Technical Difficulties

Like a normal tech podcast, but broken.

Gabe and Erik are joined by friend-of-the-show and new audio producer Bob VanderClay to discuss pens, paper, notebooks and why we can't seem to transition to an all-digital workflow no matter how many notebooks we throw in the wood chipper.

Why Paper?

“Hope I can do two things at once”

For Bob, it’s an issue of reliability and speed. Bob sketches out software architecture, and tends to keep his notes around even though he doesn’t refer to them much.

For Gabe it’s about the specific problem to be solved, and planning or meeting notes still lend themselves to paper. Gabe considers his notebooks as essentially garbage, to prevent thinking about them as too precious to use. After he’s done, Gabe dismantles his notebooks and scans them.

What Kind of Paper?

“Do you take the shells of your dead moleskines, dry them out and hang them on the wall as trophies?”

Scanning Episode

We’ve done a scanning show before. If that interests you, then check it out

“Yeah, I throw them around the yard to ward off other notebooks”

Bob prefers plain loose-leaf paper (no lines). Gabe likes dots on the page. Erik likes grids.

Field Notes

Field Notes aren’t good because they are small or because they have modestly high quality paper. They’re good because I have a bunch of them and feel ok wasting pages. Having easy access to small notebooks changed the way I used paper notes. I previously coveted high end (and more expensive) hardbound notebooks and their preciousness made me conscious of how I used them. But Field Notes are available for about $3 per notebook on Amazon (I like the black dot grid but many other styles are available too). These aren’t the cheapest notebooks you can find, but you don’t want those. They’re a nice compromise between quality and quantity.

Beer Field Notes… Mmmm.


I use two types of paper (willingly). The first of these is Doane Paper, which I use for any day-to-day writing. I love this paper. It offers a great middle ground between paper with grid-lines and the usual lines of ruled paper.


Appropriately, “grid+lines” is Doane’s tagline. Depending on the product, the paper is either 70lb or 60lb recycled paper, that is a nice, bright white. It actually seems like it would be too bright, but I really like looking at it. It’s something intangible, I guess.

I always liked the idea off a pocket notebook, but in practice, they always annoy me (too small for my “big ideas,” with the inevitable anatomically-correct curve). For that reason, I use what Doane calls a Flap Jotter, which is the size of a common stenographer’s pad. I think these are portable enough for convenience, and I much prefer having the extra real estate. I like them enough to keep some spares on hand.


The other type of paper I regularly use is Kokuyo Campus Loose Leaf Paper from the ever-dangerous JetPens. This paper is of the dotted-line variety, and I like it very much for any longer form (or more deliberate) note-taking and sketching, since I have it in the larger A4 size

Dotted Lines

I also have a few of the corresponding
“Slim Binders”, which are very nice.

Prototyping Electronically

Balsamiq is nice but the last time I checked it required Flash. UXPin and LucidChart make excellent products and both have some unique features that I think put them mostly ahead of Balsamiq.

Paper-Like Technologies

There are still some real concerns about feel and friction, even when using more expensive screen backed tablets like Bob’s Wacom Cintiq.

  • Papyrus
  • Papyrus is a natural handwriting note-taking app that you use just like paper, but with the flexibility and advantages of modern technology. With Papyrus, you can go beyond paper!
  • Price: Free (IAP)

  • Paper
  • Paper is where ideas begin. It’s the easiest and most beautiful way to create on iPad. Capture your ideas as sketches, diagrams, illustrations, notes or drawings and share them across the web.
  • Price: Free (IAP)

  • ZoomNotes
  • ZoomNotes is the most comprehensive visual note-taking app with unlimited zoom. Make handwritten notes and sketches on virtual paper, PDF files, images and MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents (via GoogleDrive).
  • Price: $5.99

ZoomNotes for iOS

ZoomNotes has a lot of features. You’d be hard pressed to not find the feature you are looking for. The biggest problem is that the design is pretty awkward in places. But where it beats every other sketching app on iOS is the zoom sketching that allows you to draw detail by zooming in. There are also quite a few ways to get the content out. ZoomNotes is constantly updated (just about every week something new is added or improved) even though it’s been on the App Store for a couple of years.

  • Livescribe seems like a great idea, but is less useful in actual practice.

Getting ideas out of Paper

Bob tends to use his notes as a temporary platform to get ideas out of his own head. After that, he occasionally scans his notes and puts them into a folder in Dropbox. For Bob, the paper is a short-term tool, which is probably why he sticks with the cheap loose-leaf kind.

Erik has a similar approach, but uses paper for even more temporary things like lists.

Gabe uses one of several iOS scanning apps to add his notes to Dropbox.

What kind of Pen?

“Let’s be honest, this whole thing is about buying really cool pens.”

Bob loves using fountain pens at home, but they’re more problematic on the go. For day-to-day use, he prefers Micron pens.

Gabe appreciates a good cheap ballpoint, and loved fountain pens, but they were too messy for everyday use. His favorite is his space pen.

Erik prefers Uniball gel pens after years of being forced to use cheap government ballpoint pens for years at work.

Flying with Pens

Writing is something a pilot does almost constantly. It seems like there’s always something to jot down, whether it’s radio frequencies, headings, altitudes, transponder codes, or times. In the jet, we typically used kneeboards as our writing surface. A kneeboard is just a small clipboard strapped to your upper thigh. My favorite is a popular model by Hendricks called the 9G.

My 9G with standard Skilcraft pen and very-non-standard iPad mini

Many pilots tie a government ballpoint pen to the top clip with a string so it doesn’t fall off and get stuck in the controls (that would be bad… very bad).

There are a few problems with the standard Skilcraft pens, among them the fact that it easily twists apart into a bunch of pieces, it doesn’t have a loop for the aforementioned string, and it only writes in black – inconvenient for keeping track of who’s who in a complicated dogfight. These flaws have been almost completely overcome by the remarkable Bic 4-Color Pen.

The 4-Color has a loop for a string, solid construction, and fighter-friendly multicolored ink: blue (good-guy #1), green (good-guy #2), red (bad-guy #1), and black (bad-guy #2). I never migrated to this highly upgraded piece of cockpit technology, but I know a lot of guys (especially weapons school graduates) who swore by it.

A US military flight suit has slots for two writing implements on its upper left sleeve. Most people kept their daily use (non-flying) pen and pencil there, and I was no exception. In 1997, when I finished ground school and received my first flight suit, my dad gave me a Cross Classic Century Pen and Pencil set in 24kt Gold and Matte Green.

Cross Classic Century in Green

I took that pen and pencil with me on every flight over 17 years – including two combat deployments – and I still carry them in my flight suit today. There are those that say that the best tools are the ones that get used the most. Of all the writing tools I’ve ever owned, these are the ones with the most mileage.

The Pilot G2 Gel Ink pen was a revolution in the late nineties. Hardly anything else felt like writing with gel ink but they were notorious for clogging and smudging.

The Lamy Safari is a nice inexpensive fountain pen.

“So I’m the only one who doesn’t have a little folio of various pens?”

Field Notes Wallet

I wholeheartedly recommend the Field Notes wallet even if it is almost $90. It’s my everyday wallet and like anything good, changed some of my thinking for the better. I greatly reduced what I carried in my wallet because it has fewer pockets than a regular wallet. I also now have a notebook with me everywhere I go which means it’s pretty easy to scribble any idea at any time. It’s my spiritual successor to the DayRunner of days gone by.

Field Notes Wallet

Bob also likes the TWSBI Diamond Mini:

My Precious Pen Case

It’s a little ridiculous that I have put any effort into assembling this kit, given I work almost exclusively from home. I suppose now that it’s almost full, it might keep me from buying anything more. That’s what I’m telling myself.

The case itself is a Maxpedition E.D.C Pocket Organizer.

On the right side, I keep a small sketching kit. It comes in very handy when working through interface designs. I’m a huge fan of Copic Markers. I really like the brush tip on the Sketch version, which works well for both fine detail and large areas. No fountain pens on this side, the Micron’s pigment-based ink is essential to withstand coloring over with the alcohol-based markers.

I purchased the Copic stuff as part of a really cool set, the Copic Gray Ink Pro Kit.

Must stop buying ink

On the left, I keep the fountain pens. Five TWSBI Minis, and one Lamy Safari – all clear-bodied, essential to figure out what color I’m using. Lamy Safari’s come in so many colors, I considered getting one to match each ink color. I change inks fairly regularly, so I gave up on that idea almost immediately. Right now I’m using the following inks:

At the other end of the spectrum is the classic Mont Blanc Meisterstück fountain pen. It’s now the canonical look for a fancy fountain pen but it is truly a comfortable and well made writing implement.

The Mont Blanc Meisterstück

Yafa Pens

I’ve been a fan of Yafa Pens from the time I could afford to buy a fountain pen. I hung out in a stationery store and played with the fountain pens for over a year before I saved up enough money to buy my first good pen and I still chose a Yafa. It was heavy and silver and wrote like it was dispensing buttered oil. This was in the mid eighties, shortly after Yafa started. It was a new brand but I was inexperienced and just knew it felt great. I still have that pen.

Fisher Space Pen

The Ultimate Space Pen

The Fisher Space Pen is once again popular amongst the nerds. It’s gone through many periods of acceptance but it’s always been a great go-to pen for throwing in a glovebox or desk drawer. My new favorite variation is the Titanium Nitride with a black metal clip. This pairs perfectly with the Field Notes wallet.

The Rotring 600 mechanical pencil is a solid piece of construction. It’s weighted well and feels good for sketching. The 800 model brings the same attributes to a retractable pencil, which is nice if you want to carry it with you regularly.

“The bigger the better”

Audio Engineer’s Note

Nope, that title isn’t going to work. It sounds… professional. That’s just poor expectation management. Anyways, I’m thrilled to be helping out with the show – and the excuse to play with some new toys. If you have – or hear – any feedback, let me know on Twitter @takitapart, or email bob at vanderclay dot com.

Producer’s Note

Well, that’s it for this week. If you have anything that you’d like to add to or correct in the show notes you can find me on Twitter @potatowire, or feel free to send an email to me at potatowire dot com.