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Product Reivew: Portable Pens – Ohto, Zebra, Space Pen

As covered here before, I think it’s important to get in the habit of carrying a notebook. I tackled the topic of which notebook to use in an earlier post. I’ve been pretty happy with my field notes subscription and imagine myself using their notebooks exclusively for a little while. I’ve also been searching for the perfect pen. I’m about 2 years into the search and so far I’m pretty happy with the result. I started with the following criteria:

1. Firstly, the pen must be unobtrustive in both size and weight
2. There is no risk of it leaking
3. .7mm (or smaller) point size. (I tend to write small and larger point sizes make my writing run together)
4. Doesn’t look obnoxious
5. Isn’t so expensive I will be heartbroken if I lose it

So far I’ve evaluated the following Pens:

1. Zebra F-301 Compact
2. The Space Pen
3. Ohto Tasche
4. Ohto Petit-B

Bic - Zebra - Ohto Tasche - Ohto Petit-B Collapsed


The Zebra F-301 Compact:
My first pocket carry was this pen. I found a pair for about 6 bucks at the local sundries boutique. I lucked out on my first buy. This pen worked great for me for over a year. It has a fairly compact Design. I’ve never had it leak, and its .7mm writing size was perfect.

After 9 months or so of usage, I broke the clip off my first pen, and switched to the backup, which I promptly lost. Since I only had one pocket sized pen that was likely low in ink, I thought it was time to start looking for a replacement. I did have trouble finding the F-301 compact at online retailers (until came along). In the meantime I purchased a box of their full size F-301 and use that pen at my desk.

The Fisher Bullet Space Pen:
I received the space pen as a gift. My initial impression was that the space pen looked solidly built. I like how tight the tolerances appeared when unscrewing the barrel. I didn’t like the medium point size (1.2mm?) but figured I could order a refill in the apppropriate size (turns out you can). I used the space pen for a few days but started to notice an annoying feature of the pen. Because it has no clip and is spherical, it will easily roll off all surfaces that are not perfectly level. This seems like a minor complaint, but in everyday use became quite an issue. Every time I would return to my desk I was forced to hunt for the wayward pen. After a few weeks of this continual searching (and after almost losing in a hotel room after it fell off the nightstand) I decided to push on in my search for the perfect pen. In fairness I wasn’t often writing under water, upside down, or you know, in space, so the spaciness of the pen was somewhat lost on me.

The Ohto Petit-B:
I really like this pen, but unfortunately only in certain applications. As you can see from the photos this is a very small pen. For daily use I would say this pen is too small. The .5mm point size is amazing and I thoroughly enjoy the results of writing with this pen. Unfortunately the result doesn’t compensate for the difficulty of holding this pen in your hand for any length of time. This will be my goto pen for anytime I need to minimize what I’m carrying in my pocket. The pen has dual o-rings locking in the pen when it’s in it’s collapsed configuration. This will help prevent leaks from the pen from ending up on your jeans.

One other little oddity I noticed is that if you leave the pen uncapped for a while the roller bar will dry out causing the ink to not flow when you first start writing. I’m presuming this is because of the .5mm point size. It’s easily solved by capping the pen, but for my everyday pen I want to be able to leave it out between scribblings.

This is a great backup pen.

The Ohto Tasche:
This is my new daily carry. It’s a little pricey ($20) for a pocket pen and almost pushes it into the “I’d be sad if I lost it” category, but I’ve found the risk to be worth it. I went with the black and like the stark contrast betwen the black of the pen and my notebook (be it the Red Fall Field Notes, or the plain brown moleskine). It also matches the black iPhone.  The .7mm point size is perfect for my writing style. The pen seems reasonably well built to contain leaks. The barrel fits into the cover with a reassuring snap when it is in it’s compact configuration, and slides snugly into the o-ring when it’s open for writing. I have noticed that in the first few weeks the stenciling on the cover is starting to rub off. This isn’t a negative for me as it adds to the rugged charm of the pen itself.

One thing I’ve noticed is the sheer number of threads that hole the barrel together. There are some pretty tight tolerances associated with the manufacturing of this pen. Then pen doesn’t unscrew as easily as other compact pens. This is a little frustrating when it comes time to swap out the ink cartridge, but for most of the pen’s life this will be a positive.

What’s in your front pocket? The 21st Century Pocket Protector

Working in tech for over a decade, I’ve noticed certain trends in problem solving among my technical bretherin. When approaching problem solving, often times convenience and praticality are the priority, style not so much. This often leads to great technical achievement. It also lead to the pocket protector.


No one that has ruined a nice shirt can argue against the practicality of a pocket protector. And no one with any modicum of style could argue that a pocket protector should ever find itself as anything other than an ironic or oblivious fashion accessory.

In the early days of tech geeks, pocket protectors were at their pinnacle. With a trusty pen and a slide rule, a technician could rule the world, literally. But how can you make sure you have enough pens handy, and without risking another trip to the dreaded clothing store? The Pocket Protector of course!

Along with the ascendancy of mobile tech devices and the fall of the old reliable pen, the pocket protector is in decline. In it’s place we see a new fashion faux pas. And as with the pocket protectors that came before them, it’s ubuiqity is surpased only by the obliviousness with which it is displayed.

Behold the new pocket protector, the cell phone in the shirt pocket! Two such examples of this wonderfully practical thinking on display:

“The 4S is ready to shoot just a second or three after I whip it out of my shirt pocket, and in a rapid-fire test, the 4S shot 19 frames in ten seconds.”

via Andy Ihnatko

“Whenever I wear or buy a shirt, it must have a shirt pocket. It must have a pocket on the shirt. Why? Because that is the preferred location for my cell phone. It makes my wife nuts. She wants me to wear some shirts, but I refuse, because there is no shirt pocket. I need that pocket. I refuse to place my phone on my belt.”

via Cartoon Barry

May not actually be a cell phone...

During my extensive research for this article, it has become clear to me that the heart of the issue isn’t really the pens or phones. The issue is really the pocket itself. The fashion industry has dictated that shirts shall primarily retain their pockets but they’ve be delegated to serve only stylistic and traditional purposes.

Geeks abhor waste. For something to be valuable it needs to be useful, and what’s the point of an easily accessible pocket if you can’t put something in it. Nevermind that the notification LED shines through your pocket in the middle of lunch. Nevermind that your shirt bulges in odd ways while you turn to look out the window. Nevermind that you smack your phone on the table when you lean forward to slurp your soup.

Yes, Equire magazine probably has a lot to say about the appropriateness of this particular geeky quirk. But geeks are just doing what they have always done, taking something unnecessarily ornamental, and either throwing it away or making it functional.

I personally don’t use the front pockets of my dress shirts, and this has got me thinking… I probably should avoid buying dress shirts with front pockets. It’s just a waste of fabric anyway…



Originally uploaded by garyowen

Objectively I’m sure it won’t be as good as other ESBs that I’ve had. But sometimes things just taste better when you make them yourself.

Write it down

You wouldn’t want to forget it, would you?


2 Dollars and a Library Card

pictured: inspiration

This is all it really takes to change the world. 2 bucks for a cup of coffee and a freshly borrowed book from the library. Both full of potential, one caffeine derived, the other full of ideas and inspiration.

The intersection of energy and ideas is where the magic happens. Some find it via caffeine, but it can just as easily come from a blast of fresh air, perhaps on the walk over to the library. They key is to kick start the mind and then stimulate it with great thoughts.

think different, just like everyone else

Something unexpected has happened at Apple, once known as the tech industry’s high-price leader. Over the last several years it began beating rivals on price.

via The New York Times


the latest iPad

Apple used to compete by being the most polished device on the market. That polish cost extra, but to the Apple faithful it was worth it. Apple has moved to the head of the price wars almost by accident. Because of it’s relentless pursuit of minimalism in it’s product lines, by making the decision for the customer of what is “best” they’ve been able to zero in their focus and hyper optimize for a small set of products. I’ve covered this topic before, and here we start to see Apple reaping the benefit of this approach. They have enormous negotiating power with their suppliers based on the size of their orders. It’s much easier to negotiate a better price on components if you are buying 10 million, rather than 100,000. Once you know the market is there, and your initial investment is not a very risky one, you can be a bit bullish and increase your minimum order size.

The interesting paradox here, is that Apple has often pitched itself as being “different”, but when you look at the variation available in it’s product lines, you’ll find a lot of brushed aluminum but not a lot of variation or difference between their products. Because of their design ethos, they’ve come up with “the best” way to accomplish a task and once that “best” method has been identifier, there is not much point in allowing variation. From Apple’s perspective, why would they let people choose a smaller battery if they have already decided which CPU best fits the current price point and size of 11″ Mac Book Air.

You can see more evidence of this philosophy in their current low priced phone offerings. They won’t bother selling you a stripped down version of their current iPhone that uses cheaper components. Instead they wait for the prices to drop on those components considered “best” a year and a half ago.

As Apple sells more and more units behind this philosophy of minimalism they are starting to find themselves in a position where their customers can no longer claim to be “Different”. If you want different, get a Windows Phone. Seriously, they are getting great reviews.

Is this a bad thing for Apple? Not at all. You can only capture so much of the “different” crowd before you are no longer able to be different. Your success alienates you from a portion of your original audience.

What is worth fixing

As progress progresses, increasingly there are fewer things for which it’s worth paying what it costs to fix them when they break.

via Tim Bray

It’s an unfortunate side effect of our society. I thought I’d put together a list of some things that definitely are worth fixing.

  1. Socks: Especially wool socks. While they are worth the extra price for comfort and warmth, they tend to wear out faster than synthetics or cotton. If you learn how to darn them they will easily last 2-3 times longer.
  2. Clothing in general: Here in Seattle we have a patagonia store. If my clothes are in need of repair I can drop them off and they will fix them free of charge. I’ve had a few sweaters and jackets that have last several extra years thanks to this free mending service.
  3. Camera gear: Honestly, we all use iPhone apps to simulate the look of old photography… what if we just used some older photograph gear?
  4. Notebooks: Still have a few pages left in that moleskine but the binding is going bad? That’s why the good lord saw fit to give us duct tape. The resulting mend will give you an additional few weeks of use and make you look even more the struggling poet you are.
  5. Bikes: Most often you can effect your own repairs with a little ingenuity (read: zip ties). For the more major components the local bike mechanic can likely get you rolling again for a modest fee. I’ve know folks that have cobbled bikes together from several cast aways. These franken-bikes are the ultimate hipster accessory.
  6. Furniture: With a few tools and a little time, you can often repair any of the structural problems in a piece of furniture. My friend is a seamstress and has gotten a lot of life out of a few chairs by putting together her own covers.
Any other ideas?