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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