The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

The Pain of 21st-Century Pens

Capitalism is based on sarcasm. This is why it works so well — it fits human nature like a surgical glove. Take dairy products, for instance. The milking machine is permanently attached to cows’ udder, puss develops, and enters the milk. There is a permitted level of puss in every dairy product.

Now make strawberry-flavoured yogurt of it by adding sugar, artificial colouring and traces of strawberry, and market it to kids, saying it is full of vitamins and calcium. At this point parents gaily feed their offsprings with something that not only looks like puss, but actually contains puss, and the whole family is happy about it. This is the glory of capitalism, the ultimate joy of despising each other.

I can choose to be a vegan and bypass most of the nonsense of the food industry. I cannot, however, choose not to write with a pen. The very same capitalism that feeds puss to children deprived me of pens with which I can write. Contemporary pens — let them be disposable or expensive ones — are no longer able to perform the purpose they were invented for.

The horror of a 0.7mm ballpoint pen.

The horror of a 0.7mm ballpoint pen.

I noticed the start of the process more than fifteen years ago. Back then, as a teenager, I had some sort of a scholarship from the city council, which was barely enough to maintain a drinking habit. Yet, somehow I managed to save up enough to buy Parker ballpoint pen refills. It was a huge investment for me back then, about the price of a litre of vodka, but I had a reason: the extrafine series of refills allowed me to write with arbitrarily small letters. I am incapable of writing with normal-sized letters and I need a extrafine-tip ballpoint pen to write.

Then, one fine day, the extrafine series vanished, leaving only the fine refills. My hand-writing became even more illegible, as the font size did not increase, but the thickness of the lines did.

The fine refill was identical to the 0.3mm-tip disposable plastic pens, so I switched and spent more on booze. I kept scouting stationery shops wherever I went, but I never found anything below 0.28mm. Then my income increased and I stopped drinking all together, so I have plenty to spend on pens, but there are no decent pens to buy.

In fact, the 0.3mm pens started to vanish. This I discovered some five years ago. These days they call 0.5mm tips ‘fine’, or they even go up to 0.7mm. I absolutely cannot write with these horror pens. As I currently enjoy the benefits of having an office to go to, I asked for pens. They gave me 1.0mm ink cannons. If I wanted crayons to write with, I would have said so.

How on earth did we end up with this nightmare? Perhaps we should not be surprised at this in a puss-based world order. A 0.7mm pen consumes three times more ink than my dream pen. The sooner you empty it, the more pens you will buy. This is especially important for expensive, branded refills. It doesn’t matter that you cannot write with it, as long as the ink keeps dispensing itself somewhere, which also explains the rising popularity of fountain pens. These have a penchant for dispensing themselves in my pocket and on my bed sheets.

So whenever I see sub-0.5mm ballpoint pens on sale, I buy a bunch. While the trend is the general disappearance of fine-tip pens, there is a geographical pattern to it. The Asia-Pacific region still has them. On visits to Singapore or Japan, I always stock up on the precious resource. Perhaps it has something to do with the logographic writing system of the Chinese hanzi and the Japanese kanji. If this is true, regions where traditional Chinese script is used will be the last to fall. As far as I know, that writing system uses the highest number of strokes per unit surface area, so selling 1.0mm pens in these regions will require forcing the population to switch to the dumb Latin alphabet. Hopefully that won’t happen in my lifetime, so I must make some good friends in Taiwan and Hong Kong to secure my supply of 0.3mm pens.

The last hope of human race lies in these characters

The last hope of human race lies in these characters

Unfortunately I noticed something else other than the disappearance of fine tips. The ball of the pens is deliberately of poor quality. It gets stuck, even if there is plenty of ink left in the pen. I often have to throw away almost full 0.3mm pens because of this. After all the planning and effort that go into procuring these pens, is it so much to ask to be able to use them for more than a month? Let the puss flow, I don’t care, but give me back my pens.

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