October 31, 2006

Scientific Advancement (quick thoughts)…

Posted in Lifehacks, Work at 8:58 pm by a11en

Some very quick thoughts for tonight as I try to polish up some work for my Prof.

All scientific advancement is born out of lack of understanding. In the darkness of the unkown, and little-known, and very difficult to know- we seek around… as blind-men, in an attempt to find our way. [In the scary blackness- I might add.] A priori, we won’t know what we’ll find. Our knowledge will be stretched- may be questioned at all ends- and somewhere, we will find something new.

In this lack of knowledge, we must be content not to know. At least, we must accept the benefits of not knowing for the first time- the “child-like” state of first-discovery. In this state, without our notions of what “is”, we can find truly new ways of looking at our problems. Like a child’s first snow-fall. The unkown can be fun to experience- and our lack of knowledge is a pre-requisite for this.

Not knowing is sometimes the best position to be in. We will gain our first perfect vision of what we find- our first joyous experience of that snowfall in that first moment of experiencing the unknown.

This is why the “child-like” state of the “uncarved block” is lauded- only in this condition can we purely and simplistically experience these unknowns. Only in this state will we be free to form our thoughts about this experience without preconceived notions of what “must be”.

This is very difficult for a scientist. As a scientist is expected to know the answers. If he’s willing to be honest, often, he has no clue about the answers. He can give you some good guesses, and he should be able to give you very good informed guesses when the time comes… but scientists who are truly discovering, are working at the edge of their understanding.  I humbly submit, that even if his knowledge is not perfect, to him, he will be discovering.  In that state of imperfect knowledge, discovery will fall on him like cold stars of varied shape and size… if he’s smart… he’ll stick out his tongue…

October 27, 2006

Tacticity: The Fountain-Pen -v- Ballpoint

Posted in FountainPens at 7:40 am by a11en

A post today regarding some of my thoughts about Fountain-pens and Ballpoints. When someone moves from a ball-point (which most of my generation have been using their whole life) to a fountain-pen, often their comments range from “smooth” to “better feel” to “more responsive”. Another item that short-term users of FP’s experience is that of paper-quality. As I mentioned before, I never realized how bad paper quality had become in this country until I picked up a fountain-pen. Besides the mere ink/paper combination issues, there is also a tactile issue with the FP nib points. A sharp fine (F or XF) fountain-pen nib is what many call “toothy” on rougher paper. I’ll come back to paper briefly towards the end of this discussion…

The Mechanics and Tribology Of A Nib

In specific, about the tactile feel of a fountain-pen: The nib is comprised of two tines which have a very small vein running between them. This vein in conjunction with the feed and collector is what gets the ink from the pen’s reservoir to the nib-point. Often (especially in the more expensive pens) the nib is made from a single sheet of 14k or other similar type of gold. Gold is quite soft, and coupled with the length- the tines become something reminiscent of a cantilever. Since these are semi-flexible cantilevers, we can expect a response from the nib which is softer and more responsive to paper topology. Now, FP users are probably screaming at me- I’m not describing what we call “semi-flex” or “flexible” nibs here. I’m merely pointing out that there is a flexibility difference between the ball-point and the fountain-pen nib.

As well as the cantilever like tines of a nib, we also have the difference between what I’ll call one-dimensional writing and two-dimensional writing. If you have a ball handy, snag one- anything will do a golf-ball, tennis-ball, a squash-ball, whatever… actually-not everything will do… a football, being non-spherical won’t work. Put your hand flat on the ball, and move forward, backward, etc… rolling the ball between table/floor and hand. Watch the contact point of the ball with the surface you’re rolling against. If you were to start the ball on a logo for instance, the logo moves when rolling, correct? As well, at any point in time, the ball is in contact with the surface at (for all practical purposes) a single point. This point moves- eventually coming back in contact with your hand as you roll past 360°. What you have just observed is how a ball rolls around on a surface. This is exactly how your ball-point rolls around as well! The ball is merely encased in a point which allows the ball to roll, and allows ink to coat the surface of the ball. [Those of you with finger-paints, coat the ball and then roll it around – preferably on a hard-wood mahogany floor… Just kidding!] A fountain-pen is seriously different than this. Imagine taking a tube- say a toilet paper tube or a straw, and cutting one end of it at an angle. This is a very crude approx. of a fountain-pen. Those of you who know your math will know that the end of this tube will be an ellipse- that is, non-circular. I’ll get to that in a second. Now, place that flat cut edge on the same surface as your ball… and drag it around. Left, right, up, down… anything rolling? nope- anything changing contact with the surface? nope! What you have there, my friend is a large area of contact that you are sliding across a surface. Did you notice how much harder it is to slide if you apply the same pressure you did on the ball as on the tube? [Especially easy to notice on a carpet…] The tube grabs and snags the surface sometimes, unless you use a smooth surface and a light touch! This is exactly like the difference between a ball-point and a fountain-pen. Crude, yes, but similar.

Now back to the ellipse of that cut-surface… it’s not exactly the same width as height, right? If you’re unsure of this, snag an ink-pad, or perhaps some ketchup, and dab it into the ink- and then on a piece of paper. You don’t have a circle, because we cut it at an angle. Now, when you drag, you’re dragging the length or the width across the page (or something in between). Since the length of these are different, depending on how you drag it, you get different widths of lines! Interesting, eh? Remember back to the ball… no matter how we rolled it, the contact area of the ball always stayed the same… with your little fake fountain-pen (tube) this is *not* the case! In the extreme cases- Calligraphic fountain-pens, this difference is very pronounced. That is why some lines in characters made with them appear as skinny lines, while others thick. [There’s another way of doing this, but I won’t discuss that here today.]

How Paper and Ink Plays a Role

Now, a few comments about ink and paper. We have already noticed that the tube sliding across a rough surface is harder to work with than a ball rolling across that same surface- hence, we know that a smoother paper is going to feel better with a fountain-pen than a rougher paper. But, there is also differences in the ink. In a fountain-pen, the ink needs to flow readily from the reservoir to the feed to the nib-point. It must be very very smooth and very liquid. In a ball-point, you want the ink to stick to the ball so that you can get it onto the ball, and roll it onto the paper. Something a bit like paint on a paint-roller. If the roller were as smooth as a ball-point’s steel ball, and the paint was as liquid as water- you’d never get anything on the wall, as it would all run down and off the roller. The same goes with the ball of a ball-point. If the ink is sticky, it’ll stick to the ball, and then to the paper. Remember, we’re not actually sliding anything onto the paper (like a paint-brush)- we’re rolling it on… so it must be sticky. [This is not the case with a roller-ball… which means I have some more thinking to do here.] This sticky thick ink is even more pronounced in the new gel-ink pens. Ever see the ink moving in the ink cartridges? Nope! It’s quite thick, and I suspect (without busting one) quite sticky. So, a fountain-pen’s ink is liquid like. Who cares? Well, the paper cares… if the paper was like glass, do you think the ink would get anywhere? It’d just sit on the surface (if it came out of the fountain-pen at all). To get a nice line, you need to have a slightly absorbent paper. Too absorbent, and the line thickens (draws more ink out of the nib than you want). As well, if the paper is made from rough fibers, without any refinement (try a newspaper), you’ll get lots of ink running along these fibers, making your writing look “fuzzy”… this is called “Feathering”. Since ink from a ball-point doesn’t really flow that much if at all, we don’t have to worry about ink-“flow” into the paper fibers, or along the paper-fibers… hence we can often write on surfaces that aren’t very absorbent, and also on paper that is very rough and very fibrous. Of course there are limits to everything, but this is the general gist of things. So, a fountain pen really wants a smooth paper, with mild absorbency. As well, the lubricity of the ink plays a roll in the tactile feel as mentioned above. Sliding across the page, there is a liquid layer of ink that buffers the nib-point from the topology of the paper… lower the viscosity, or add surfactants, and you have a slippery ink- which will lay a smoother line. Of course there are tradeoffs in formulations, which I can only speculate on…

So, we’ve seen over this post, how a fountain-pen provides more tactile feel on the page. As well, visually the ink will act differently on the page, giving more visual feed-back as to paper absorbence. Ink flow plays a major role as well. Finally, the contact-area of the nib to the page provides not only tactile feel (topology) but also line-width variation- all of which I like to call two-dimensional, or even three-dimensional writing. [Topology will provide a third dimension here.]

All of this above provides the user with a more expressive and tactile experience when using a fountain-pen. In this article, I also haven’t touched on pen-designs, the beauty of a gold-nib, variation in ink-color, type, and even scenting. All of these add to the aspect of using a fountain-pen to write. Visually, the color is immediately noticed as different than a ball-point. Many users of fountain-pens utilize various colors of ink, as well as often mix their own ink colors. This leads to another level of personalization and expressiveness to the simple art of writing – creating a much more complex and enjoyable experience for the writer.

October 11, 2006

Penmanship – the lost art…

Posted in FountainPens, Rants at 11:39 pm by a11en

I wanted to comment on something we are losing these days- the days of point and click. I myself am a victim. You see, I type faster than I can ever hope to write. I can almost dictate and type in the normal qwerty keyboard. Now, this would not be so bad if I were able to write fast but the truth is that I write horrendously. Which is why I am slowly attempting to improve my handwriting.

There was a period of time when proper handwriting would ensure you a stable job. In fact, there was a time when being an expert in penmanship was actually a full time profession. It appears this is no longer the case. I find this downfall quite interesting, as all these little letters on the screen have a history- they were all written by hand at one point in time- their shape cast by convention and by authors of styles of handwriting, interested in legibility and form. These old pen-masters helped to form the shapes we use even now.

(speaking of masters…) I also find it intriguing that, for followers of Zen, calligraphy (shodo [2]) is one form of artwork which many specialize in. It marries the art made by man’s brush, with spiritual meditation. I believe strongly that this link is not to be laughed at… when one is stressed, sad, or happy, one’s handwriting is influenced. The idea that the heart, brain, and hand are connected is not to be disregarded. In fact, many studies on handwriting in the school system, have shown that students who take more handwriting instruction increase the structural complexity of their sentence creation. With the recent SAT’s requiring a hand-written essay portion, with those who print obtaining a lower average score in comparison to those who write in cursive, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see the recent handwritten lo-fi movement arising from the geeky high-tech sector. (Being a geek isn’t necessarily bad. 😉 )

When you have a computer- who needs a pen?

An interesting thing I’ve noticed, is that the computer allows my brain to throw more thoughts on a page… but this is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, since I can throw more thoughts on a page (my poor readers) this generally equates to lack of well-thought out sentence and paragraph structure. Mostly due to the more then helpful “Cut and Paste” and Mr. Delete. When asked to write by hand (lets say the computer is getting it’s logic board replaced for the third time), I notice this downfall of my writing immediately.

Now, don’t get me wrong here- our whole world has been helped by the advances that came from computing, and most of us couldn’t possibly produce manuscripts without the help of a computer with a typesetting program (small jab there at Word users…). However, even though we are helped, we must realize in some ways we are also hindered; this is where the new lo-fi movement is coming from. People are throwing out their PDAs for Moleskines. They are ignoring their mice (poor things) more frequently now, and picking up their Parkers. The reason? I strongly feel it’s disconnection driven. By “disconnection” I mean that there is a disconnection between well-thought out, well planned-out, phrases and our writing. The first thing I noticed as I forced myself to write letters on excellent stationary (Triomphe) was that I didn’t want to throw it out frequently. This meant that each sentence was thought about, more so than if I were writing on the computer. As well, each time I formed my words, since I was trying to write them legibly, I slowed down, and paid attention to form. All these things I ignore if I’m writing fast, or writing for myself, especially on the computer.

I have been contemplating these things on and off when I’m not working on my fast-approaching deadline at work… In particular, I’ve noticed that with increased speed of communication, and increased technology used, there is also more disconnection between the parties communicating. Disconnection leads to communication difficulties. I’m sure we’ve all experienced an e-mail discussion degrade into anger from misunderstanding one’s sentences etc. Hopefully, it was resolved… more than likely it needed to be resolved by lowering the level of disconnection- be it by using the phone or talking in person, etc. In person we have body lanuage and facial expressions that we lose when we move to phone communication. In phone communication, we have voice inflection, speed, and tone, which we lose when we write by hand. When writing by hand, we have we have cramped letters, fast and uncaring writing, or we have expressive characters, large movements, good spacing, pauses where ink seaps into the paper a bit- all things we lose when we e-mail. E-mail itself is quite disconnected. We no longer have that body language, voice inflection, expressive handwriting to tell us how the communicator is feeling. So, if we have poor sentence structure in e-mail, or ambiguous meanings which may be construed into personal attacks- communication breaks down quickly, and tempers flair.

Yes, we are improving the disemmination of information, and the speed of communication. But we are also creating lack of connection (either between well thought out words and paper or between the communicators). It’s this lack of connection- this sense of “black-box” filing (is my document here or there? or anywhere?) that is causing a backlash in our generation. We are now picking up the fountain-pen and nice little personal books, where our lowly little grocery-store lists, or our hopefully enjoyed, yet esoteric, rants fill their pages in expressive handwriting.

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post-script: I also believe that there is something to be said for the difference in writing implements. A future post may deal with the ball-point -v- fountain pen issue so many of us have experienced lately. I for one will come down on the side of the fountain-pen, but I’ll save our discussion for another time. 😉