31 July 2014

In praise of fountain pens

Like most people of my generation I was forced to use a fountain pen at school. And, like most people, I found the experience messy (blots on the paper and stains on my fingers), scratchy and slow. As soon as I could, I abandoned it for the convenience of the ballpoint pen and, more recently, the gel pen. However, in recent years, I have begun to discover the joys of writing with a fountain pen. Here are some of the reasons I am a convert to fountain pens:

  • The writing experience: Using a decently made modern fountain pen on good quality paper is a revelation. The nib glides effortlessly across the page. It is much easier on the wrist than the average ballpoint.
  • A fountain pen is for life: Fountain pens seem to be far more expensive than ballpoints. Typically they range in price from tens to hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds, though you can get a decent basic fountain pen for less than a fiver. But a well-maintained good quality fountain pen can reasonably be expected to last you a lifetime (in fact, there is a thriving market in vintage fountain pens), whereas even an expensive ballpoint is no more than a fancy holder for a disposable writing mechanism. If you want to reduce the environmental impact of your writing habits, think about a fountain pen – the only consumable element is the ink.
  • A bewildering choice of inks: Most ballpoints or gel pens are available in three or four colours (perhaps a dozen if you use something like a Pilot G-Tec-C4 or a Pentel Slicci). But there are literally hundreds of shades of fountain pen ink to choose from to suit your mood or style. I happen to like dark inks (blue-black, dark greens, reds and browns), but that preference is hard to satisfy with ballpoints or gel pens (a notable exception is the blue-black and dark brown Pilot G-Tec-C4s that Cult Pens imports specially from Japan).
  • A fountain pen gives your writing character: If you want a pen that produces a line of unvarying thickness, then a ballpoint or gel pen is ideal. With a fountain pen, the thickness of the line varies slightly with the pressure you apply and the angle that the nib makes to the paper. This is more pronounced with gold nibs and specially designed flex nibs. In addition, nibs come in a variety of shapes to create a range of writing effects (fountain pens are still the obvious choice for calligraphy).

29 July 2014

Thought for the day: On neutrality

A striking quote from Desmond Tutu:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

19 July 2014

Some Christian resources for thinking about the independence referendum

The referendum creeps ever closer and the churches (and individual Christians) in Scotland are gradually articulating their views for and against independence. Here is a – hopefully representative – sample of resources to help you think about Scottish independence from a Christian perspective:

  • The Doctrine Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church has recently published a piece in its Grosvenor Booklet series entitled The Church and Scottish Identity.
  • Last month the Edinburgh SOLAS group hosted a debate on Scottish independence. Someone has kindly put the entire 2 hours on Youtube, so you can watch it here.
  • In the run-up to their General Assembly this year, the Free Church of Scotland asked four of its members – Donald Macleod, Neil Macleod, Gordon Matheson, and John Ross – to prepare discussion papers for and against independence.
  • At its General Assembly this year the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) accepted a report entitled Scottish Independence: An examination of the Scottish Government's proposals for Scottish independence.
  • Doug Gay’s contribution to the debate on Scottish independence at this year’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland can be downloaded here. Unfortunately, Douglas Alexander’s contribution does not appear to be available.

12 July 2014

Idealist: sounding the death knell

Judging by the statistics, most readers of this blog will know that I have been a faithful user of Blackwell Idealist (a simple fully indexed free text database) since the mid 1990s. It has several strengths that have kept me going back to it after every dalliance with another database:

  • It is extremely simple and rapid.
  • It is utterly reliable. To give you some idea of what I mean, I have used it on every version of Windows from Windows 3.11 for Workgroups through to the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional (and for several months I also used it on Linux Mint with the help of Wine) and unlike some well-known programs I could mention it has never crashed and it has never lost any data.
  • It is easily manipulable. For example, unlike most databases you can create new fields within a record on the fly.
  • These days it effectively has no limits regarding size of database: originally it was limited by the amount of RAM available, but it is a very small program and the 8GB of RAM on my laptop would have no difficulty in handling an Idealist database far larger than the largest one I currently have (which contains about 25,000 records).
On the other hand,  I increasingly find myself rubbing up against its other limitations:
  • It works exclusively with ASCII plain text files. If you want store other kinds of data (e.g. images), you have to look elsewhere. In an ideal world, I need a database that allows me to store Unicode text files and equations in LaTeX.
  • While you can create links between records or to other files, it is not straightforward and the links have to be updated manually if any changes are made to those records or files. These days, life would be so much simpler if these things were done at least semi-automatically.
  • Most seriously, I’m not sure how much longer it will work with Windows. It runs happily enough on Windows 7 Professional, but the setup program does not work so I had to install it manually by copying the Idealist program directory from an earlier version of Windows into the Program Files (x86) directory and create shortcuts manually.
So, after years of dithering, I have started the long, slow process of moving my data out of Idealist. In the end, I have settled on two programs rather than one:
  • Evernote is a relatively simple notetaking program with some database features, which I now use as my primary notetaking application. My main reason for opting for it was the ease of syncing notes between my Android tablet and my laptop, which means that I no longer need to lug my laptop around everywhere. It is also a convenient home for a couple of my smaller databases, but it is not sophisticated or robust enough for me to trust it with my main databases.
  • For my main replacement for Idealist, I have finally settled on ConnectedText. Like Idealist, it seems to be flexible, powerful and reliable. Unlike Idealist, you can throw Unicode and LaTeX at it and it won’t blink. Because I’m into mind mapping in a big way, I also appreciate its visual navigator, which displays how individual records are linked to each other.

03 July 2014

Thought for the day: perfection and simplicity

A quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars (which I found in an interview with the landscape photographer Andris Apse in the current issue of fll magazine):

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

I like that: it seems to have all sorts of applications. Apse quotes it in relation to his search for perfection in photography, but it could equally well apply to writing. I can certainly think of any number of books that would have been improved by judicious use of the red pen.

Beyond the realm of the creative arts, it reminds me of the process of abstraction that is necessary in solving most physics problems. Back in the dim and distant past when I taught physics, it struck me that students most often got into difficulties because they didnt simplify enough.

And, come to think of it, it could also be an expression of Franciscan simplicity – that radical process of self-emptying which cuts away all the clutter, internal as well as external, until all that is left is the image of God.

01 July 2014

Three sexes?

Some months ago I took part in a performance of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle in Poland. It wasn't an entirely authentic performance: the choir was much larger than the numbers called for by Rossini. He specified a choir of twelve singers including four soloists. Specifically, on the autograph manuscript he wrote:
Douze chanteurs de trois sexes, hommes, femmes et castrats seront suffisants pour son exécution ; à savoir huit pour le choeur, quatre pour les solos, total douze chérubins
Twelve singers of three sexes, men, women and castrati will suffice for its execution: that is, eight for the choir, four soloists, in all twelve cherubim.
[I note that Novello refrained from reproducing this in the prelims of their edition of the score.]