Thursday, April 14, 2022

All about pens

Handwriting is the new typing

After many years of terrible handwriting (think spiders on LSD), I recently decided to improve it. I bought a book on handwriting and practiced, practiced, practiced. Along the way, I learned something about the writing experience; the choice of pen and ink matters. I'm going to share what I learned with you.

This post is all about ball pens within a reasonable price range, fountain pens are just too advanced for me and I'm cheap.

What makes a good handwriting experience?

Early on, I discovered that the pen and ink you use make a big difference, not only to the quality of the result (legible handwriting) but also to the tactile pleasure of writing. I found the smoothness of the pen moving across the paper makes a difference; some pens just glide across the page and are wonderful to use, while others skip and drag like taking a pet to the vet. Some otherwise great pens gave smooth and thick lines that bled through to the other side of the paper, while other pens gave precise narrowness at the expense of scratchiness. After some experimentation, I concluded that the thrill of the writing experience is governed by two things: the pen barrel and the refill. 

For the pen barrel, its weight and the feel of the pen in my hand were the most important factors. As we'll see later, the weight of pens varies by almost an order of magnitude and I had very different writing experiences at either end of the scale. After many trials, I found I like heavier pens. The feel of the pen is harder to describe; I like pens with some form of special 'grip' or finger guide, but my favorite pen is all metal and smooth (I'm obviously not consistent). In the picture below, only the Pilot G-2 (2nd from top) and the Zebra Sarasa (3rd from top) have guides.

(Muji 0.38mm, Pilot G-2 0.7mm, Zebra Sarasa 0.7mm, AliExpress 0.5mm)

Refills for ball pens are of two general types, ballpoint ink, and gel ink. Ballpoint ink is thicker and heavier but lasts longer, while gel ink is smoother on the paper but doesn't last as long. For a better writing experience, the choice for me is clear: gel ink. As a bonus, gel ink pens come in a rainbow of colors.

Gel ink refills (and pen refills in general) are like dogs, they come in a range of different sizes. There are international standards, but even within standards, the variation is great. The image below shows some refills which are all about the same length (110mm) and all about the same width (6mm). As you've probably guessed, some of these refills fit some pens and not others. Is there any way of knowing what size refill a pen will take? No. You just have to guess or buy the same refill that went into your pen.

The size of the ball on the refill is hugely important. Typically, gel refills have the following ball sizes:

  • 1.0 mm bold
  • 0.7 mm medium
  • 0.5 mm fine
  • 0.4 mm extra file

The thicker the ball, the better the pen glides across the paper, but the cost is thicker lines which may lead to the ink bleeding through to the other side of the paper. Thinner balls give more writing precision but can feel a bit scratchy and you have to be careful about the angle you use to write.

The other obvious factor to consider is the manufacturer. I tried M&G, Zebra, Muji, and Pilot. I found I liked the Muji 0.38mm refill for precision at the cost of a little scratchiness. Sadly, all of the Muji refills froze partway through and I couldn't revive them (see below). I ended up using the Zebra and M&J refills but I'll probably move to Zebra permanently soon (see below for why).

Frozen balls

A few times, I've had the experience where a new refill stops working partway through. There are two closely related symptoms: it just stops writing altogether or it only writes in one direction. I've tried cleaning the type with alcohol, putting the refill in hot water, and removing the nib and cleaning the insides with alcohol. Nothing worked. On the internet, I've heard stories of people using heat guns or using naked flames to heat the refill nib, however, I've also heard stories of refills exploding when people do this kind of thing, so perhaps it's not a good idea.

It's annoying, but typically refills cost around $1, so I just buy another refill and move on.

Different weights

I thought I liked heavier pens, but I wanted to be sure, and what better way for a nerd to be sure than weigh his pens? I weighed all my pens without their refills to avoid differences due to the refills themselves. Here are the results.

Pen Weight
Muji Gel Ink Ball Point Pen  6g
Pilot G-2 8g
Zebra Sarasa 23g
AliExpress solid brass pen #1 42g
AliExpress solid brass pen #2 43g

There's a 7x weight difference between the Muji and the AliExpress pens. I knew the Muji was light, but I didn't think it was that light.

Interchangeable refills - or not

My favorite pen was my $2 solid brass AliExpress pen which takes M&G refills. M&G is a Chinese brand and unfortunately, it's recently become harder to get their refills in the US. I wondered if I could use the Zebra refills in my AliExpress pen. Sadly not. The M&G refills are slightly narrower than the Muji refill and have a slightly different end. These differences are small, less than 1mm, but pens are precision instruments, and when something won't fit, something won't fit. I couldn't find a non-M&G refill that fit, so when I finish my last M&G refill, my $2 brass pen becomes a $2 brass stick.

But all is not lost. I actually bought two seemingly identical brass pens from AliExpress a few weeks apart. It turns out, the second one is ever so slightly different. Different enough that the Zebra refill fits. 

I'm lost

Before the pandemic, I mislaid my $2 (actually $1.99) AliExpress brass pen at work. The office manager asked me what I was looking for and I told her "My one ninety-nine pen". She dropped everything to help me find it, which we did after a thorough search. Once we'd found it, she said it didn't look expensive and I said it was $1.99 not $199. She gave me a look that said "you're an idiot" and of course, she was right.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Propaganda and public relations

Different name, same thing

I've just read a book that's both inspiring from a business perspective and at the same time, deeply worrying from a society perspective. It's about public relations and propaganda. The kicker is that the book was published in 1928.

(Propaganda, Edward Bernays, 1928)

The author was Edward Bernays who's generally regarded as the father of public relations and was and is a controversial figure. He was born in Vienna in 1891 and was Sigmund Freud's nephew - another example of the huge influence of the Frued family. In the 1890's, the family moved to the US, where he lived for the rest of his long life, he died in 1995 at the age of 103. During the first world war, he worked for a US government propaganda unit where he learned most of the tools of his trade. In 1929, he successfully promoted smoking to women, and in the 1950's, he worked with the United Fruit Company and the CIA to topple the democratically elected government of Nicaragua. 

His 1928 book, Propaganda, outlines the theory behind public relations and gives details of how successful PR campaigns work. Although Bernays draws a distinction between propaganda and public relations, the line is very, very thing (if it's there at all). The book provides a psychological and sociological background for how PR works and even suggests that it's morally necessary for society to function. He then dives into the use of PR for commerce, politics, and education etc., providing examples of successful campaigns and how they were orchestrated. He very clearly explains, in terms of psychology and sociology, why some influence approaches work and some don't.  What's striking is how politicians and companies are still using these techniques today; it helps explain why some of our media are the way they are.

The book isn't an easy read. In my view, it's repitive, overwriten, and lacks detail in many places. Bernays' moral justification for propaganda feels paper thin. But despite this, I recommend reading it, or at least reading a more recent book on propaganda, it's eye opening.

The highlights

I'm not going to review the book in detail, instead I'm going to give you some key quotes so you get a sense of what it says. You can decide for yourself if it's worth a trip to the library (or a click to download).

"In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything."

In other words, people need PR to understand the world and form opinions about things.

"It has been found possible so to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction. In the present structure of society, this practice is inevitable. Whatever of social importance is done to-day, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda. Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government."

Bernays talks a lot about the invisible government, these are the people who shape the thoughts and opinions of the masses.

"The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine."

"Small groups of persons can, and do, make the rest of us think what they please about a given subject."

"There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions. It is not generally realized to what extent the words and actions of our most influential public men are dictated by shrewd persons operating behind the scenes."

"The invisible government tends to be concentrated in the hands of the few because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses."

"Trotter and Le Bon concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits and emotions. In making up its mind its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader."

"The newer salesmanship, understanding the group structure of society and the principles of mass psychology, would first ask: "Who is it that influences the eating habits of the public?" The answer, obviously, is: "The physicians." The new salesman will then suggest to physicians to say publicly that it is wholesome to eat bacon. He knows as a mathematical certainty, that large numbers of persons will follow the advice of their doctors, because he understands the psychological relation of dependence of men upon their physicians."

"This point is most important in successful propaganda work. The leaders who lend their authority to any propaganda campaign will do so only if it can be made to touch their own interests. There must be a disinterested aspect of the propagandist's activities. In other words, it is one of the functions of the public relations counsel to discover at what points his client's interests coincide with those of other individuals or groups."

"Just as the production manager must be familiar with every element and detail concerning the materials with which he is working, so the man in charge of a firm's public relations must be familiar with the structure, the prejudices, and the whims of the general public, and must handle his problems with the utmost care. The public has its own standards and demands and habits. You may modify them, but you dare not run counter to them."

"The public is not an amorphous mass which can be molded at will, or dictated to. Both business and the public have their own personalities which must somehow be brought into friendly agreement."

"A sound public relations policy will not attempt to stampede the public with exaggerated claims and false pretenses, but to interpret the individual business vividly and truly through every avenue that leads to public opinion"

"Continuous interpretation is achieved by trying to control every approach to the public mind in such a manner that the public receives the desired impression, often without being conscious of it. High-spotting, on the other hand, vividly seizes the attention of the public and fixes it upon some detail or aspect which is typical of the entire enterprise."

"Present-day politics places emphasis on personality. An entire party, a platform, an international policy is sold to the public, or is not sold, on the basis of the intangible element of personality. A charming candidate is the alchemist's secret that can transmute a prosaic platform into the gold of votes."

"Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos."

Final thoughts

I can clearly see companies pursuing Bernays' PR strategy even today and what's more, I can see why they're doing it and why they're successful. I can see the role of newspapers and magazines in shaping public preferences and I can see how organizations are using social media in the same way. The same goes for politics. 

It's nice to be idealistic about the future, but reading Bernays' book, I get the feeling people have been trying to manipulate me my entire life and that it's not going to stop.