Published: emm, date: April 25, 2013
The mechanical pencil -- or I should say, a good mechanical pencil -- is a perfection of craft. It is light; it is fine; it ideally has a little high-density eraser under the cap. The mechanism used by most mechanical pencils is far more beautiful and explicable than a pen's glorified plumbing. The mechanical pencil's gaskets and grabbers and brass clutch are just cool, and the traditional hexagonal barrel is a usability triumph.
Mechanical pencil 'ink' is utterly standardized, and can be purchased for almost nothing. (It's carbon. Elementally, you're writing in your own blood.) You can write on a plane, you can write upside down, and, it is said, under water. But despite all this, the pencil is humble, allowing its words to be parted from its page, should it err.
There are warts too of course. The most pressing for me is the delicacy of the nib: a surprising number of inferior mechanical pencils have a fixed-tube nib that gets damaged easily, forcing you to re-buy. Do not fall for these harlots. If you're spending less than $30 on a mechanical pencil, get one with a conical nib that can be 'retracted' by pushing on it with your finger, or even one of the fancier models that has a full spring-loaded retraction system (although I question the usefulness of these over just pushing the nib into the casing with a fingertip.)
If you have money to spend and you do (even occasional) drafting, diagramming or figuring, you should get a pencil with a proper drafter's nib. This looks identical to the cheap fixed barrel I made fun of not two paragraphs ago, except (a) it's made out of a real metal, thus ensuring its continued function past the 2-week mark, and (b) it's handy for drafting, and, unlike a conical nib, which tends to jam in tight corners, a fixed barrel of reasonable quality is suitable for all but the most delicate work. A cheap one, however, will break your heart, and possibly your skin.
While sturdier, these pencils still must be treated like royalty, as damage to the nib is a showstopper. You should wince when you drop one. Thus I recommend a Pelican case. They have a thick rubber liner that I trust.
Before I get to the rest of my recommendations, I want to give props to Dave's Mechanical Pencils, which is run by one of the few people I trust to understand my obsession. He's the guy who put me on to Rotring, and how to still get the metal-bodied classic, via Japanese eBay.
Enough about Dave, let's get back to what I recommend. Guess what my first recommendation is? :) Yep, a Rotring. Not the mass-produced Buffalo-owned Rotrings that you get these days, but the Rotring 600, an early-00's metal-bodied classic with a matte-powder black finish. They're only still sold in Japan. Don't ask me why I have to order a German design from Japan, but I did, and it was worth it. It was $40 by the time I got it in my hot little Canadian paws. (Thanks, eBay user motohashi001company!)
Second, my daily driver. It lives in my pocket, hooked to a Leuchtturm notebook. It's a sturdy, heavily-scuffed, bright-red Caran d'Ache Ecridor and looks and feels like a long, smooth, hexagonal lego brick. The nib is conical and can be pushed up inside for transport. My Ecridor was purchased at Vancouver Pen Shop, back before I knew anything. (A big thanks to their knowledgable reps!) I later discovered that Dave's Mechanical Pencils has a review of the Ecridor; he seems to appreciate it about as much as I do.
Finally, the One that Got Away. I used to have a Pentel Kerry, also from Vancouver Pen Shop. It's a great pencil, and the lid is perfection itself, glossily sliding into place with a reassuring click. It even has what I can only call a 'passthrough button', allowing the lead to be advanced even when the cap is stowed away on the back end. Sadly, this wondrous lid made this pencil a little too portable for me, and I lost my Kerry somewhere. I haven't rebought because (a) been there and (b) the pen's heavy design, while elegant, looks a bit too masculine for my taste; I want to write with it, not fell deer. It's the Model M of mechanical pencils, and as much as I love my Das Keyboard, it's not the sort of thing I'd want to flash around. Or move around. Or stand under.
A last word on left-handedness and pencils. You will smudge. Period. But you can smudge less if you avoid the 'southpaw hook' and retrain your muscles to write from the bottom of the line. The smudges themselves are far less showstop-y than ink smudges, and the pale silver sheen on the heel of my left hand tells the world that I've been working.
When was the last time your keyboard ever told the world you were working? Twitter doesn't count. :Pblog comments powered by Disqus
Published: emm, date: April 24, 2013
I wrote the following while explaining DRM to a friend on Google Plus. Caution: It's been a long time since I took the relevant courses, and this was a casual discussion; please see your local physicist for details. :3
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Just realized I forgot to say what the technical def. of 'secret' is. I'm a little squishy on this stuff (it's been twelve years since I did my crypto) but I'm going to remember as I go:
A secret is information that you and the recipient (in this case, the recipient is a consumer media device) share, but is not shared with the bad guys (in this case, the consumers). Mathematically, you can describe this as a decrease in entropy (because physics tells us that heat is released when information is destroyed; ergo Hawking radiation etc.) We say that Alice and Bob, who don't want to be overheard by Eve or Mallory, have lower entropy than Eve or Mallory (only relevant in our idealized system, however -- in real life, the thermal difference between knowing and not knowing something is too tiny to measure.) Since Alice and Bob share a secret, they are able to better organize the ciphertext (i.e. they are able to understand it.) This is because increased complexity, by complexity theory, is the opposite of entropy.
(Speaking of which, your mind should feel like it's melting about now. The identification of heat with information loss is so counterintuitive it took me six months of napkin equations to believe it. Quick hint: remember that Alice-the-physical-system must have a complete copy of the plaintext and secret within her, and so must Bob, whereas Mallory and Eve do not; all they have is the ciphertext, which without the secret cannot be 'compressed' into a parse tree, and that means it's going to be as good as random to them.Random is chaotic, and entropy is the march of chaos, which we experience as heat. Now excuse me while I go trip out somewhere thinking about this. )
If the entropy 'spills' out of Eve or Mallory and into Alice or Bob, that constitutes the destruction of the secret and the acquisition of knowledge by Eve or Mallory. A good cryptographic system is essentially (and absolutely literally) a very specific sort of insulation that maintains a thermal difference between Alice-Bob and the rest of the world. And since we've got lots of tools from other branches of math to model thermals, this suits us just dandy, as we can use those tools to characterize the difference between the Alice-Bob axis and Mallory (some deceiver) and Eve (some evesdropper.) In other words, we have reduced the hazy, everyday notion of 'secret' to cold hard math, and if that doesn't shock you nothing will. ;3
But getting back to the matter at hand. In short --- and we all may want to get this tattooed on us somewhere, because it's fucking weird and hard to believe -- Cryptography is a thought-thermos.
Published: emm, date: March 6, 2013
Published: emm, date: February 26, 2013
I have a Yamaha P-85 digital keyboard. It's a lovely thing -- good sound, solid construction, tiny chassis, and the obligatory MIDI ports. So three weeks ago I went down to Long and McQuade and bought an Uno MIDI->USB adapter.
I forumed around a bit and worked out that the stack to use in Linux for audio work is jackd, ardour (or another DAW), and fluidsynth. jackd is (as I understand it) more performant than PulseAudio -- the jackd developers put a lot of work into getting latency down, which is important for music production.
Of course, that means it also conflicts with PulseAudio, unless fussily configured to cooperate. (PulseAudio can operate as a jackd client -- jackd slides between ALSA and PulseAudio.)
So I wasn't terribly surprised when upgrading to Fedora 18 trashed my audio configuration; I was prepared to rebuild it.
What I wasn't expecting was a regression in Firefox, coincidentally introduced by the upgrade. Zapping my profile didn't fix it. Neither did zapping my user account. Nor did reinstalling Firefox do anything.
The regression introduced a 45-second delay between clicking on the menu bar and having a menu appear. Most pages, however, were mysteriously immune to the regression's effects. strace(1) was unilluminating. It was just the native XUL Firefox menuing widgets that were busted.
I was mostly working on the audio bug as a stress-relief problem, to distract me from the anxiety of having a dysfunctional install of my primary browser (I'm a web dev.) Imagine my surprise when, after mightily schooling the various Linux audio deities in how jackd is done, my Firefox problems also vanished!
What I worked out is this. Upgrading to Fedora 18 had changed the initialization order of my workstation's 'sound cards'. You see, ALSA thinks of the Uno as just another sound card. Before the upgrade, USB was loading last, giving my 'real' sound card first place. But systemd parallelizes a bunch of the init process, and after upgrading to F18 Uno loaded before my regular sound card. This was trashing my jackd config. (That's what you get for referring to peripherals by discovery order, rather than ID. Bad sysadmin! Bad!)
What I didn't realize is that recent versions of Firefox allow sound themes. This of course is an incredibly annoying feature that almost everyone who has half a neuron will immediately turn off, and I think the default theme is silent. But despite, you know, not making any sound, Firefox was apparently attempting to talk to the first-discovered sound card via PulseAudio every time I clicked on a menu. Since the Uno isn't really a sound card, PA was hanging on playback, which would timeout; and either PA or FF apparently likes to retry failed attempts viz. audio playback. In the UI thread. Bad devs! Bad!
The moral of this story is: coincidences happen, but a good dev should be a little bit superstitious about them all the same. You can never be sure there's not another piano out there, somewhere, lurking.blog comments powered by Disqus