Wednesday, 23 March 2016

I'm a pencil. That's how I roll.

Or how I don't. Forget your Bialetti coffee maker, Vespa scooter and Wassily Chair, my design classic for today is the humble hexagonal cross-sectioned pencil. They're everywhere, but you don't notice them in the same way that fish don't notice water. Except when you find yourself using a cylindrical pencil and the damn thing rolls off your work surface and disappears under the furniture, or into the midst of whatever localised accumulation of clutter characterises your workspace.

The inventor* of the hex pencil took on a real, if trivial, problem and solved it. But that's what innovators do, right (only sometimes with less trivial problems)? Well, you'd think so until you look at some of the world's less useful innovations. In a narrow sense, I'm in no way technically competent to have an opinion on stuff like the fashionable Internet of Things - but in a broader sense, like everybody else, I'm a potential end user with a reasonable level of expertise about the sort of things that cause problems in my life and reasonably well equipped to work out whether a suggested fix would make things better, worse, or simply be irrelevant.

I had a bit of a moan about IoT hype a while back. It seems to me that there are three problems with uncritically accepting a lot of this stuff. The second two are about implementation and unintended consequences, either related to cock-up ("What time is it?" "I don't know - sorry, my watch is updating."), or enemy action ("The modern car's operating system is such a mess that researchers were once able to get complete control of a vehicle by playing a song laced with malicious code"). But the first problem is, by far, the most fundamental - your *solution* doesn't seem to solve any actually existing problem. Two scenarios:
  1. Problem: my pencil just rolled off the desk. Solution: hex pencil. Small problem solved.
  2. Problem: my toaster isn't connected to the Internet. Solu ... er ... hang on, since when was this even a problem?
Rule of thumb - if you can't easily explain how your new thing helps the end user, the thing probably doesn't help the end user.**

In many cases it's an awful lot easier to explain how people other than the end user might benefit. For example:
  • the manufacturer, by using DRM to retain control over the thing you just parted with good money to buy and naively think you now own
  • the manufacturer and the "carefully selected third parties" who they sold your personal data to, because one gets a kick back and the others get a shot at trying to sell you stuff, whether you want it, or need it, or not
  • bad people trying to get their hands on your personal data for personal gain, or in order to perform random acts of malice (if your home has crummy door locks, it's only a bug for you - for burglars, it's a feature) 
  • the police, security services and other designated snoopers (who would, naturally, only ever violate the privacy of people who, if left unwatched, would present a clear risk of embarrassing people in authority to the public).
The question of who really benefits is a political one and applies as much to mainly political innovations as to mainly technical ones. For example I'm against things like George Osborne's deficit elimination plans, the forced academisation of schools, measures to prevent alleged health tourism, or The Great Wall of Trump, but not necessarily because I think that the planning or implementation is shoddy. I'm against these ideas because they fail at a far more fundamental level - like the Internet-connected toaster, I believe that the problems they purport to solve are (for all practical purposes) non-existent.

My naive view is that politicians ought to be in the business of looking for solutions to problems which actually exist, as opposed to wasting everybody's time by blathering on about problems that are salient, but not existent, whilst leaving real ones to fester. With my less naive head on, I think that these policies do have beneficiaries - but the beneficiaries are a tiny minority of well-connected people already far more powerful than the median voters and "hard working families" who are supposedly the ones being helped. These sort of problem-free solutions can either directly benefit these tiny groups, or indirectly benefit them by misdirecting the subject of political discourse away from changing realities which might threaten the interests of the powerful.

The hex pencil at least passed this first test with flying colours - it solved an actual problem. But did it have unintended consequences? And was it just the end user who benefited?

From personal experience, I'd say there's no significant downside for the end user - hex pencils work just fine for me. But then, I'm just a casual pencil user. What about more serious users? John Steinbeck, for example, had a 24-a-day pencil habit:***
On the third finger of my right hand I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day. It has become a big lump by now and it doesn't ever go away. Sometimes it is very rough and other times, as today, it is as shiny as glass. It is peculiar how touchy one can become about little things. Pencils must be round. A hexagonal pencil cuts my fingers after a long day. You see I hold a pencil for about six hours every day.
So, maybe if you're writing The Grapes of Wrath out in pencil, the hex cross-section might not be for you. But then again, I'm not 100% sure what type of hexagonal pencil Steinbeck was having problems with. The modern hexagonal pencil isn't a true hexagon, having the sharp angles rounded off, but apparently this wasn't always the case, as the creators of the Roundhex graphic design company note on their web site:
As John Steinbeck wrote, “Pencils must be round. Hexagonal pencils cut my fingers after a long day.” Thus, we have arrived at the shape of most pencils today: the rounded hexagon. A compromise between utility and comfort. 
Which suggests that, maybe, when Steinbeck wrote this, hex pencils had sharper edges than modern designs and - perhaps - he'd have been OK with 24 modern roundhex pencils. Alternatively, another site has this to say about Steinbeck's pencil of choice:
Blackwing Pencils, Mongol 480
John Steinbeck's love of pencils and his search for the perfect pencil is legendary. He described Blackwing Pencils as "soft and fine" floating "over the paper just wonderfully". But at other days the Blackwings "cracked on him", their points breaking and "all hell is let loose". And then it was the Mongol 480 #2 3/8 round. Jay Parini identifies the Mongol pencil as Steinbeck's preferred writing instrument.
The illustration on the site seems to show roundhex pencils, although these bear the number 602. I couldn't immediately find an illustration of a Blackwing Mongol 480, but I did find a eBay pic of some Mongol 482s which might be the same as the "Mongol 480 #2" Lito Apostolakou mentions. And, guess what, they're roundhexes:

Mongol horde
But, then again, Apostolakou calls them "Mongol 480 #2 3/8 round", so maybe those are a different kind of pencil altogether.

Going back to the "who benefits?" question, the answer is "not just the end user." But, in this case, the other beneficiaries don't win out in a bad way. The manufacturer is happy because basic geometry dictates that you can produce more hex pencils from a given quantity of the wood you bought than you can round ones. And with less waste, the environment wins, too. These are not zero-sum benefits - it's a win-win-win situation.

Perhaps even a win-win-win-win situation if, as I suspect, the roundhex pencil inspired the cross-section of the classic Bic ballpoint pen and its many imitators, which must collectively have prevented millions of unattended biros from rolling off work surfaces to slip quietly away through wormholes in space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely biroid lifestyle, responding to highly biro-oriented stimuli, and generally leading the biro equivalent of the good life.

*Lothar von Faber, or maybe Ebenezer Wood, depending on who you believe.

** Usually, but not always. There were once plenty of people, including me, who couldn't see the point of putting a camera on a mobile phone just because you could. Most of us now admit that it was actually quite a nifty idea and occasionally even useful.

*** Not that he actually used up 24 whole pencils in a day, but that was apparently the number of sharpened pencils he started his writing day with, discarding them as each one became blunt.