MacArthur’s Parker Duofold, or just a disposable pen, a tool to help someone get through their day.

When I got home, I tucked the pen into the pocket of my “Coat of Awesome,” next to a Field Notes memo book. We went out, and my daughter spent some quality time doodling with it.

Little Miss Guilt trie out the rescued #rollerball from earlier.

The ink is a little bluer than I like for a green pen–it seems artificial relative to the green fountain pen inks I use. However, it balances nice, and the grip is comfortable. We passed it around the table and played with it, waiting for a meal.

Though I will likely favor my other pens, I know that it has a better chance to tell more stories in my house, rather than on Fourth Street. Already, it told a story about a butterflies and bicycles.

Butterflies and bicycles

Thumb Around   Leave a comment

Having a kid is a great excuse to pull out various “skills” you had prior to adulthood, but have little reason to use today. I amazed my wife when I demonstrated I could make balloon animals. This weekend, I showed my daughter I could do a “thumbaround.”

As I may have mentioned, I was on the debate team in high school. For whatever reason, folk who did competitive speech in Louisiana in the mid-eighties all “twirled” their pens. I learned it sometime my freshman year of high school, throwing my Pilot BP-S around my thumb. The key thing was to get to the point where you could set it up, twirl, and reset with one hand consistently–otherwise, you were just trying too hard.

If you were really good, you could do both left and right hand simultaneously.

Don’t ask me to explain how I did it–it is somewhat like trying to explain how to tie your shoe. I know I was doing it in college, using a Cross Century ballpoint I was given as a high school graduation present. Once I started using fountain pens, I became worried about both damaging the nib and flinging ink everywhere. I rarely do this anymore.

Every now and then, though, when presented a supply cabinet pen, I give it a twirl, just to show I still got it.

Pen Profile: Frusen Gold and Silver Gel Pens   Leave a comment

Before Christmas, we were walking through the IKEA Family area, where they had an array of office supplies: Gel pens! Notebooks! Desk accessories! The prices were more than reasonable, but I really couldn’t justify it.

Nlefam Gold & Silver Gel Pens

But I did come across the Frusen gold and silver gel pens. I was using a silver sharpie for some marking purposes, and, for $2, though ti was worth a try. I bought a set. I was reasonably pleased. The silver worked on the inside fly leaf of my Rhodia Webbie. It writes reasonably well on most paper, though sometimes it is a bit of a reluctant starter. It has a fun glittery look to it. The gold does good on white paper, but less so on darker paper. Just as glittery as the silver, it has more of a yellow hue to it.

Nlefam Writing Samples

While I don’t see myself using them for long notes, but to add some decoration to the page, they would work well. Unfortunately, they don’t appear on the IKEA web page. The really bad news: last time I was at IKEA, they were in the “Last Chance” bin, for a buck a set. I picked up an extra two sets. If you live near an IKEA, it may be worth seeing if you can do the same.

An earlier edition of this post identified these as “Nlefam” pens. However, I have since learned the correct model name is Frusen. They appear to be still available, though not for the close-out price. The post was corrected. My apologies.

Pen Monkey Likes You   5 comments

Meet Pen Monkey.
Pen monkey

I’m not really a fan of monkeys. I came across him in my father’s office, and claimed him. Based on the marking under his foot, he came from Levenger. Like my rocking blotter, they carry don’t it anymore. However, he’s been handy as a memento of my dad, get pens out of the way, or for photographs. You’ve seen him several times. He can hold fountain pens, of course…
Pen monkey holds fountain pens
1944 Parker Vacumatic

…and ballpoints.
Pen monkey holds fountain pens
Waterman Expert, also claimed from my father’s desk.

Today, while on an outage call, I discovered he can also hold SmartPhones.
Pen Monkey holds SmartPhones

Handy little primate!

Here’s the inspiration for the title.

Disc Binding: The SmartPhone for Notebooks   4 comments

For holding paper, there are two common options. You can go with a spiral notebook, which allows you to fold it back on itself (as opposed to two pages wide), but you only really have the paper that it comes with. You can go with a binder and add what you want, but either the paper has to come out, or it takes up the space of two side by side pages. Either way, it only takes one size paper.

Multiple Sizes

Enter disc binding.

HolesDisc binding allows paper to be inserted and moved around like a three-ring binder, but can be folded back on itself like a spiral notebook. It also allows for pages of various sizes to be incorporated into a notebook. A pocket-sized shopping list can be put into an A4 notebook as just another page. The office supply geeks I follow on twitter and I have been talking about this off and on for a few months. Mostly, it’s been noting that we are all fans, and exchanging various tips.

Where three ring binders and spiral notebooks use a closed hole in the paper to thread a loop though, the holes in a disc binding are have an open slot smaller than the main hole. This has been described as a “mushroom.” To bind the paper, discs are inserted. The outer edge of the disc is rased, so the paper is gripping the ring. The rings are about an inch apart. This allows sheets of varying sizes to be inserted into the notebook. The sheets can be re-arranged at will, while still being able to fold back on itself liek a spiral notebook.

DisksThe main disadvantage is that the system is propritary–only a handfull of companies make components for it. The two key disc binding lines in the US are Circa by Levenger, and Arc from Staples. I’ve seen disc bound notebooks from Clairefontaine and the Container Store sells a line as well. The Circa and Arc systems appear to be compatible with one another (and we’ve gotten paper from the Container Store as well). Since it does not work by default with material from the office supply cabinet, it does present a higher cost of entry.

I started using a disc bound notebook for work about a year ago when I got a Circa starter pack from Levenger. Since then, it has been augmented with parts from Staples. In particular, I got the Arc punch, which is both cheaper than the Levenger product, and, quite frankly, I like the design and action better. This allows me to put any sheet in my notebook. The official intent is to put printed documentation in there, which I do (such as process documents for work). However, it also allows me to harvest notepads of my choice for paper to fill the notebook with (I’m a bit fussy about my paper).

A coworker of mine also uses this. She described it as “a SmartPhone for notebooks,” given the flexibility. I think that’s a great description. It allows paper to be mixed, matched, and moved, while retaining the compactness of a spiral notebook. I definitely love mine.

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