Thursday, 25 October 2012

Tiny Pens

I hadn’t used a fountain pen seriously since I was twelve. I probably should have, because my handwriting lacks discipline and that’s exactly what you don’t get from a disposable biro that can write anywhere.

Just a couple of years ago I got the urge to get a nice fountain pen again. I walked into our local pen shop, tried several models and came out with a Sheaffer 300.

Sheaffer box

It’s a heavy pen, with a cigar-shaped metal body. I’m pretty sure the cap is heavier than the body, making it a bit unbalanced when posted, so I don’t write with it like that (it’s clearly designed to be posted, with a nice positive click when the cap engages).

Sheaffer parts

The pen takes cartridges (2 came free, still unused) but it also has a piston filler. Overall it’s a pretty good value pen if you like a really chunky writing instrument.

The Sheaffer got some service on and off for a while, but mostly sat next to all the other bits of stationary in the office. Then my grandmother passed away at a very respectable age. We spent months going through her possessions, which included items like my long-dead grandad’s Royal Engineers uniform, his rolex, and their furniture. I replaced the cheap MDF bookcases in the office with a nice wooden one, and their bureau.

One of the things I took away with the bureau was a Parker 51.

Parker box

Supposedly one of the “best pens ever made”. I didn’t think much of it at first. I dipped it in some ink and found the nib to drag a lot more than the Sheaffer when I wrote, so dismissed it to the back of the bureau.

Parker bits

But just recently I’ve been suffering screen fatigue, and I dug out both pens again. They hadn’t been written with in months, so needed a good flushing with water. Once they had been dried and refilled they were transformed.

The Parker is a “vacumatic” model. It’s a good deal lighter than the Sheaffer and has that “iconic” hooded nib. The photo makes it look bright blue, but it’s more of a teal colour. I think it looks fantastic. 

Like most modern offices mine is dominated by computers – but clearing the desk proved to be nicely therapeutic. Once I had a clear desk, I began practicing my handwriting.

It has been painful. Painful to hold (mainly in the fingertips rather than cramping; I don’t know if it’s because my fingernails have rotted away or because it needs a delicacy of touch that I lack) and painful to write smoothly and maintain a flow of ink. But I’m getting better. I learned to hold a smallsword*, I can do the same with a fountain pen.

And the stuff that pen geeks say about the pen becoming an extension of your hand is true.

The sensation of writing with a fountain pen is one where I match the speed of my thoughts to the speed of writing, which means mostly my thoughts slow down and I’m forced to order them as I put them down.

OK, it sounds like romantic rubbish. At home which in my relatively distraction-free office that’s mostly a matter of preference (but at least I can’t get the internet on a fountain pen). But in an office abounding with distracting elements it’s helped me focus.

How do they write? Well, I tried the Sheaffer before I bought it and it’s very nice and smooth. The Parker is equally good, just a bit different; lighter of course, but also with a lighter tone as it marks the paper. It’s just as smooth as the Sheaffer after some cleaning.

I have no idea if either of my grandparents ever used the Parker, but it will get regular use now. The Sheaffer is just as good for writing – which may say something about standards of manufacture today – but the Parker has so much more character. The Sheaffer will get plenty of use at work of course, and will probably do for banging in nails and subduing charging elephants too.

I will try to restrain myself with ink – but I have the urge to get a bottle of Noodler’s Rome Burning to try this out:

  • The stuff about holding a sword “like a bird” applies to pens too, it seems.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Open Up

These days, I prefer a Mac to a PC, and I prefer to write in my office at home – with music if I’m inclined, with a cat if she’s inclined, and usually with a nice cup of tea.

I have fewer options at work unfortunately – there’s a kettle for tea and I have headphones. The key difference is at home, music is optional – at work, headphones are required.

For some time I’ve been struggling with the open plan office and its incumbent distractions. The number one problem is sound. No surprises there: we have a completely open layout with very low partions that provide almost zero sound barrier, and coupled with a low ambient noise this means voices carry loud and clear for long distances.

It’s very difficult to articulate why it’s a problem, when everyone around you seems to be coping. Except they’re not coping – I’ve had colleauges admit that they don’t do productive reading work in the office, and have to take reports home. That’s since been raised at my manager’s level – with the consensus that employees shouldn’t have to do that, and the company should provide an environment where quiet work is possible.

Aside from the fact that one of the worst culprits for loud conversations is one of those managers, I don’t expect anything useful to be done anyway. Asking people to shut up modifies behaviour for a few weeks – during which time the complainant is likely to be just as uncomfortable for creating a confrontational atmosphere. There is no money and no energy to redesign the office workspace.

Aside from unwelcome conversations, we have sudden loud noises like a weekly fire alarm test, and dryers in the toilets that can generate a sound pressure of 100 dBA. As Julian Treasure points out, a sudden loud noise is disruptive not only because it disrupts thought and speech, but it actually triggers hormonal release and causes stress.

The video is useful for explaining exactly why unwanted sound is disruptive. I used to listen to music to block out background noise, but I found that counterproductive (when I really have to think, such as when blogging, I prefer silence). Birdsong does indeed work better.

But now I mainly use simplynoise.comBrownian Noise even at low volume can mask speech enough to make it unintelligible, and thus much easier to tune out. Laughter and other loud voices still get through, but the impact is greatly reduced because I stop trying to process recognisable speech.1

As the issue of open plan is gaining visibility there are some designs that seek to increase the level of ambient noise through pink noise generation at workstations.

After noise the next offender is lack of privacy, and particularly the habit of others coming up to your desk to have a quick chat. Open plan is often cited as enabling teamwork, communication and creativity. The problem is creativity as part of an interacting team is not the same as individual creativity which is the prevalent mode of solitary working at a computer.

Of course, complaining about being interrupted will brand you as a misanthrope and not a team player. If you encounter this, you could throw it back – if they claim to be a team player then why not recognise other team member’s needs for privacy?

Last on the list of distractions is the computer screen itself. Being overloaded with email alerts, popups stealing focus, and a desktop or toolbar cluttered with colourful icons is distracting. But that’s all fixable. If I can shut Outlook down I will do so (not easy since it’s got my meeting alerts on it). Lync – which is always on in our intranet – can be set to do not disturb. Hide the taskbar and the desktop icons, and set the wallpaper to something non-threatening. And for writing I prefer to use markdown via Writemonkey (which can run as portable, so I don’t need admin rights) rather than MSWord.

It’s not perfect, and I’d rather not have to have a headset glued to my ears all day (though it does cut down on interruptions if everyone think’s your in a call). The choice then comes down to dealing with crass behaviour. I have to say, my patience is wearing thin.

I guess if I communicate my displeasure with a cricket bat I’ll be accused of not being a team player again. Sigh. At least I can avoid the noisy hand dryers in the toilets – there’s a perfectly good pot plant next to my desk.

[1] A case in point – speech in a foreign language doesn’t disturb me nearly as much.