The world's best chalk
May 2, 2019 5:07 PM   Subscribe

Why the World's Best Mathematicians are Hoarding Chalk, a short video from Great Big Story. The legendary Hagoromo Fulltouch chalk had gained an ardent following among mathematicians, but the company went out of business in 2015. A chalk that lets you do better math? Departments and individuals stockpiled it: Faculty should save this chalk for use only during their most important lectures or when working on their most important theorems.

For an example of the mystique associated with the chalk, see: what is this amazing chalk I used in Japan? Soon the black market in chalk brought limited quantities to the US. See that thread for an example:
[Our department has obtained a limited supply of Hagoromo Fulltouch.] We have... worked out a distribution system that seems the fairest and that should allow our stash to last for about 3 semesters. Faculty members teaching at GC will get ten sticks of chalk per semester, and those not teaching but who are coordinating (or co-coordinating) a math seminar at the GC and is a member of the Math Doctoral Faculty will each get 2 sticks per semester. This will repeat each semester until the chalk is gone. Faculty should save this chalk for use only during their most important lectures or when working on their most important theorems.
Then in 2015, there was panic and grief in the mathematics community, as the famous chalk was going out of business.

In an interview, the Hagoromo Bungu chalk president explained why he shut down the company, and said he was selling the machines and knowledge to a Korean company. He attributed the closure to lower population of schoolchildren in Japan, the move to whiteboards and screens, and bargain-hunting by school district supply-buyers.

People hoarded the existing stocks of original Hagoromo Fulltouch; there were a spate of articles at the time. Gizmodo's Sarah Zhang profiled it, and actually the video linked above is... pretty darn close to this article including the same sources:
This spring, an 80-year-old Japanese chalk company went out of business. Nobody, perhaps, was as sad to see the company go as mathematicians who had become obsessed with Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk, the so-called “Rolls Royce of chalk.” [...] Being neither a mathematician nor a chalk artist, I heard about Hagoromo through my friend Dan, a mathematician finishing up his Ph.D. at Stanford. He recently appeared on a Japanese TV special about the demise of Hagoromo Bungu Co., where a TV crew came out to Stanford to interview mathematicians about the legendary chalk. One professor described hoarding enough of the stuff to keep him in chalk for the next 15 years. Dan is in the special too, calling the end of Hagoromo “a tragedy for mathematics.”
I think this must be the Japanese TV special she mentions: Video documentary about Hagoromo Fulltouch chalk - in Japanese, no English subtitles.

BUT chalk snobs, never fear - today, several years after the closure, the new company has brought their production up and you can buy it [or the close approximation] again -
The Korean company Sejongmall [site in Korean] was apparently sold two of the machines and given the knowledge by the original maker, and they now sell in the US on Amazon, under the Hagoromo Fulltouch name.
posted by LobsterMitten (55 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
So, further note, I've seen the Japanese company Umajirushi mentioned as another successor manufacturer - eg in this Mefi comment by DoctorFedora - and that chalk is available thru Jetpens, but it's not as good. (Rikagaku is another Japanese brand mentioned as a less-good substitute.)

It sounds like the original maker sold one of the machines to Umajirushi and the others to Sejongmall? It's not clear to me if the problem that makes the other chalks less-good is a materials problem or a manufacturing problem. I recall some interview about the raw materials used by Hagoromo being of superior quality too, and possible there's a difference just due to that. But at any rate, the Sejongmall version is the version the mathematicians I'm aware of have settled on as clearly the best successor.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:12 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


I have a desk drawer full of it.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:14 PM on May 2 [50 favorites]


In my department the lecture fetish object isn't the chalk but the erasers. Currently in vogue are these big soft microfiber sponges that I think are designed for car detailing, and before that it was extra-long firm foam erasers with suede backs.
posted by zeptoweasel at 5:45 PM on May 2 [9 favorites]


Although one of my colleagues is in the video! Maybe he's keeping it all for himself.
posted by zeptoweasel at 5:48 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


Is this something I'd need to own a chalkboard to understand?
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:01 PM on May 2 [32 favorites]


This situation is ever present in the illustration (traditional, that it is) and comic arts world. I've stockpiled years or even decades worth of now extinct pens, brushes, erasers (which I've vacuum sealed to stay fresh) and even dozens of reams of drawing paper of different sizes, weights and finishes. Usually it's either cost of raw materials, toxic manufacturing processes, or lack of sales (or all three) that are the culprits. Once Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace) found a dip pen nib that he loved, he bought a lifetime supply.
posted by acroyear at 6:25 PM on May 2 [18 favorites]


Yeah but how does it taste?
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:33 PM on May 2 [20 favorites]


It’s the same in the electronics repair world. Caig redesigned the Deoxit can so it was terrible, so people stocked up in the old ones. And transistors get discontinued all the time or go long-term out of stock, so if you like it, better buy a bunch.
posted by Slinga at 6:34 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


I really enjoy this ongoing chalk situation. That article about how and why the company was being shut down was a great read, felt much more honest and open than anything I've seen out of small family-owned businesses in the US, but at such a larger scale.

The only reason in life I have encountered an actual chalkboard is from going to some reaaaaaally poor schools when I was young, and that chalk was trash and we all knew it. Good chalk does sound like it would have a cool handfeel, even if I have no use for it.

And from the digital art world, iirc the artist for Kingdom of Loathing used the exact same model of scanner for years to scan the physical art for the game because of how it rendered the black pen ink color, and when it was finally discontinued, it was joked that he should have just bought a closet full of them instead of creating a photoshop filter to imitate it.
posted by neonrev at 6:40 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]


I love that we're still using something similar to the ochre and carbon crayons that our species has been using to draw on walls for at least the last 35,000 years.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:06 PM on May 2 [25 favorites]


This news makes me so happy! I kind of miss working in schools sometimes just because of how nice that chalk was, and hearing that the successor is properly good just fills me with joy
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:32 PM on May 2


Having moved from math to biology, I get excited to see any actual chalk and chalkboards in meeting rooms and common areas.

Whiteboards are the primary replacement and they have some minor benefits but a whole lot of downsides. I don’t think anyone ever really enjoys them the way some of us can get into nice chalk in a nice slate.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:33 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


As a lefty, I never got into chalk as a school kid. There are pens I prefer over others, so I can understand why one brand of chalk would be better than another. Are premium chalks better for lefties for an easier flow when writing?
posted by Fukiyama at 7:39 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


Possibly another point in the executive summary of late capitalism is:
* nothing that is truly worth buying will remain available for sale
posted by sylvanshine at 7:43 PM on May 2 [37 favorites]


Fukiyama, premium chalk feels more like a crayon or oil pastel when writing. It’s very smooth overall. I suspect it’d be better for lefties!
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:50 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


Is this something I'd need to own a chalkboard to understand?

To be honest, I actually did have a chalkboard in one house I recently lived in (that had at some point been a school or preschool, maybe?). It was pretty fantastic, and I miss it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:15 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


I haven't seen a chalkboard in person in almost 20 years and I did two physics degrees in the last 10. Where are all these academic settings that still have chalkboards?
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:17 PM on May 2


I have heard it said that it is impossible to make a mathematical mistake when writing with this chalk

I regret to say that I have disproved this proposition by explicit construction of a counterexample.
posted by egregious theorem at 8:19 PM on May 2 [34 favorites]


Where are all these academic settings that still have chalkboards?

In the video there's Cornell, Columbia, Stanford, University of Washington, UC Berkeley, University of Michigan.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:27 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


In the video there's Cornell, Columbia, Stanford, University of Washington, UC Berkeley, University of Michigan.

You could have just said, "schools you couldn't get into".
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:32 PM on May 2 [9 favorites]


Maybe the math departments have different stuff than physics departments; a lot of math departments have chalkboards.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:41 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/SPPOP0014TOZSJPN shows the school-age demographic decline of Japan . . . Falling by 50% since the mid-70s.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 8:48 PM on May 2


U of C still uses chalkboards for math, physics, chemistry, and CS. I don't have the numbers handy, but I assume that's a little easier to get into than Stanford or Cal.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 8:48 PM on May 2


U of C still uses chalkboards for math, physics, chemistry, and CS. I don't have the numbers handy, but I assume that's a little easier to get into than Stanford or Cal.

This was true when I was there, but I hear admission rates have plummeted more recently, possibly as part of an effort to get mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Stanford. (I'm sure the chalkboard part is still true.)

But even here at the humble U. of Arizona the math building is full of chalkboards. It's one of the only holdouts on campus, though, and half the department has recently been moved into a new building which, while very nice, has no chalkboards.
posted by egregious theorem at 8:55 PM on May 2


Here at ASU the math dept certainly has chalkboards. The theoretical physicists are mixed; I’m a blackboard person myself.

And yeah, I have the new Fulltouch talk, and it’s pretty good. (Having used the old version a few times, it’s maybe in the same realm so it’s plenty good enough for me).
posted by nat at 9:12 PM on May 2


My father was a chemistry teacher, and told me he was bothered when they changed his class to use whiteboards. He had worked out his techniques for drawing diagrams, hanging onto chalk of different lengths and using them sideways for different thicknesses of lines, shading gradients, and didn't like being forced to change to a new medium.
posted by RobotHero at 9:53 PM on May 2 [15 favorites]


Count fragrances as another world where hoarding in response to supply failures is common. Natural ingredients like oud or jasmine become scarce because of economics and the environment, or almost banned like oakmoss for allergy concerns, and perfumers "reformulate" to keep the same label and the the same sales with something that smells almost the same enough.

So people scramble to find older formulas by batch codes on the secondary market. All to make sure they get a pre-2010 Chanel №5.
posted by traveler_ at 11:22 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]


Hard-core vision researchers still hoard CRT monitors. The supply is ever-dwindling, but running out means you have to switch to a DLP projector, or hope OLED or MicroLED monitors manage to hit the market soon. I'm not sure anyone's producing new CRTs any more.

I do all my work with LCDs, because I'm not studying the early visual system and it really doesn't matter, but I still feel vaguely guilty about it.
posted by biogeo at 11:36 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]


All this talk of chalk is making the fingertips of my right hand feel extremely dry and uncomfortable.
posted by jamjam at 12:31 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]


Is this something I'd need to own a chalkboard to understand?

Naw, just chalk it up to experience.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:29 AM on May 3 [9 favorites]




This reminds me of the Blackwing 602 pencil saga. You can buy them again too, if you don't mind paying $2 for a pencil.
posted by Bee'sWing at 4:28 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


The best glass panels for writing mathematics were made by a lone craftsman in a small village in Azerbaijan who left the business a few years ago to pursue a career in civil engineering, with no clear successor.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:49 AM on May 3 [11 favorites]


In the video there's Cornell, Columbia, Stanford, University of Washington, UC Berkeley, University of Michigan.

You could have just said, "schools you couldn't get into".
posted by runcibleshaw


Chalk: accepted at more schools that you weren't.

Chalk: Its everywhere you want to be.


(Riff off the old Visa advert)
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:05 AM on May 3


Chalk: It's Everywhere Including All Over Your Hands and Cuffs Because One Guy Who Uses The Same Classroom Can't Remember Which Side Of The Blackboard Eraser You're Supposed To Use
posted by Wolfdog at 5:08 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]


> It’s the same in the electronics repair world. Caig redesigned the Deoxit can so it was terrible, so people stocked up in the old ones. And transistors get discontinued all the time or go long-term out of stock, so if you like it, better buy a bunch.

I've heard that the new Dreadnought-class Trident submarines have sixty years of spare parts stored under nitrogen. And where the parts can't be stored, the production lines to make the parts have been stored. Presumably once the engineers reach 65 they'll be scooping them up and putting them in deepsleep.
posted by Leon at 5:36 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


I got a B.S. in math a number of years ago and I really enjoyed watching the chairman of the math department writing on the board. He had a two-fisted technique where when the board reached an equilibrium he’d be writing with his right hand and erasing ahead of it with his left. And whenever he turned around to face the class he’d get chalk on the back of his suit (of course he wore a suit! He was a professor!). He was a wonderful guy. This is a wonderful thread. Now I have to go price real slate chalkboards for my grandkids...
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:41 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]


Where are all these academic settings that still have chalkboards?

MIT
posted by pangolin party at 5:42 AM on May 3


Oh wow, watching them write with the Hagoromo Fulltouch chalk is so satisfying! The softness of the sound, the lack of apparent effort, the thick full line. ♥

Whenever I see chalkboard writing on TV or in the movies, I'm always (even if subconsciously) judging the chalk, even though I'm no mathematician and haven't handled chalk/boards myself for a couple of decades.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, for instance? Terrible chalk, look at how thin and patchy, and the high-pitched sound that's on the verge of approaching the dreaded chalk squeak. C- (Graded up from a D+ because when he proceeds to write numbers, they look and sound marginally better than the giant percentage sign.) Fitting for the shabby little classroom, true, so I'm not grading the production design down for it...just the chalk.
posted by theatro at 6:13 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Good chalk is a revelation, but the Fulltouch sticks that I have are far from the best I've ever used. The thin dust-preventing coating is wonderful, true, but the increased diameter and rapid wear are both quite frustrating. What I've discovered as I casually search for the "perfect" chalk is that the board material is at least as important. On a really high quality slate board, almost any chalk will glide gracefully and in that setting I'm partial to the high-end Prang stuff.

The real benefit of Fulltouch for me is that the colored chalk erases well. Anybody who's tried to erase the horrid (but ubiquitous) Crayola colored stuff will love Fulltouch.
posted by dbx at 6:23 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


Art world has the same issues. I was sick during the crisis years, so failed to stock up on the last commercially available true PO 49 watercolor. So now I’ve bought a small supply of the pigment, and am teaching myself to make paint. I KNOW there a folks with big stashes of the beautiful Daniel Smith stuff. I just hope their heirs know to sell or gift it in the event of their demise, rather than go, “hmmm, nobody wants old arts supplies let’s just toss this box.”
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 6:39 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]


> Where are all these academic settings that still have chalkboards?

Other math & physics depts that I know of with chalkboards: Northwestern; UIUC; Stony Brook (though my sample is old); the Neils Bohr Institute. This is all mostly in classrooms & hallways; offices get renovated more frequently and so tend to have more whiteboards. The Santa Fe Institute actually does use glass [eg], which will surprise nobody :)

A colleague in my dept is a Fulltouch hoarder/dealer, and I can confirm that it is just as delightful as the movie suggests. But I completely agree with dbx that the board surface is critical.
posted by Westringia F. at 6:47 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I currently hoard in small quantities:

USB Mini cables. (Not micro, mini.) These are getting harder and harder to find and I need them for USB midi devices and my Sansa Clip+ music players.

Vintage MIDI DIN cables. Well made ones also are getting harder to find new, and I used to see MIDI cables all the time at thrift stores for a dollar or so, as they often came with home computer sound cards and similar upgrades and practically no one used them. This doesn't happen now.

Vintage MacBook Pro magsafe power bricks. They aren't making these any more, and the OEM replacements tend to be dodgy cheap pieces of crap.

Sure, these things aren't exactly uncommon or properly rare, yet. It's more about not wanting to pay new/retail prices for these things as I'm on a budget. So if I see one of these items at a properly affordable used price I will grab them.
posted by loquacious at 6:55 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


A colleague in my dept is a Fulltouch hoarder/dealer,

Isn't this the topic of Gibson's newest book, Dusted Rail and the tale of a vintage chalk dealer and mathematician that falls down a rabbit hole of chalk dealers, counterfeiters and criminally employed mathematicians trying to game an obscure niche of the insurance industry?
posted by loquacious at 6:59 AM on May 3 [9 favorites]


Where are all these academic settings that still have chalkboards?

On the flip side of all the fancy places being listed off, my (biology) building has all chalkboards and no whiteboards, which isn't particularly because of anyone's preferences for chalk, and more about a complete lack of renovation since the 70s.

Can also vouch for Stony Brook still having a good quantity of chalkboards as of a few years ago.
posted by pemberkins at 8:13 AM on May 3


When I worked in a coffee shop, I encountered chalk markers (chalk in a suspension of some kind). So much better! I don't know if they would work for heavy use in a classroom, but they were delightful for making signs. They offered such control and vibrancy of colour.
posted by jb at 8:25 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


i still have chalkboards; the building i teach in is the oldest on campus and hasn't been renovated fully in decades.

i bought some of this chalk on a whim awhile back and now i feel a need to buy a million more. The colored chalk is really special; relative to Crayola's stuff, it just writes much more smoothly. I teach economics, and there's lots of curve shifting and diagrams that are made a lot cleaner by having a couple of colors in there.
posted by dismas at 8:35 AM on May 3


There are lectures I watch on YouTube precisely because I enjoy that the lecturer makes use of a chalkboard. The sound of traditional bulk buy school chalk on an old chalkboard is somehow very calming for me.

Oddly, though I was never much one for actually using the board, I have strong feelings about my school's change in their standard chalk. When they switched from the dusty, hard stuff to the coated kind I was not happy. Yeah, there was less dust, but they wrote about as well as a Sharpie on hard plastic. The weak smear that appeared on the blackboard was much harder to read, but the only thing that mattered to the people spending the money was the price.

I'm not really sure what you guys mean by colored chalk. There is only white and yellow. I guess yellow is a color, but that doesn't seem to fit the context..
posted by wierdo at 8:35 AM on May 3


now my ebay history is chalk and haunted dolls, thanks metafilter
posted by dismas at 8:44 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]


The 1986 HP-sponsored videos of Sussman and Abelson teaching MIT's intro to LISP course always astonished me because they appeared to be using sidewalk chalk. I always wondered if that was just how they did it at MIT, or if that was a concession to the cameras.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 8:45 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


Whenever I see chalkboard writing on TV or in the movies, I'm always (even if subconsciously) judging the chalk, even though I'm no mathematician and haven't handled chalk/boards myself for a couple of decades.

And sometimes it's probably not chalk... someone said 'oil pastel' in response to this thread about the First Man trailer, and now I can't unsee it.
posted by tavella at 8:58 AM on May 3


I love the stuff. It writes nicely and the colors are bright and erase well. (Rikagaku also has nice colors that erase well, but don't have the coating, so they are less pleasant to use.)

This all seems like old news to me, but the video is hilarious. Chalk talks to empty rooms!

...they appeared to be using sidewalk chalk.

In large lecture halls, using large chalk (the size of sidewalk chalk) is pretty helpful for making sure everything is readable in the whole room. It also naturally encourages you to write larger. I learned a few months ago that you can get large Hagoromo chalk.
posted by ktkt at 9:24 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


The computer graphics revolution pretty much killed off a lot of old timey art and drafting supply companies, many that had been around for 100 years. It is probably because professors have a lot of autonomy (and lower grade level teachers are chronically short of funds) that chalk on a blackboard teaching has held on so long. When I started mapping in the late 1970s, it was all crowquill pens and Leroy lettering and India ink and blueline machines and when I retired from it a few years ago, it was AutoCAD and CorelDraw and Adobe paired with 60" wide plotters and high speed printers.
posted by Bee'sWing at 11:00 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]


My university has some rooms with chalkboards and some with whiteboards, and it honestly doesn't seem to have much to with how recently the rooms were renovated. I suppose it's possible to renovate and leave chalkboards in place.

I prefer the chalkboards by far. The whiteboards - unless they are the fancy glass kind - always seem to break down over time, making it difficult to really erase them. And somehow, it's a lot easier to find chalk than a fresh dry erase marker...
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:50 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


I have a small box of No. 11 X-acto knife blades wrapped in oiled paper that are over 40 years old. Wicked sharp.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:50 PM on May 4


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