Ya Big MOOC.

 Education, Technology  Comments Off on Ya Big MOOC.
Aug 202014

I went back to Udacity in order to finish up some programming courses, and because they were offering a deal. It’s been a while since I did any work in Python, but it’s funny how quickly it comes back to you. (Well, mostly.)

The only thing that’s kind of weird is going back over all the work I’ve already done. It feels like someone much smarter than me has already done a lot of this.

I’ve also been finishing up a Coursera MOOC on Music Theory, just to refresh a bit. It wasn’t bad, but the class felt kind of rushed towards the end. Really rushed! It was a good class, but the final exam was a little unreasonable, based on the amount of experience a lot of the students had.

I think the faculty had a “Well, this is obvious, isn’t it?” moment, when, “No, this is not obvious to a beginner. This is far from obvious,” is what they should have realized.

Still, right up until that point, it was very good. And I still got my PDF diploma (or whatever), so it’s all good.

And now I know what a hemisemidemiquaver is. But I’m still going to call it a 32nd note. And no way will I call a quarter note a crotchet. Makes me feel dirty.

But other than that, it was pretty good!

I’ve taken a lot of MOOC classes, on a bunch of different platforms, and I like the Udacity model the best– there’s no “You can only take this class NOW” problem. Take it whenever you want.

Coursera is too traditional in its approach, from my point of view, and some classes place far too much emphasis on the social aspect of learning. Honestly, I rarely, if ever, have time to use the forums. I barely have time to do the classes, and you want me to waste time in the forums? No thanks. If I want to socialize, I do it in the real world, or at least over Skype or voice chat.

The time pressure of Coursera isn’t fun, either. If I’m learning for fun, I want to learn at my own pace. Especially if I’m paying for it.

But! Coursera has an outstanding variety of classes, especially in Business and Music. I finished up a Marketing class offered by Penn’s Wharton School of Business. That was pretty interesting. And the music courses offered by Berklee are interesting. Sometimes I’ll drop the $50 for the certified certificate, but I have a hard time justifying that for something like Songwriting.

Oh, I took a look at the edX Linux class. My eyes glazed over at the cost. Really, guys? I get that you’re a non-profit, but that’s a crazy amount of money for what I can get from some YouTube videos and RTFMing a bit. A lot of the first week’s videos were just ads for the Linux Foundation, and that did nothing for me, either. I dropped it. I don’t have time for it.

It’s too bad. I was really excited about this course, and about edX, but the amount of money they ask for is just way too much for what’s essentially a DIY course. Coursera has already set my expectations at the appropriate level– $49 for a certified piece of paper is about right, considering it’s “college lite.”

I’m not a huge fan of the amount of money Udacity wants for its certified courses, either, but the coaching is useful. edX just wants the money, no coaching. As mom would say, “Das geht nicht!”

Pencil Kings

 Art, Education  Comments Off on Pencil Kings
Aug 042014

To improve my photography, I work on my visual sense. So I draw. To work on drawings and photography, I use Photoshop (and other programs). But my drawing has always kind of… what’s the word?


Yeah, that’s it.

Well, I kept hearing good things about Pencil Kings, so I’m in the middle of giving it a shot. In particular, I’m working on Sycra Yasin’s very thorough tutorial on painting in Photoshop. It’s a really good way to sharpen up those Photoshop skills. For photography, I use Lightroom more often, simply because I think it’s a better tool than Photoshop for dealing with a giant pile of photos without that… Photoshop look.

So far, I’m digging the info in the tutorial, even if I’m sick of drawing the pears and apple. Oh well. That’s how practice is. You draw the dull stuff to make the cool stuff.

It’s worth giving a look. The pricing isn’t too bad– $99/year or $250/lifetime. I’m giving it a year, and if it works out, I’ll do the lifetime thing.

Mid-Summer Scribbling (Pencil Pondering?)

 Art, DIY  Comments Off on Mid-Summer Scribbling (Pencil Pondering?)
Aug 022014

One of the things I enjoy doing is drawing. I totally suck at it, but it helps me think about composition and other “visual stuff” that helps me with photography and videography.

I was looking for some good pencils to draw with, and I sort of stumbled into the world of 2mm lead holders. They didn’t change my ability to draw or anything, but they sure lightened up my pencil case. (And my wallet.)

Here’s some stuff I found that I like, and some stuff I don’t like as much. It may be of referential use to someone, so I figured I’d put it up here.

Also, thanks a ton to the Lung Sketching Scrolls for a lot of useful background info on pencils, lead holders, etc. He plays with a bunch of different art supplies, so we don’t have to.

Part of what I wound up doing was based on his advice, and part of it was based on my own experience. In the end, you’re going to have to figure it out on your own, but here’s some data that might be useful as a reference.

2mm Lead Holders:

I love 2mm leads because unlike .5 or even .3 mm mechanical pencils, you can sharpen them. (Think about it– that 0.3 mm pencil? Yeah, it’s flat on top, unless you’re using a Kuru Toga.) Also, unlike those mechanical pencils, they don’t snap as easily. They still break, and when they do, it’s a pain, but it takes a lot of force to break them. And I draw with a lot of force.

Generally, you can get good 2mm leads in the range from 7H to 4B. Yes, 6B 2mm leads exist (Prismacolor Turquoise), but they’re so soft that they break at the slightest pressure. It’s a frustrating experience.

A good 2mm lead holder will get you a pretty decent range to set light to mid-dark grays. Which is a lot, really. I wind up carrying 4 of them with me, with a 7H, 2H, HB, and 2B. I really wanted the 6B to work, but it just crumbles when I put any kind of force into it.

I found a Staedtler 4B that I like for mid-darks, but like anything softer than 2B or 3B, it’s more likely to break if you put force into it. Physics.

When it comes to the lead holder, it’s really a question of personal preference. I’ve tried a few, and I love the Faber-Castell TK9400. It’s smooth, has a lot of flat sides, has no knurling on the barrel, and no annoying clip. I can twirl it around in my hand as I draw, keeping the tip sharp longer. It’s just a lovely lead holder. And it’s pretty cheap, too.

Then there’s the Staedtler Mars Technico, which is pretty easy to find at just about any large Arts and Crafts store. It’s pretty good, but I don’t like the aggressive knurled metal grip on the end. It comes with some nice HB leads, though. Staedtler makes excellent 2mm leads. It’s a good backup to have, just in case.

I used to really like the Art Alternatives 2mm lead holder, which had a removable clip (took a little force), and with the clip removed, became very twirlable in my hand, just like the TK9400. In fact, maybe a little too much like the TK9400, because that version can’t be found anymore. It’s just as well, because it’s also not very sturdy. I pressed too hard on the lead ejector button, and the metal collar on the bottom of the holder went flying across the room. I never found it. No idea where it wound up.

Art Alternatives’ current 2mm holder is pretty similar to the Technico, but after having two of the previous version send parts flying, I can’t recommend them.

Grip Trick:

For keeping a good grip on these lead holders and for telling them apart, I spent a dollar on 4 different colored pencil grips. They make it easier to twirl the lead holders around, and the colors help me tell which is which.

Also, for knowing what hardness is in which lead holder, I put a piece of artist’s tape on the top, near the plunger, and write the hardness I’m using on it. If I change leads, I erase and re-write. That’s in case I forget which color is which.

2mm leads:

Most of the leads I have are Turquoise by Prismacolor leads. A local store sold a bunch to me cheaply, so I bought a range of leads from them. Turquoise leads generally come 12 to a box, and they’ll fit any 2mm lead holder.

I have them in 7H, 3H, 2B, 3B, and 6B. They’re all pretty good except the 6B, which breaks too easily for me. If you have a light touch, maybe it’d work, but with any force the lead snaps. I use the 7H a lot for preliminary sketches. It holds a point really well. (Well yeah, it’s a 7H.)

As I mentioned above, Staedtler makes an excellent HB lead that they sell with their Technico holders. It’s robust, holds a point pretty well, and doesn’t disappoint me either. I picked up a box of 12 of those, and 12 of their 4B leads. The quality is solid. But the box is kind of annoying to get leads in/out of.

Faber-Castell also makes a set of 2mm leads for their holders. I’m trying their 2B leads right now, and I’m pleased. They’re a little longer than the Turquoise leads, and have an easier box to get in and out of. They’re longer than the Art Alternatives holders will allow, but if you sharpen the end in a rotary sharpener, it works out fine.

Get whatever’s easiest to find/cheapest. I prefer the Staedtler and Faber-Castell to the Turquoise, but it’s not a huge difference.


I accidentally bought a Lamy Scribble, thinking it was 2mm. This happened when I was first trying to figure out lead holders. I misheard the guy at the store. It’s a great lead holder, and it feels great in my hand. It feels even better when I removed the pocket clip, which just unscrewed from the top.

Finding 3.2 or 3.15 mm leads takes some effort. Lamy only makes 4B leads, which is fine for mid-darks, but that’s it. They’re also short and the refills are overpriced, from my point of view. Worther makes a good 7B for nice black blacks, and you can find them on eBay. Stabilo makes a good HB, too. I generally leave the 7B in the Scibble, to do the really dark stuff. But be careful– 7B is soft, so it will break.

There isn’t an easily obtainable rotary sharpener for the Lamy. I found a sharpener by KUM, but it’s slow. I wish Lamy had put a sharpener in the head, or made some provision for sharpening the thing, considering the price. The Scribble has been relegated to dark tone duty, which is kind of sad, given how expensive it is, but it’s a pain to keep it sharp.


Yes, these exist. Out of curiosity I picked up a couple to see if I like the experience. I got a “Creative Mark” holder for $5 at Jerry’s Art-o-Rama (because I go by there every now and then.) It came with some 4B leads, which I wound up giving a miss, because they were the famous “no-name” brand. I also ordered an Alvin Hercules off of eBay to see if there’s any difference based on the holder. I found the Creative Mark to feel just a touch more comfortable. The Hercules also feels pretty good. It’s smoother than the Creative Mark, which feels a little grippy with its rubberized surface. It also has a handy spinnable indicator on the back to let you know what darkness of leads are in there.

Alvin has you covered for mid-dark to dark leads in 5.6: I found them in HB, 2B, and 6B. And they don’t break easily. (Probably because they’re so big.) So I have one in 2B and one in 6B. If I could find a good 8B or 9B lead, I’d be happy.

Sharpening is kind of a pain. The Alvin Hercules has a sharpener in the cap, but it’s not very good. I prefer to use a cheap KUM drop-down pencil sharpener, but really any pencil sharpener will do, if you hold the lead centered in the hole, or center and stick a 5.6mm washer over the opening. (I should do that sometime.) Sandpaper always works, too.

Kuru Toga:

For writing, I’ve gotten into the Kuru Toga mechanical pencils by Uniball. The concept is interesting. There’s a gear that twirls the lead by a small increment every time you lift the lead from the page, so it’s supposed to keep your lead really sharp. In practice, it works pretty well, especially for math formulas and printed handwriting, and stick with HB or darker lead. If you write a lot in cursive, it doesn’t help much, because the lead doesn’t lift from the page enough. It helps keep the point sharp when I write in Japanese, or when I print in English.

Drawing is okay, but the line is too uneven for my taste. I don’t like how the sharp tips “bite” into the paper, and I don’t like how the pencil feels in my hand for drawing. Use it for writing. That’s what it’s intended for.

Some reviewers say that it’s vital to get the Japanese over the US version, but I don’t share their experiences. I find the US version to work just fine, and it feels more comfortable in my hand, especially the 0.5mm version. I’ve used them in 0.3, 0.5, and 0.7mm, and I like the 0.5mm the best for writing. 0.3 seems like it would be more precise, and it is, but it breaks too often for my taste, and it tears paper quite a bit, too. It likes to “bite” the paper a lot. 0.7 squirms too much, and feels like I’m fighting it. 0.5 is just right. It doesn’t squirm as noticeably, doesn’t break as easily, and doesn’t bite as much.

If you can find them, the new Uniball diamond leads are sturdy and do a good job, but they’re a little on the pricey side. I tried using 2H with the Kuru Togas, but the lines were waaay too light for handwriting. I switched over to HB and 2B, and things got a lot better. The leads still snap off every now and then, but it’s my favorite mechanical pencil now.


Finally, a word on erasers I love and find to be indispensible. I love the Tombow erasers, especially the Mono Zero round 2.3mm eraser. It’s great for getting into small details and cleaning out pencil roughs. (As soon as I can find one in stock, I want to get the rectangular one, too!)

Slightly bigger, but still handy, is the Paper Mate Tuff Stuff Eraser Stick, which is wider than the Mono Zero, but feels slightly beefier, for fiddly erasing that requires more “oomph.” Also, it’s easily available in the US. (Like at Jerry’s Art-o-Rama.)

Finally, I always have a couple of Pentel elastomer block erasers with me, and a random kneadable eraser or two.

What’s great about this setup is that it’s amazingly portable. I can fit all of it in a small plastic pencil case. Four lead holders, one or two of the bigger ones, a few spare leads, a sharpener, and a couple of erasers, and I’m set.

Getting to that point was a bit of  a lot of  hassle, and I wound up with some surplus stuff I’m never going to use, but it’s worth it if I can get to this kind of happy portable setup.

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