Of monsters and pens

Mechanical pencil

As a Colombian I’m used to use mechanical pencils for writing almost anything. From the most casual note to the most important exams. And, apart from a few exceptions, I would say that mechanical pens are the preferred method of writing in Colombian universities. However, Europeans seem to prefer using regular pens (be it roller pens or fountain pens). I find this particularly interesting, due to the fact that mechanical pencil offer certain advantages that are not shared by regular pens, like “erasability” and re-usability.

Mechanical pencils are certainly not a novelty, they have been in the market for a couple of centuries. They come in different colors, different shapes and work with standardized leads. The leads are actually what defines the instrument: they come in different diameters and in different materials. This makes the figure they draw or paint to be lighter or brighter or shinier, that is, it defines effectively what the pen is for.

But for regular uses, i.e. writing, the mechanical pencils (m.p.) could be fitted in two types: those with the 0.7 diameter leads and those with a diameter of 0.5. When I was in middle and elementary school, we would buy the leads which diameter was prevailing at that moment. It was some sort of “network externality” which worked on two sides: first, it allowed you to have a readily available supply of leads when you ran out of leads (your classmates); and second, since demand for that particular size was high, it guaranteed that most shops would have them.

During my school years the most popular size was the 0.5. But as tastes changes, during my university the preferred ones were the 0.7. 0.7 probably won the competition in the moment the low cost, low quality mainly Chinese 0.5 leads were buoyant in the market. Given their low quality, 0.5 leads broke easily and would have led pupils in desperate need to write into grief. Since 0.7 is obviously thicker, even with the same material, the rate at which these leads broke was substantially lower. So, around the time I went to university, more and more people started using the 0.7 leads.

Be it 0.7 or 0.5, mechanical pencils offer a certain number of advantages over normal pens: first; they are, as regular pencils, erasable, this means that with the right equipment, the same space could be used to write something again. Yes, pens can be erased with liquid and correction fluid/tape but it does add an extra level of messiness. Second; they are reusable, so you can use a whole bunch of leads with your favorite m.p.. Third, they offer almost constant thickness all over the writing process (unlike normal pencils which tend to get thicker when the tip wears off).

Having all these advantages, I find it really strange that the popularity of m.p.’s is relatively low in European students compared to their Colombian counterparts. Obviously, that does not means that Colombian will be terrified to use a normal pen, but if the situation allows it, we will go for the m.p..

I think, though, that one of the reasons why Europeans prefer writing with normal pens could be attributed to the mandatory use of non-erasable pens in exams and homework. For me, accomplishing this particular aspect of the university in here was definitely hard at the beginning. I’m used to be messy and skipy and write words as they come to my mind. This meant that I needed some way to erase and rewrite as my mind came to an agreement on how to put things in an organized manner. I can’t however establish an actual causality in this situation: erasability may have made my brain aware of the capacity of reorganizing my ideas as I went through and across them; or, my intrinsic messiness have just made erasability a simple tool of it.

However, I did get used to it. I am now able of performing a (semi) organized way of thinking which follows an (almost) strictly linear order, which in turn allows the ideas in my brain to follow a two dimensional path that can be captured in a piece of paper. But still I find it hard to believe that I have replaced my long time pencils and mechanical pencils for something that more or less I know will be written and that I won’t be able to erase. In particular in mathematics, when I know that simple marks make such a big difference, I find it weird not to be able to erase, rewind and start over again. Nostalgia comes in different flavors.

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Using Notability as your everyday notebook

I fairly realized why Apple used so many times the word “revolution” and its different variants when they talked about the iPad and the iPhone. However, after I was given an iPad on Christmas 2011, I was surprised to see how well done the device is and how versatile and dynamic it is. Moreover, after discovering several useful apps especially designed for education, I must admit that it came to replace many of the tools I originally use as a student. For example, PDF readers and annotators are just awesome when you need to review a paper; the agenda is well designed and is automatically synced with the cloud; there’s even an official app from my Uni (Bocconi) which keeps me updated of my classrooms, exams and university communications.

But none of these “features” is a novelty (compared to what I can do with a browser or a normal PC). That’s why the really striking feature of the iPad for me was the capacitive screen in conjunction with a note taking app. Originally I’ve got this idea from a good friend, who was already using it when I got my iPad. He recommended some apps for Note taking, but I  finally decided to go for Notability.

Pretty much all note taking applications follow the same simple idea: You write in the screen with a capacitive pen as if it were a big piece of paper and the app offers you the possibility of changing the style of the pen, changing pages, adding a background, etc. Many apps offer also automatic uploading to the cloud, voice recording and even conversion of the notes into PDFs. But what really made Notability shine was that, apart from all these features, it offers a seamless handwriting experience: you zoom into one spot and write in big letters and they appear as normal (smaller) handwriting when you zoom out (no need to buy an additional expensive pen) and it scrolls automatically when you have finished the space. It’s simple, easy and assures that the transition period between physical and virtual notebooks is smooth and quick.

Here are some examples of handwritten notes:

Page stats

This note is from the class of Time Series Analysis, download the whole PDF: Lesson Mar 12, 2013Comparative financial

This is a note taken in my class of “Comparative Financial Systems”, to see the whole PDF: Lesson 25-feb-2013

Now, I must point out some concerns: First, as with any technology, this will never be free of bugs, although Notability is quite stable, don’t expect 100% reliability. This doesn’t mean that it will hang every 3 minutes, in fact, of my almost 2 years of usage, the software has frozen a couple of times (and has promptly saved my work so I would loose anything of what I’ve written);  Second, I still find it hard to do Math exercises on it, specially when there’s a lot of algebra and I need to go back and forth pages constantly. In this case I’d opt for traditional pencil and paper. Third, it seems that technology is moving fast and that new devices are being designed to enhanced the virtual note taking experience, eg. the sony super big 13.3 e-ink notebook, soon to be launched in Japan and that is already in proofs in three Japanese universities, so if you are not an early adopter, I would advise you to wait.


-Download Notability here.

-A good pen (although somewhat expensive): Adonit Jot Pro

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