The tools of the trade

Sep 01 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

My postdoc and I sat down to discuss our strategy for addressing the reviewer's comments in his latest manuscript. On the table we put out a copy of the reviews, pulled out some new data that we planned on adding to the manuscript, got a pad of paper, I took out my pencil and sharpened it on the electric sharpener on my desk. Then, the postdoc exclaimed with shock and surprise:

"WHAT are you doing?!?"

"What do you mean?"

"That, the pencil thing… I don't think I've sharpened a pencil since the fourth grade."

"Then how do you keep them sharp?"

"I don't USE pencils, NOBODY uses pencils, why would ANYBODY use pencils!"

"I use pencils… all the time. And I need to keep them sharp."

"That's my point, why not use a pen? Or a mechanical pencil?"

"Because pens fucking SUCK!!!!"

OK, so not all pens suck, except that being left handed limits your pen usage to crappy ball-point pens. All nice smooth and inky pens either smudge too much or scratch the paper when you use your left hand. Mechanical pencil tips either break too often or are too thick. Plus you can't vary things such as pressure and line width with a mechanical pencil or a ball point pen. I wouldn't call myself a pencil geek, but I am somewhat picky about my pencils. Ideally, they should be dark and soft. For those of you not "in the know", graphite pencils are graded by a couple of different scales. The more universal scale splits the pencil world into Hard (H) and Soft (B), much like the sciences. Hard pencils are also lighter in tone, soft pencils are darker. Each category is then ranked, typically from 1 to 9, but I've seen higher. The larger the number the harder or softer the pencil is. Thus 9H is the hardest and 9B is the softest. In the middle, you have HB, which is-not-so-hard and not-so-soft. I find HB pencils to be somewhat flaccid. A parallel pencil classification scale exists in which pencils ares simply rated from 1 to 4. A #1 pencil would be a B (or 1B) pencil, while a #2 pencil is an HB pencil. Most generic school and office pencils are #2 (HB) pencils. Hard pencils tend to be used by engineers for generating technical drawings and such, while softer, darker pencils are more common for writing and art. Ideally I prefer a 2B for most things. Its pretty dark and smooth yet tends to keep a sharp tip longer. It's pretty difficult to find 2B pencils with an eraser on them, I usually get Golden Bear pencils, which are quite nice. Sometimes I use 4B's, but then I need to carry around an eraser. So there, Mr. Postdoc, that's why I use pencils. And yes, I do know that I am grossly overpaying for the fancy French notepads with the quad paper that I get from the stationery shop down the street…

Fig 1. My arsenal.

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