Saturday, June 23, 2012

Do you have a pen I can borrow?

One of the great mysteries of life: why do some ballpoint pens work so much better than other ballpoint pens? You buy a pack of twelve ballpoint pens and--invariably--some of them barely write at all, or work for only a few days before the ink flow becomes sporadic. There's a ton of ink left, it's still visible in the tube. But it won't come out, or at least not evenly. There are all manner of "fixes" for this problem, from grinding the point furiously on some hard surface (which never works, in my experience) to holding the tip over a flame. Here's a website with a step-by-step approach. Hard surface (glass), suck on the tip, tap the tip, then finally apply the flame; try each in turn to see if the ink will start to flow again.

I can add another "trick" to that list: get a thin piece of metal--really thin--that will fit into the ink tube. Gently push down on the stopper that keeps the ink in a partial vacuum. As soon as you try writing with the pen, some extra ink is liable to spurt out, but the pen will probably work. For a while. Because--again, in my experience--pens that don't work well from the beginning can never really be fixed.

But then, there are those pens--often obtained by chance or by happenstance--that just keep on working, come hell or high water. I have one of those pens. Here it is:

I believe I've had this pen for about three years now. Maybe longer. And I've never changed the ink cartridge. I'm not exactly sure where it came from, either. Obviously, it was a promo item from a beehive removal company, but I've never heard of them, nor had a beehive removed from my property. But whenever I really need to write something down, something important, I always look for it in the house "pen drawer" (we all have one of those, usually in the kitchen). The ink flow is smooth and generous, not yet a hint of it running out.

But it's important to remember that it's the ink cartridge--not the actual pen--that's important here; it either works great, poorly, or not at all. To that end, I wondered who made the cartridge, since I'm predisposed to assume the cartridge is better than the typical one, found in a Bic or other leading brand. So I took the pen apart:

Unfortunately, the cartridge has no information on it. None, nada, zilch. And it's also opaque, so I can't even tell how much ink might be left.

But you know, my assumption--that the manufacturer who makes this cartridge is better than other ones--is probably wrong. I can't make a real assessment without other samples, obviously. Still, I know that other pens--from big pen companies--have worked as well as this one, even as others from the same batch have failed.

Which brings us to the penultimate point, I guess: why the inconsistencies in performance? There are two likely reasons, both of which reflect some sort of failure in production. Either there are flaws in the ball bearing and it's casing, or in the vacuum seal on the back of the ink reservoir. And note that such flaws can go the other way, too: instead of leading to a poor ink flow, they could result in too much flow, which is why some ballpoint pens end up leaking. But in both cases, I would have to ask why? Surely, we're better than that now, aren't we?

Two things: planned obsolescence and acceptable failure rates. Obviously, cartridges can't last forever; they're made to be replaced. And just as obviously, the mass production of any good involves a failure rate for some of those goods. But when it comes to ballpoint pens, the replacement cost is minimal, so we're less likely to wring our hands in angst when one cartridge stops working.

That's our modern world. Anything can be replaced. For a price. The question is, when is that price too high? Suppose we were talking about computers. Or cars. Or something even more significant, that doesn't come from an assembly line, at all?

Cheers, all.

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