Links: Silicon Valley as a city, Parfit on Kant, language weirdness, Kevin Kelly, notebooks, and more

* “A Grand Plan to Make Silicon Valley Into An Urban Paradise: Maybe the suburban land of the tech giants could become a thriving dense metropolis.” Sounds good if improbable to me.

IMG_1878* I added to “On bad writing in philosophy: Derek Parfit on Kant.”

* Awesome: “Tenants’ Deal Removes Bar To New Tower.”

* A weird language moment, from the article “The Winners and Losers in the Fiscal-Cliff Deal:” “The Obama administration has gotten a lot done since Inauguration Day 2009, but what it’s never done is give strong partisan Democrats the kind of to-the-mattresses battle against the GOP that they crave” (emphasis added). The professional minutia of imagined gangsters is apparently well-known enough to use without any explanation of what a “to-the-mattresses battle” is, and how it differs from a non-to-the-mattresses battle.

* Kevin Kelly: The Post-Productive Economy and why we’ve barely seen growth from computing and the Internet, at least yet.

* Why women reject eager men.

* The death of the American shopping mall. Good.

* A random thought: It’s hard to be alive and intellectually engaged without contemplating our relationship with technology.

* Perhaps related to the above, WordPress picked up “Why little black books instead of phones and computers,” and I must say that bloggers are chatty: there are 112 comments on the post (and rising), which beats “Unicomp Customer / Space Saver and the IBM Model M.” That one may have had many more readers, but it only has 68 comments.

* “Prostitutes in Brazil Take Free English Classes Ahead of 2014 World Cup;” the best quote is “I don’t think we will have problems persuading English teachers to provide services for free [. . .] We already have several volunteer psychologists and doctors helping us.”

Design.Y Notebook Review: The Record 216

EDIT: I sent an e-mail to Design.Y about the binding breakage described below, and they sent me a new notebook. I’ll write another update when I’ve filled the new one.

EDIT 2: The new one broke too. I’m not going to use these anymore and am switching to the much cheaper and much more durable Rhodia Webnotebooks mentioned below.  

The most salient feature of the Design.Y “Record 216”* is its price, which varies with the Yen-to-dollar exchange rate but currently hovers around $70 with shipping. Those of you who can do simple math are probably thinking that this is about 35 times greater than a drugstore pocket notebook and fives times a Rhodia Webbie. I want the Design.Y notebooks to be five times better. Hell, I want them to be twice as good. But while the notebook is certainly a lovely object that’s been lovingly packed, like a florist’s rose or an undertaker’s corpse, the Record 216 suffers from one major flaw: the paper is too thin.

I’m constantly crinkling it or creasing the corners or bending the middle when I mean to turn the page (see the photo below for an example). The paper is definitely a joy to write on, but a heavier version would be an improvement; thinner is not always better, as anorexia counselors will remind us. Some pens will bleed through, as shown in the picture to the right. The bleeding problem is not great with my fountain pen, but then I use a extra-fine nib that’s about as slender, if not more so, as the Pilot G2. Users of thicker nibs may have concomitantly greater problems. Still, I can forgive the bleed-through problem. It’s the lightness that bugs me, and the way I subconsciously worry about bending a page when I’m merely trying to turn it.

Almost everything else about the notebook is incredible. It’s been in my pocket for months without suffering any problem greater than a frayed band. The size, at 5.3″ by 3.1″, is quite handy, and I’ve come to like it better than the standard 5.5 x 3.5 size of Rhodia Webbies, Guildhall, Leuchtturm 1917, or Moleskine. The 3.1″ width makes it feel much more portable at no cost to usability; if anything, the sense of a long, narrow column is an enhancement. The line spacing on the page is neither too great (as it is on the Rhodia) nor too small, and lines extend to the edge of the page, as they should. The cover has a very slight lip that doesn’t distract. The Design.Y notebook also sits flat “out-of-the-box,” so to speak, and doesn’t suffer from the stiffness of a fresh Rhodia or Moleskine. That stiffness declines with age, but it’s still present. The binding is strong and supple.

These features don’t quite make up for the paper thinness or price, however. I only go through one notebook every six to twelve months, but even so, $70 is a substantial hit for what is basically a consumer trifle. A lovely consumer trifle, but with a fatal flaw that makes justifying its price difficult. Perfection is difficult, and the Rhodia Webbie isn’t perfect: its lines should extend to the end of the page and its lines should be closer to one another. If I were Steve Jobs, I’d be driven mad by these problems. Fortunately, I’m not, but it’s clear that Design.Y has noticed some of the same things Apple has. In the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, he writes: “Early on, Mike Markkula had taught Jobs to ‘impute’—to understand that people do judge a book by its cover—and therefore to make sure all the trappings and packaging of Apple signaled that there was a beautiful gem inside.” Design.Y does the same. The company even includes a sheath of extra paper with a hand-written note. I can’t help noticing that one flaw in the gem, however, that keeps me from wanting to give myself over to an otherwise shining light.

As you can probably tell, I want the notebook to be better than it is. A Japanese craftsman named Hiroshi Yoshino makes them (this also explains why their price is denominated in Yen) using “Tomoe River” paper, which the website accurately describes as “very thin and lightweight.” I wouldn’t want him to switch to the Rhodia’s tank-like paper. But something heavier and less bendable would make the Record 216 the perfect notebook.

EDIT: Unfortunately, the front and back of my notebook began to split after about five months of normal use:

And, to me, this disqualifies the Model 216 for day-to-day use; I haven’t had the problem with Rhodia Webnotebooks. Although I wish the Rhodia’s lines went to the edge of the page, and its paper is perhaps slightly too thick, I think the trade-offs—especially accounting for price—make it a better choice. A $70 notebook better be perfect. This one isn’t, and its durability is especially distressing.

* Or “Model 216,” depending on which part of the website you’re reading. Chalk this up to charming translation idiosyncrasies.

The accidentally bent page.

Product Review: The Leuchtturm 1917 notebook

The Leuchtturm 1917 is perfectly competent. It’s slightly larger than a Moleskine, when a notebook should be, if anything, slightly smaller. This is a small point. The paper quality is, to my eye and hand, indistinguishable from Moleskine’s, which in turn is very similar to Guildhall and most of the other non-Rhodia notebooks I’ve tried. It has one other annoying feature: the last 30 or so pages are perforated; this is another way of saying, “They’ll eventually fall out.” If you’re the kind of person who wants to desecrate your notebook by tearing out pages, then the Leuchtturm 1917 is for you. To be sure, perforated pages are a minor annoyance. But if you’re not trying to avoid minor annoyances, stick with Moleskines, since they’re widely available.

The only major problem with the Leuchtturm 1917 simple: it doesn’t offer any major, obvious improvements over the Moleskine. It doesn’t offer any real disadvantages, either, other than its departure from the canonical 3.5 x 5.5 size and the perforated final pages. Unlike the Quo Vadis Habana, however, the Leuchtturm 1917 isn’t so much larger that carrying it around becomes a chore.

If this review seems slight, that’s because it is—the differences between this notebook and a Moleskine are trivial. They experience the same corner tearing, although I didn’t use the Leuchtturm long enough for the tears to develop into the cover partially coming off. If you’ve used a Moleskine, you’ve already in effect used this notebook; both are decent, but neither beats the Rhodia Webbie.

More on that soon.

The new notebook stack:

In “Eight years of writing and the first busted Moleskine,” I posted a picture of the notebook stack on one of my bookshelves. It has expanded since:

The orange notebook is a Rhodia Webbie, and I discovered why notebooks should be black the hard way. The notebook was originally a lovely orange color. But riding in cargo pockets, jeans pockets, backpacks, car seats, purses (occasionally), and various other means is a sure way to attract muck. Within two weeks, the notebook simply looked dirty.

The next notebook I bought was black. Notice, however, that despite the Rhodia’s color, its corners have remained intact, unlike most of the rest.

Product Review: Guildhall Pocket Notebook

This is part of a series of pocket notebook reviews that I began after Moleskine’s quality control problems and from reading Rands’ notebook discussion.

The Guildhall Pocket Notebook’s great strength and weakness is its flexibility: it has a softer cover than most pocket notebooks and stitching that allows the notebook to easily lie flat. But its cover also bends out of shape over time, like a cardboard insert or cereal box, and the pages bend with it. Still, this is a minor problem in a largely successful notebook—one that’s better than Moleskines but not quite as good or readily available as Rhodia Webbies.

The “loose” quality to the Guildhall’s binding is pleasing—insert joke here—and the notebook is much easier to flip through than the Design.Y Record 216, which I haven’t really used because my current notebook still has space (and the Design.Y’s cost precludes it from being compared with $5 – $20 notebooks). A sewn binding means the Guildhall is unlikely to fall apart over the short to medium term; though it doesn’t feel as sturdy as a Rhodia Webbie, the Guildhall did survive many months in pockets, backpacks, suitcases, and assorted other gear without corner tears.

Mine arrived smelling like fish, although I attribute that to shipping from England rather than an inherent property of the notebook. I sent them back to UKGE for a new pair, only to have UKGE send them back to me, still smelling of fish, though not nearly as badly.

The pages had narrow lines that allow more writing per page without being cramped; there are an extra two to three lines per sheet over Rhodia’s Webbie, though the lines didn’t quite extend to the page’s edge. The cover has a pleasant feel and stitching around it; I can’t tell if the stitching is decoration or essential to holding the cover in place. The paper feels good under a pen, and there’s very little bleed through (in the picture with writing, above, the back page is covered with fountain pen ink). It’s very easy to flip through the Guildhall.

Unfortunately, most of this doesn’t matter: Exaclair, the American distributor for Guildhall, isn’t producing them any longer. Christine Nusse, who works for Exaclair, sent me an e-mail saying that “the Guildhall journals are no longer available for export in the US because they were redundant with the Quo Vadis’ Habanas [. . .] and Clairefontaine’s notebooks.” To me, the Habana is quite different, but the issue is moot anyway: she also said “My understanding is that they are discontinued.” That understanding may have changed, but if it hasn’t, the notebook is gone. Some places online still list Guildhall notebooks, like The Dyslexia Shop in the U.K., but I don’t know if those retailers are getting new stock or depleting what inventory remains.

In the realm of “normal” notebooks, this is the best or second best I’ve tried, the best being the Rhodia, which I prefer only because I don’t like the cover bend. The Guildhall seems like a natural fit for the U.S., and that Exaclair chooses not to distribute it is puzzling, given its superiority over the market-leading behemoth.

Brief product review: The Quo Vadis Habana

This is part of a series of pocket notebook reviews that I began after Moleskine’s quality control problems, and in reading Rands’ notebook discussion.

The Habana’s big problem is simple: it’s not quite a pocket notebook. It’s also not quite a full-sized notebook, either, at 4″ x 6″, it’s uncomfortably in between, too large to carry around and too small for classrooms. Instead of being in the pleasant middle, they’re in the awkward middle. These shots compare it to a Moleskine and Guildhall notebook, both of which are 3.5″ x 5.5″:

The Habana is still wrapped, and that’s because of its size: too large to be portable. If it doesn’t fit in reasonably slender pockets, it might as well be a laptop or tablet. There isn’t further discussion of the paper quality or construction because the Habana has already been disqualified from competition. Which is unfortunate, because there aren’t a huge number of high-quality, appropriately sized notebooks around.

I want it to be right. It just isn’t.

EDIT: The Rhodia Webnotebook is better, although its pages obnoxiously don’t extend to the edge of each page.

Are Moleskines pretentious? Yup. Guildhall Notebooks and Rhodia Webbies are worse

Someone found this blog through the search query, “are moleskines pretentious”. The answer is so obvious (“yes”) that it worries me someone had to search for it. On the other hand, if you’re going to be a writer / artist / thinker type (see, for example, Rands in Repose for a hacker’s view), they’re pretty handy and probably worth the derisive, deserved stares and commentary you’ll get. Keep using them because you don’t know when a sentence will turn into a book. Or a post. Or something else important.

But I’m getting off-topic, which is how both moleskine notebooks (in the sense of the cover material) and Moleskine™ Notebooks (in the sense of the massive conglomerate that markets such notebooks) are pretentious. It might be even worse to posted about your dissatisfaction with recent Moleskines, along with pictures of the stack you’ve acquired over the years. At the moment, I’ve started using a Guildhall pocket notebook, which is a pain in the ass to find because they’re apparently discontinued (or so says their distributor, Exaclair). If you’re looking for one, start here. But for me, the real question is how well it’ll hold up after six to nine months of rigorous scientific testing that consists of travel in my pocket, backpack, and so forth. Maybe no notebook can, but the older Moleskines seemed to survive quite nicely. We’ll see if the Guildhall does.

One reason using a Moleskine can seem or be pretentious is simple: you appear to be more worried about appearance than what you’re actually doing with it, and writing blog posts, even recursively self-aware blog posts, enhances this problem. I don’t have a solution to this aspect of the issue beyond a suggestion that you actually produce something (posts, novels, paintings, patches to the Linux kernel, hedge funds, etc.) that your notebook habit contributes to.

By the way: after an exhaustive study of notebooks, I’ve discovered that the Rhodia Webbie is optimal. It even beats a $70, hand-made Japanese notebook that’s lovely but has overly thin paper. So if you’re looking for the right notebook, skip my persnickety, endless testing and go straight to the right one.

Eight years of writing and the first busted Moleskine

Most of my writing happens on a computer, which means it’s pretty hard to depict the final product in a visually satisfying way.* But I also carry around a pretentious Moleskine™ notebook for the random ideas that strike in grocery stories or at parties. The latest notebook, however, developed a split binding:

I’ve been using Moleskines for about eight years, which means I go through about two of them per publishable novel:

Notice how none of the others have the binding split that afflicted the latest one. I haven’t consciously treated this one differently from its predecessors or used it any longer. Maybe the quality control at Moleskine central has declined, although people have made claims in that direction for a very long time.

Regardless of the reason, the latest notebook has about twelve usable pages left; I tend to write nonfiction, blog post ideas, things I need to remember, reminders about e-mails, entries from an unkept diary, and stuff like that in the back. Ideas, quotes, things people say, and other material related to fiction goes in front. When back and front meet in the middle, it’s time to get a new one.

When I start working on a new novel, I usually go back through all the old notebooks at the beginning to see what material might be usable and when I started taking ideas for that specific project. Some ideas for novels have been burbling in the back of my mind for a very long time, waiting for me to have the time and skill to move them from a couple of scrawled lines to 80,000 words of story. The oldest Moleskines I have were bought in the 2002 neighborhood. They’ve held up pretty well; the ones I started buying in the 2005 neighborhood are showing their age. Tough to say if this is an indication of falling quality control or something else altogether.

While Googling around for the complaint about Moleskine quality I linked to above, I also found a site that recommends The Guildhall Notebook. I’ve already ordered one, although apparently Guildhall doesn’t have a U.S. distributor, so I have to wait for mine to ship from the UK. I hope the improved binding is worth the wait. EDIT 1: They weren’t worth the wait, or the hassle; if that weren’t enough, Christine Nusse of Exaclair Inc. /Quo Vadis Planners, which distributes or distributed Guildhall notebooks, said in an e-mail that her understanding is that the notebooks are being discontinued. She recommends the Quo Vadis Habana instead (although I think it too big) or a Rhodia notebook (which I think just right, as I said below.

So even if you want a Guildhall pocket notebook, you probably won’t be able to find one for long; fortunately, the Rhodia Webbie is a better alternative.

EDIT 2: Someone found me by asking, “are moleskines pretentious”? Answer, in post form: “Are Moleskines pretentious? Yup. Guildhall Notebooks are worse.”

EDIT 3: I’ve settled on the Rhodia Webbie as a full-time notebook: it’s expensive but much more durable than other notebooks I’ve found. I’ll write a full review at some point.

EDIT 4: I posted an updated photo of the stack. Or you can see it here:

* Even describing it using conventional prepositions is tough: do I write “on” or “in” or “with” a computer? Good arguments exist for any of the three.

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