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General's Semi-Hex 498 2 2/4

07 January 2009


low tech writer

These essays are now also available in book form, printed on real paper


###General’s Semi-Hex 498 2 2/4 - Reasons Why, #1

An attempt to begin to explain why these things matter to me. I’ll call it Reasons Why #1 because I know I won’t get it right the first time, but I’m content to try.

I like technology. I’ve lived and worked among Technical People my whole life, and it would confound my friends if I called myself anti-tech. I love computers as tools, and do much of my work in front of a screen. I am not a hacker, but I am a “tweaker”: I never learned how to work on cars, and maybe for that reason, I have taken to getting under the hoods of my computers. I have built and rebuilt computers and messed with operating systems. I was putting Linux on laptops in 1999, and have even squeezed Linux onto various Macs over the years. I taught myself how to run Linux from the command line (which is harder because there are, like, no pictures).

I went to Crystal Springs Uplands school in Hillsborough, California and graduated in 1984, the year of the Macintosh. Apple’s John Sculley had a daughter at the school (a year or two younger than us) - I went to his house once with my friend who was dating her and saw his computer room (among the early Apples, he had a Lisa, rocking a 5MHz processor and 1 meg of ram), and I assume it was he who donated a bunch of Apple IIs to our school. One of my classmates wrote the original Music Construction Set on one of those apples. My dad also got one for the family. I taught myself basic programming on that Apple II and even wrote a small text adventure game (I was inspired by the old Infocom game Zork, which you can play online, still in glorious text). All this, I believe, gives me a measure of Geek Cred. …

But then there are the pencils. I have a mild obsession with pencils, especially the General Pencil Semi-Hex 498 2 2/4. Mmm, cedar. Some years ago, I needed a pencil to mark up a book I was reading for seminary, and went looking for one. I did not find one pencil. I found fourteen scattered through the house. I would have stopped at one, but my curiosity was piqued to see all the different brands and styles that we’d accumulated. I decided that I couldn’t just pick one at random, I would pick the best one. So I sharpened them all and put them to the test. Of course I had to smell each one before writing, just to take note of the “nose” (the winner had that powerful cedar aroma that true pencil aficionados prefer. I think.). After writing with each pencil there were two that stood out. I didn’t care for the people’s favorite Dixon Ticonderoga, but went with two by the General Pencil company, the last company making pencils in the USA. I liked the “Badger” a lot, but my favorite was the strangely-named “Semi Hex 498 2 2/4”. Best pencil I’ve ever used. It didn’t check my affection to learn their factory was nearby in Redwood City. The name describes the shape (Semi Hex refers to the rounded points of the hexagon shape) and includes the model number (498) and the hardness (why 2 2/4 instead of 2.5 or 2 1/2? Who cares? For me it adds to the charm).

Low-tech wonders stand out when compared to their replacements, the products that are manufactured to improve and supplant them. I think of all the ergonomic mechanical pencils and gel-grip disposable pens, none of which impress me or replace my pencil. The pencil has a beautiful simplicity to it, and an efficiency, and 95 percent of it is compostable (versus the landfill that is the fate of plastic writing tools). And there is some mystery to the pencil too. How does rubber (named for it’s ability to “rub” pencil marks away) erase the marks of the graphite without causing it to smudge? It’s the original word processor, complete with backspace.

My seventh grade science teacher had permanently written on her blackboard, “Even God does her math problems in pencil!” Yet, she found herself living in strange times: the advent of the erasable pen. The question that shook the foundations of Pencilogy? ‘Could we use the Eraser Mate to do math problems?’ Did God feel that the ability to correct mistakes was the important thing - which would mean that the Eraser Mate might be an acceptable tool - or was God a pencil lover too? Furthermore, did (s)he hate it when I scribbled over my mistakes to hide them, and did that move him/her to insist on the correctibility of any writing technology? … or was God, like me, enamored of the heady aroma of freshly sharpened wood, the smooth-scratchy graphite marking core, the soft pink eraser waiting to be bitten off? These questions were too weighty for a seventh grader, and for our teacher, who gave up the fight: I remember many smudged and messy assignments written with the erasable pen. The manufacturer said that the easily erased (and so easily smudged) ink would become permanent within days, but by then the damage had been done.

Regular pens left no room for correction. Erasable pens left a gooey, smudgeable mess. Nothing has surpassed pencils for working out the truth on a piece of lined paper, whether mathematical or theological. But what does God think?

I think I know the answer now. I can sniff out a hint of divine terroir lurking in the humble pencil. Is it in seventh grade science that we learn that diamonds and graphite are both made of the same stuff? While the diamond is the hardest mineral known to humanity, and graphite one of the softest, each have the same carbon chemistry. But the real mind-bender is that the more stable and permanent of these two carbon polymorphs is the stuff inside my Semi Hex. Don’t believe what DeBeers tells you: graphite is forever. The fact is that every diamond that has made its way to the surface of the earth is slowly undergoing a transformation into graphite. It’s only a matter of time. And so I think I’ll risk formulating a (low) tech writer principle. Call it #1.

(low) tech writer principle #1: The thing that appears to be the most permanent, the most robust, the most durable, aint necessarily so. Sometimes it is the dull, plentiful, inexpensive thing that wins the day and survives.