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Where Theory Meets Chalk, Dust Flies (nytimes.com)
116 points by sohkamyung 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

When I finished my PhD in physics, my father asked me what I might want as a gift.

My first company got its first investment so I knew I was leaving academia. The world outside academia had white boards, which felt unnatural and the markers always running out of ink. A piece of chalk, you knew exactly how much was left -- a physical bar chart.

I asked him for a blackboard. I still have it and use it, though not daily. It's about 4 feet by 6 feet. The only thing that compares and that drew me away from it to any degree is mindmapping software. I use Freeplane https://www.freeplane.org/wiki/index.php/Main_Page, but it doesn't replace the blackboard.

Nothing like a blackboard.

Given the topic of the article, you should absolutely post a link to a photo of your blackboard. :)

> My first company got its first investment so I knew I was leaving academia. The world outside academia had white boards, which felt unnatural and the markers always running out of ink. A piece of chalk, you knew exactly how much was left -- a physical bar chart.

I wonder if you could make a whiteboard marker holder that can tell you how much is left in the marker by noting the changes in weight as the ink is used?

BTW, apparently you can get refillable markers. That could help a lot. Keep two of each other color, starting with both full. When one runs out, switch to the other, and sometime before that runs out, refill the first.

At my last office, I asked if I could have a blackboard instead of a whiteboard, but my boss said that chalk dusk is bad for computers and rejected my request.

Markers I use at home have exchangeable "marker fluid" cartridges built from transparent plastic, so I can tell roughly how dry is the marker by checking whether there is some fluid sloshing around. It's an uncommon model, though, and I think the company making it stopped producing the variant with exchangeable cartridges.

There are whiteboard markers that show you how much ink is left: https://www.amazon.com/Erase-Markers-Indicator-Chisel-Black/...

I, too, love a blackboard. A door in my house is covered with a cheap chalkboard-like material, not real slate, so it curves and pops with changing season and humidity. I have 10 sticks of Hagoromo chalks and a couple of those fiddly chalk holders. To me one of the most comforting sounds in the world is the musical staccato of chalk on blackboard. Problems are being solved, or at least, the evidence of an attempt. I love when it's full of scribbles, then a wet towel makes the black pristine again. I want to replace the whiteboard I have with a real slate board, but I don't think they make them anymore.

That's awesome, I love your bar chart analogy. BTW I enjoy using Freeplane too, and wouldn't object to seeing screenshots of others' mind maps...

Did you get some of that Japanese chalk? The good shit? There's a Japanese brand of chalk that's like the Cuban cigar of chalk, because the factory closed down due to low demand so now there's a limited global supply and mathematicians are buying it up because of course. You should score some if you can.

It's Hagomoro, mentioned in the second paragraph that it's now being made in South Korea. It's expensive but no longer at risk of extinction.

I had a chalk board in my office for 6 years during a phd. Glad I work with a whiteboard now; hated getting chalk dust on my clothing and computer gadgets. I admit chalk feels better than dry erase, but the dust....

Perhaps it's because I've never worked with chalk daily but chalk never felt better than whiteboards to me, just thinking about a chalkboard makes my teeth hurt.

You need a better chalkboard and/or better chalk.

Nice Japanese chalk on a piece of slate sanded to the appropriate roughness is silky smooth.

> Nice Japanese chalk

Is this still available? I heard the company went out of business.

They were closing due to the old age of the owner/operator, but he sold the method and apparatus to a company in South Korea who makes it in plentiful quantities now. Hagoromo.

Quite seriously, if you know the right people, those who hoarded it, it's available. Or buy the Korean stuff; they still make it. Its become a weird business.

Some chalk writes smoothly but costs more.

When I was in college, we found a pile of old blackboards behind a classroom building that was being renovated. Of course we had to rescue a couple of them and put them in the common rooms in our dorm.

Mostly they were filled with random graphitti, but we also often put up mathematical brainteasers and it was interesting to see people's attempts at solutions.

They stayed there til the end of the semester, I was sad to find them gone upon returning next year.

This summer, my university took out the blackboard in the room where I teach, replacing it with a horrible whiteboard. Although only a few weeks old, it already cannot be erased properly, as far as I can tell.

I have my own markers and eraser to avoid the "tragedy of the commons" with dried-out markers. I recommend this scheme to anybody, because it avoids the frustration of going through one pen after another, in search for one that writes without skipping.

But, even with a good marker, I find it quite difficult to get a constant-thickness line, especially for quick markings on the board. So, almost everything I write gets erased at first, getting only a bit better as I reorient the pen. This is quite annoying for students.

And I can barely write mathematical symbols with those damned markers.

Also, the shiny whiteboard reflects the overhead lights, which means that it's hard for my students to see what I'm writing.

On the educational front: nothing gained, quite a bit lost.

On the cost front: pens burn up money faster than chalk, and whiteboards need to be replaced every few years, because something happens to make them difficult to erase.

I suspect that chalk causes no health problems. But volatile fluids, and whatever that ink is made from? I worry a bit about those.

One of the things I saw in many student evaluations of my teaching was how much they liked the blackboard. (A lot of profs show slides, which is a disaster, in my view, for mathematical subjects.)

The only good thing I can see about whiteboards relates to faculty replacement. It encourages people like me to take an early retirement and get the hell out of the place.

If you want erasable forever, get a glass white board.

Many of the popular brands have two identical white boards, one slightly cheaper and differing by a digit in the product code. The more expensive one is the one that can be erased more easily.

Just saw something similar by photographer Alejandro Guijarro recently, see the "Momentum" project:


My university professors had a real thing for blackboards, even going out of their way to make a point to freshmen that in their department, blackboards would be the ruling medium of sharing ideas.

When our faculty got moved to a brand new building, it turned out that there where no old-school blackboards installed, only new digital ones. The math department were the only ones to screw down their trusty old boards, and bring them to the new building.

I thinks it's cute and all, but I simply can't go back to the old ways. Give me digital board, and I'll take that, any day of the week.

(Being a guitar player, it all reminds me of the analog / tube snobs that refuse to touch digital modelers)

Don't digital boards have that awful input lag that leaves your mark trailing well behind your finger?

The modern ones don't anymore, we have a couple of Microsoft Surfaces at the office and they're quite snappy.

But they're so expensive and small compared to a blackboard. Another commenter got a 4 foot x 6 foot blackboard, it was probably a few hundred dollars (plus the cost of chalk) and will last for decades. A 50' Microsoft Surface Hub, that's ~2 1/3 foot x ~3 1/2 foot, is ~$9,000 and will be lucky if it lasts 10 years.

There are cheaper large touchscreens but they won't use capacitive sensing which is what makes the Microsoft Surface "snappy."

Also not so good in a blackout.

Our Samsung Flip is really snappy and relatively affordable. Still enjoy whiteboards more though.

I had bad eyesight when I was younger but didn't realize it. Whiteboards were so much easier to read for me.

I also, unrelatedlely, hated getting my hands dried out with chalk. So whiteboards won in every measure.

When I was still studying photography, my mentor was working on something similar: http://www.gregorytdavis.com/index.php/project/chalk-is-temp...

A company I worked at replaced all their main white boards with MS SurfaceHub things. At first, they sucked, but after a few weeks once we worked out most of the drama they were actually pretty useful. Honestly if that place was run slightly better and someone competent had been in charge from the get go it would have been a flawless transition.

I don't see the point of going from blackboard to whiteboard, and I suspect not every topic would be better on a Hub vs a blackboard. That said, for a corporate environment, the Hub worked surprisingly well, as it's somewhat better than a regular whiteboard and you can skip the part of a meeting where everyone tries to take a picture of the whiteboard with their cell phones.

I've had a $10 LCD sketchboard (think Etch-a-Sketch) for a few weeks now, and I like it a lot. I find myself jotting stuff on it surprisingly often. It's responsive and has a tactile feel not unlike that of writing on a blackboard. And the ImageMagick Whiteboard script [1] works well with photos of it, making for nicely digitized notes in black-and-white.

[1]: http://www.fmwconcepts.com/imagemagick/whiteboard/index.php

which one do you use? boogie board? I'd love one of these that could image itself.

I'm not GP, but I picked up a cheap one this week [1]. It's pretty great so far. Used it during a D&D game to track ammo/spells/etc without filling up my campaign notebook, then took it to work and used it to take detailed notes during a phone call, then I just transferred the actually important stuff to my paper notes.

I know at least one brand has a phone app that is supposed to be able to process photos of their tablet for saving. Haven't looked into that yet.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07C7BH2K5/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b...

I switched from Boogie to Rocketbook and it's a better user experience.

I received a Rocketbook as a gift and never managed to figure out what to do with it. I have a cheap document scanning app on my phone that's very fast and can share the results out to pretty much anywhere with a couple quick presses, and doesn't feel kinda non-native (janky, confidence-reducing) like the Rocketbook app is (or was, haven't tried it in like 8 or 9 months). The workflow of that app + any piece of paper lying around is nearly identical to that of the Rocketbook, but doesn't require both special paper and a special pen. I can even scan several pages in a row and make them one PDF, which is pretty close to what you can do with the Rocketbook (when it works).

I feel bad because I know it cost a little money, but I never managed to come up with a reason to use it beyond a few test scans the first day. Within a couple weeks I'd misplaced the pen anyway, still don't know where it ran off to, but I don't miss it. I just have no idea what it does for me over normal paper + scanner app. Circling the place to send it takes almost as long as "tap share, tap where to send it" on my scanner app, and is less flexible, and failed to work often enough that I didn't think I could trust it. Scans are at least as fast and for whatever reason come out much higher-quality on the non-Rocketbook app. The scanner app sends straight to whatever service I'm connecting to, no reliance on some 3rd party server for any of its functionality.

Contrary opinion provided in case anyone's looking at this for product recommendations.

>Most mathematicians, if asked, would say that in their work they are accessing some Platonic world of ideals that exists independently of our own. Some argue that math is a human construct, a product of our own minds, with which scientists model the apparent rules of reality.

Is anyone aware of a source for this? I always figured the majority were mathematical formalists (like me) and was surprised to see this statement.

I was also happy to see multi-colored chalk getting solid representation up there :D

The Mathematical Experience by Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh talks about the different ways of viewing mathematics, including this Platonic idea of it existing "out there". Another poster noted a quote--which I also think is from that book--about many mathematicians being Platonists on the weekend. It's a beautifully written book. I've read it twice, and just thinking about it makes me want to read it again.


I don't have a source, looked briefly, but if the teachers at my University (UCCS) are a representative sample, then indeed most of them are platonists.

I forget which book I read it in (maybe the Mathematical Experience) it depends when you ask them. Monday thru Friday, they're platonists. On the weekends they're formalists.

"ceci est un point NOIR -->" ... "<-- BLANC" is hilarious, because it is of course wrong in an inverted medium.


Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

Not sure who downvoted or why, but one could point out that in French it's only the kind you smoke.

> Not sure who downvoted or why

I don't know (wasn't me), but, if I had to guess, I would say probably because it's a throwaway joke and has no relation to the article.

Years and years ago I took two semesters of physics at Columbia and I was impressed by the real slate chalkboards in classrooms. Ever since than I wish to buy real slate to use at home. Occasionally, I see them sold at ebay salvaged from schhols. But I wonder if there are manufacturers who sell new slate boards? Anyone know?

These are mostly blackboards from elite institutions. I’d like to see a more diverse set of blackboards.

just look at the genesis of the project:

    Ms. Wynne was drawn to math through her summer 
    neighbors on Cape Cod, Amie Wilkinson and Benson 
    Farb, who both teach at the University of Chicago
also, Amie Wilkinson seems to pursue publicity wherever she can get it (quanta, AMS, NY Times, ...). as in every other field, success in math depends on self-promotion and networking!

It's all about the topologs.


Although blackboards usage has it's charm, its long term use can have negative side-effects on one's health ending with symptoms not dissimilar to ones manifesting in coal miners.


Does the page do anything for anybody else? I see one chalkboard with swirls, but it won't scroll.

It's because of the paywall.

Weird, there is no paywall message or anything to indicate that's the problem. Usually, there's a dialog/popover or similar.

Love this one. More than the logical thinking, math is an art form.



A little indirection via a URL shortener still works.

Unfortunately this misses 90% of the images.

Doesn’t the NYT have a way to get 20 free articles a month?


I find it incredibly frustrating that these get through.

Can we add a tag [paywall] to these posts, so I don't waste my time clicking on them?

The FAQ states that paywall links with known workarounds are allowed. I don't know the known workaround, though.

Strangely enough, I could read this one in private browsing mode, as I habitually use, whereas usually NYT blocks access when using private browsing.

I can't.

"Log in or create a free New York Times account to continue reading in private mode."

In fact, I have created a free NYT account, but if I were to log in, my browsing surely wouldn't be private. It is a conundrum.

Yes, rather annoying. "We will track you, unless you log in, in which case we track you."

Chrome recently broke the fingerprinting being used.

Firefox hasn't yet, to my knowledge.

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