Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Keyboards and the Future of Computers

At Apple’s recent special event announcing its latest MacBook Pro lineup, SVP Phil Schiller introduced the new Touch Bar feature by explaining that it was designed to provide a dynamic and adaptive replacement for the row of physical function keys that has accompanied computer keyboards since the early 1970s. Why, he asked, should interface design be constrained by the legacy of a 45-year-old technology?

Yet, just to the south of the new Touch Bar on this sleek, ultra-modern device sits a nearly 145-year-old technology that continues to artificially constrain computer interface design — one that I believe is way overdue for a radical reimagining:

The physical keyboard.

You’d probably think that, as a guy who makes his living herding words, I’d be the one yelling the loudest that you can have my keyboard when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. But before I can explain why I believe the future of writing absolutely demands the disappearance of the physical keyboard, first I need to go off on a highly pedantic tangent for just a moment.
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Get Thee to a Pennery

first-weareverMy pen restoration hobby is off to a good start. The Wearever button-filler that I wrote about here and here is now in the hands of Mrs. Sotto Voce, who is trying out some blue inks she bought for it. At the suggestion of Joe Van Cleave, I’m going to start making some short videos about my pen adventures, starting with a review of my “man cave” shed and my small pen collection. And I’ve started scouring pen market boards and flea markets for bargains.

The other pen that I had to start with is an Esterbrook desk pen. I bought it because I wanted its heavy black-ceramic base for my desk, to match one I had picked up years before (one for my Parker “51,” and the other for a PaperMate Logo mechanical pencil). Because it’s a desk pen, it doesn’t have a cap, and its clear Lucite tail piece is long and slender. The nib was broken, but the cool thing about Esterbrooks (fans call them “Esties”) is that they use threaded nib units that can be swapped out easily, and the nibs — along with their little cardboard cases — are still plentiful and inexpensive. So that pen will likely be my first to sell or swap. I’m almost finished with it.

wearever-buttonThe first pen that I bought specifically to restore, another Wearever button-filler, is my first real challenge. The eBay seller said that the button appeared to be loose, which usually indicates that the ink sac has degraded and the pressure bar has fallen out of the button — no problem. But when the pen arrived and I started poking and prodding, I soon discovered that the problem was more serious.

The entire button assembly — a plastic doohickey glued into the end of the barrel designed to hold the button and the blind cap that covers it — had been snapped off entirely. The button was stuck in the doohickey, so my guess is that many years ago, someone pushed the button too hard in an effort to loosen it, and snap.

Talking to a pen expert about the situation, I learned that the piece can be re-glued using methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), but unfortunately it was too fragile and it quickly flaked apart, leaving me nothing to glue back in!

Sure, I could put the pen aside until I find another Wearever button-filler that I could cannibalize by trying to carefully knock out its doohickey, but a) that’s risky and b) it kills another pen. So poking around some more, I learned that Ron Zorn of Main Street Pens fabricates replacement parts. So after corresponding with him about it, earlier this week I mailed the pen to him to take a look and see if he can fabricate a new doohickey.

Now the cost of the replacement will outweigh the value of the pen by a couple orders of magnitude. Wearevers were the Bic sticks of their age, cheap throwaways that today can be bought for a few bucks as “practice pens” for beginners like me to make mistakes on as we practice our craft. So why spend so much money on it? I can’t explain it beyond the simple reason that I just like the pen. It’s utterly irrational and makes no market sense, I get that. But since the pen made it this far, doesn’t it deserve a little TLC?

Every restoration hobbyist probably feels that way about their first project. I’m sure I’ll get more level-headed the more pens I fix, but in the meantime I’m just going to enjoy my sentimentality.

two-new-pensAnd speaking of more pens to fix, my latest acquisitions arrived today. Another Wearever (a lever filler this time) and, on the right, a Majestic. No one seems to know much about Majestics except that they appeared in Sears catalogs, they are easy to restore, and the nibs tend to be wet and flexible. The barrel and cap are celluloid, not plastic, and the feed is apparently hard-rubber. This will be my first experience working with these materials. I’m excited!

Mrs. Sotto Voce has already laid claim to the Majestic, in case you’re wondering.


My New Hobby

Chewie after the first round of cleaning. Not shown: lots and lots of blue-black sludge.

Chewie after the first round of cleaning. Not shown: lots and lots of blue-black sludge.

I’ve been looking for a new hobby, one that would hopefully meet several broad criteria. Ideally, this hobby would:

  • Fit on the workbench in our shed;
  • Involve many of my tools for plastic scale modeling;
  • Be relatively inexpensive;
  • Require precision work; and
  • Relate to one of my existing hobbies or pastimes.

Pretty soon I whittled it down to typewriter repair and fountain pen repair. And because I already had a couple of non-working old FPs lying around, FP repair won the toss.

In the course of acquiring my small collection of FPs, I had done a lot of reading and research, so I already had a general idea of what the restoration process entailed. Armed with that very sketchy knowledge, I took to the web in search of tips and techniques. Between the repair Q&As on The Fountain Pen Network, the how-to videos by Stef on Grandmia Pens, and the abundant supplies to be found on Amazon and Pendemonium, I had what I needed to get started.

My first project is a completely nondescript Wearever button-filler that I picked up for five bucks at an antique stall a couple years ago. I know, I know, I paid $4.50 too much for it — it’s just a Wearever, fergodsake.

Well, maybe it’s blue-collar reverse snobbery, but I have a preference for low-end pens that were designed for average Joes and Janes. Besides, the first FP I ever picked up was a cheap Wearever Zenith that the late Bert Heiserman of Pen Haven resacced for me, taking the time to explain to a complete newbie how FPs worked and treating my pen with the same respect that he would give a rare and valuable Parker or Shaeffer. (It wasn’t until many years later that I realized how insanely lucky I had been to live mere minutes away from one of the giants of the antique FP community at the outset of my collecting hobby.) The Zenith has a buttery, expressive nib that is still one of the best in my collection and is still, alongside my Parker “51,” my favorite to write with.

I think I’m going to nickname this pen Chewie — not because it’s huge, or brown, or particularly fearsome, but rather because one of its previous owners chewed on the blind cap. A lot. I’m still not sure if those dents will buff out.

It’s going to need a new nib and a new sac, but it is mechanically sound and free of cracks. The inside of the barrel had a lot of cruft and what looked like a big glob of shellac, perhaps from a previous repair, that took a lot of gentle scraping to remove. The inside of the cap was caked with dried ink, and the inner cap was practically glued in; it required an overnight soak in water and a second bath of water, ammonia, and dish soap to free the inner cap.

It required the same for me to be able to pop the nib and feed out of the section, after which a colossal quantity of blue-black sludge came oozing out like ancient Greek wine from a barnacle-encrusted amphora raised from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Flushing out the goop revealed that part of the section is translucent, made from a clear amber-tinted plastic. Very cool!

After an initial polish, the clip looks pretty good. At first, I thought the cap ring was pretty heavily tarnished, but it looks like it may be that the gold plating has worn off part of it. Additional polishing will settle that once and for all. I have micromesh cloths and polishing paste coming via Amazon for buffing up the exterior, bite marks notwithstanding. I have already test-fit a sac and have to cut it to size; the pressure bar needed a lot of cleaning but it works great. With a new nib, I think I will soon have a very nice “beater” pen.

Another nice thing about working with low-end pens like Wearevers is that you can get them cheap online or at flea markets (they’re the pens left behind after the collectors have swept through). They’re great for learning repair techniques; you don’t feel bad if you screw something up. Plus, they’re great for spare parts. And there’s a great weekly flea market about 20 minutes down the road from us. Guess where I’ll be?

In addition to pen parts and tools, I’ve also been working on improving the shed workspace: a power strip and a big box fan for starters, and a long magnetic tool holder for all my pliers and forceps. Next, I want to get a wifi signal booster so I can pick up the house wifi signal (the shed is right on the ragged edge of the range). I mean, I may have to watch one of those videos in real-time, after all.

I’ll post pictures when Chewie is all finished. I should have taken “before” pictures for contrast, along with the “during” shot above. I’ll remember to do that with my next pen. And the one after that.

I think I’m going to really enjoy this new hobby.


On Reading about Rousseau on a Saturday Morning

So I’m reading a TNY article about Jean-Jacques Rousseau and it did that thing again where some hick from the sticks comes wandering into Paris and suddenly WHAM he’s attending salons and hanging out with the literary set.

I mean, literally in the same (and not too long by TNY standards) sentence the guy goes to Paris after wandering around the country doing odd jobs, shacks up with a “semi-illiterate” laundress, and attends his first salon.

Yeah, um, see, there’s kind of a few things that probably happened in between, there. And those things are going to answer a lot of the questions that you’re asking about why people remember him today, to the extent that they do. How did this nobody from outer nowhere get people to notice him, and why did they like him? Was he writing, and if so, what? How did he get what he wrote before their eyes? Or was it just that he was a good schmoozer and knew how to make connections? If so, how did that come about? Where in all his meanderings did this guy learn how to do that?

These are all things that are going to tell us a hell of a lot more about the guy than focusing on his influence after people started reading him. Getting their attention in the first place was the hurdle. You won’t discover why the man was influential if you don’t first explain how he influenced people.