I have just returned from spending a week at my Sacramento Valley hide-away working on my old machinery, and on a couple of books. The weather was beautiful (spring time in California), and I am now feeling terrific—partly because I got a lot done, partly because I love to work on old machinery, and partly because I was outside.
I came to realize some time ago, that screens (as in movie, computer, projection, pad, phone, etc) do not like the outdoors. The picture is degraded by sunlight and the device forming the picture would rather be dropped onto a carpet rather than onto rocks or into water. Unfortunately, I like being outdoors, and I do not like trailing long extension cords to power such devices, whether directly or through batteries. Computers are indoor things, especially if one needs a screen large enough to be able to work on two full-sized pages simultaneously. Therefore I often tend to resort to more vintage equipment, i.e. pencils or pens and paper, because they work very well outside.
But I use such tools inside as well. My wife and I have learned to re-cycle our unwanted mail (almost all of it) by keeping unopened letters in piles in various locations around the house to use for making notes, lists, or whatever. Eventually we re-cycle them like good campus residents. This proves faster and more convenient than constantly trying to remember where our pads or phones are, turning on our lap-tops, or running upstairs to our desk tops. And pencils and pens are required for certain family traditions. I lie in bed on Sunday mornings and struggle with the New York Times crossword puzzle. It is in the rather limp magazine section, the paper is rather slick, and computers are not allowed in the room since due to the time difference, red-hot puzzle people on the east coast have finished the puzzle and put the answer on the web. Since few people are strong enough not to take advantage of this, computers must be barred. Due to the nature of the limp magazine and the texture of the paper, high quality pencils are needed, not only to form easily readable words, but because it is often necessary to erase one’s brilliant, but ill fitting entry.
Unfortunately, it seems as though as we move to computers, the quality of non-digital writing tools is not only not improving, but decreasing. I have long loved the common wooden pencil with eraser. But pencil lines seem to be becoming less consistent, and erasers seem to wear out more rapidly and do a poorer job of erasing. The sample below shows the work of four pencils I picked up from a coffee cup on my desk where I store them. The ends had has five hard swipes with the eraser of the pencil that made them. They represented four different brands,. As can be seen, the lines they made were similar, except for the fourth one, which was fainter, and the success of the eraser went from acceptable to awful. This is the first time I have ever tried to compare pencils. The first two were old established brands (Dixon and Faber Castell). The last two I will not mention, because this is not a scientific comparison.
The message is that it seems that one cannot simply grab a wooden pencil any more and have it perform as expected. And in fact, the web is reflecting this by producing much information on them. See the list of pencil-related web sites here, or just put “pencil blogs” into your browser and ignore such things as eyebrow pencils.
The situation with so-called mechanical pencils is even more complex because of the many approaches they take to hold the lead (which of course contains no lead – it is a mixture of graphite and clay), feed it, keep it from breaking, etc. And such pencils tend not to include reasonable erasers. Furthermore good ones cost too much if you tend to lose them and loan them to friends (which I do). And they are less rewarding to chew and to drum on one’s desktop.
And then there are pens. Sharpies make great indelible lines on almost anything, until you neglect to put on the cap, in which case they will rapidly die. Such is true for most “give away” ball point pens, some of which will come with a retractable feature to protect pockets, and some with a fragile plastic cap that soon disappears. I am having great luck with a pen entitled Uniball Vision Elite, but it is a bit pricey and tends to run out of ink rather rapidly. And of course none of the lines from such pens can be erased, and therefore are of limited value for amateur cross word puzzle solvers like me.
Is the quality of pencils and pens being neglected as we move toward computers? Is it even going down hill? A worry to us who like to doodle, make sketches, and work on books in the sunshine.