April 2009: Livescribe: Pen 4.0

Extra Fine Points Index  ]


BY DON FLUCKINGER • If I were Casey Kasem, I’d do a long-distance dedication of this Extra Fine to Noah Shlaes, a pal of mine I met via the Internet about a decade ago while I was seeking advice on fixing up an ancient Honda scooter. We’ve kept in touch over the years despite his living in Chicago and me in New Hampshire.

In an age where the pen as a tool is dying out and educators are debating the merits of teaching handwriting, here is a device that actually promotes the use of pens. Extra Fine Points

We have this peculiar yin-yang relationship going on, in which we see each other every couple years. Sometimes he pops by with his entire family (even sometimes with dog Pinot in tow), or, like a couple weeks ago, he was flying solo in Boston leading some seminar related to commercial real estate — it’s so deep that, despite my self-proclaimed superior intelligence, I can’t quite fully grasp its content even though he patiently explained it.

Pulse in actionNoah’s all about gadgets. Of his several hobbies, he’s probably most passionate about fixing up ancient pinball machines — the more mechanical, the better. He’s always got a cool new electronic gewgaw he’s trying to integrate into his work life, personal life, or both.

We all know guys like this: Noah was shooting digital pictures while everyone else’s were still marooned on paper; when I was struggling to get my new 5GB iPod to sync with a wonky early version of iTunes over a slow FireWire connection, he was somehow playing MP3s in his car.

Pulse logoKnowing my pen fetish, Noah gave me a demo of his new Livescribe Pulse Smartpen, which is definitely the Next Great Thing in the pen world, whether it takes off commercially or not. If the quill and dip pens were Pen 1.0, the fountain pen was 2.0. Ballpoints and rollerballs were 3.0. Livescribe’s system is definitely 4.0. It incorporates special paper, a digital voice recorder and flash memory, and your own writing to record a meeting or lecture.

It creates a voice file that is useful — i.e. perfectly indexed — and plays back what was being said when you wrote down a particular line. It ports the whole business (what you wrote and the voice recording) over to your Windows or Macintosh computer via USB cable. You can play back audio through the computer or through the pen itself. Awesome.

This is great news for pen people in general, and fountain pen people in particular. In an age where the pen as a tool is dying out and educators are debating the merits of teaching handwriting (admit it, even the most hardcore pen collectors text-message, email, and blog more than they write stuff down anymore), here is a device that actually promotes the use of pens. And it’s not just a dumb gadget, it has utility beyond what a keyboard can provide — and helps keep a more detailed, usable record than any combination of voice recorder, pen, paper, and computer could by itself.

Livescribe logoThose are the pros. The drawbacks include the proprietary paper, but if you’re in for the pen at a couple hundred bucks, you probably can afford it. The company’s also a startup in a down economy, always tough to hitch one’s personal technology wagon to (can you say “Betamax?”). But Livescribe announced last month that it received another round of funding, and the product makes a strong case for people in several large vertical markets including legal, medical, student, and government.

A lot of those folks, we know, make up a good-sized slice of the fountain pen collecting pie, too, because they understand the joy — and value — of writing with a pen.

As for its performance? The pen runs on Schmidt roller refills. “If they could outfit it with a nice nib, it would be even better,” Noah says. Always angling for technological improvements, that guy.

Livescribe logos and photo © 2007-2009 Livescribe, Inc. Used with permission.


cover Further Reading: Speedwriting for Notetaking and Study Skills, by Joe Pullis

Speedwriting, introduced in 1924, is an easy shorthand system that uses abbreviations, and other shortcuts instead of all those forgettable cryotic symbols. It can improve your writing speed no matter whether you’re taking notes in class or doing the secretarial thing at a meeting of your fantasy football league. It also teaches you how to be selective in what to put down, which is more than half the battle anyway.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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