Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

The “Right to Repair” and the Profit Bubble

I was reading an article on the subject of the “right to repair” movement a little while ago and it got me thinking about why this apparently commonsense concept comes across as almost quixotic in a country that prides — or used to pride — itself on its self-reliance.

First of all, while I understand and appreciate the points being made, but I take issue with the slogan “right to repair.” This isn’t a rights issue. We use this term so loosely here, almost as a formal way of saying “I wanna.”

I mean I get their point, but turning this into a legislative thing is to my mind just silly. I agree with them in principle that manufacturers should not actually go out of their way to make products unserviceable by third parties. But compelling them to do it through legislation is a dead end. If there was a demand for it, there would be a supply of it.

On the other hand, the article brought up the case of the demise of independent camera repair shops, laying it on Nikon for deciding to stop making repair parts available to third-party vendors. That may be so (it sounds too pat, but I admit I don’t know the story), but at the same time Nikon is not obligated to keep other companies in business.

In an age where business is defined solely as the generation of profit, it makes sense that a company would not want to lose out on a revenue stream just out of being polite to customers. Yes, there are all kinds intangible benefits of such largesse, but they are exactly that: intangible. They don’t service the bottom line, which is all the accountants care about, and all the MBAs running businesses have been told to care about.

The repair culture that we used to have in this country — from farm equipment to radios and TV to cars and everything in between — required two things: a culture of people who saw it as part of their responsibility to maintain and repair the things they owned, and a business philosophy that focused on cultivating customers, not revenue.

Convenience plus growing middle-class affluence took care of the former; the need to repair something meant that you are not able to afford a new one. The rise of profit as the sole measure of corporate success in the immediate post-WWII years took care of the latter.

While writing the last couple of paragraphs, the phrase “the profit bubble” floated through my head. To my mind, the trajectory of an ever-greater focus on a single indicator — in this case, profit — followed by the increasing effort to hitch everything to that single indicator and the obsessive focus on it by people who should be skilled at looking at other things but who slavishly follow the trend instead, has all the earmarks of a classic bubble.

That the profit bubble has lasted as long as it has does not mean that it isn’t in fact a bubble; it’s a matter of scale. After all, the difference between an island and a continent is ultimately just a matter of semantics. It does, however, portend the scale of the impact and consequences when it ultimately does burst.

In any case, if and when companies see that it is in their best interests to once again encourage an support a repairability mindset among customers, then it will happen. It can’t, and it won’t, happen through legislation. And even if such legislation were to pass, it would not last long, for all the right and wrong reasons. The lasting solution requires changing the very underpinnings of modern business philosophy. Infinitely harder to accomplish, but infinitely more enduring.


Did Steven Moffat Just Pull off a Two-Decade-Long Prank?

When it was revealed that Jodie Whittaker would be the thirteenth Doctor, I was thrilled — I’ve been waiting for this ever since 1981, when Tom Baker wished good luck to his successor, “whoever he — or she — may be.”

But of course, being something of an old-school Whovian, I recalled that this is hardly the first time we’ve seen the Doctor become a woman. That happened in the brilliantly funny 1999 charity telethon special Doctor Who: The Curse of Fatal Death. To refresh my memory, I went back to YouTube to watch it again.

As I did, a chill came over me. I suddenly realized: The rebooted series has basically been Curse of Fatal Death unfolding in real time.

See, Steven Moffat, the showrunner who is departing the show with the arrival of the new Doctor, was the writer of Curse of Fatal Death. It was, in fact, the first Who story he ever wrote.

The thing is, Curse of Fatal Death appears to map out his entire involvement with the relaunched series, first as a writer and then as producer — almost twenty years before it had even begun. Consider:

  Curse of Fatal Death Doctor Who
The Doctor’s Getting Married to: Emma (Julie Sawalha) River Song (Alex Kingston, et al.)
Four Male Doctors… Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi
…Followed by a Female Doctor Joanna Lumley Jodie Whittaker
The Master Gets “Dalek bump” breast implants Becomes a woman (Michelle Gomez)

I’m betting that there’s probably a bunch of other little Easter eggs in there that I’m missing just because I’m not a regular watcher of the new show. If anyone can contribute to the list, please leave a comment below and I’ll add it to the table. (If you’re reading this after the comment period has expired, leave me a comment on one of the standing pages, like the “About” page.)

(*Slow clap*) Well played, Mister Moffat. Well played.


Typing Assignment #2: Why Typewriters?

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Here’s my homework for Typing Assignment #2, in which Joe asks participants to “write a one-page essay on what you find unique and/or valuable about using typewriters as writing tools.” I wrote mine on my ca. 1937 L.C. Smith & Corona Standard, one of my favorite machines for long-form writing because, like all Smith Coronas, it feels like it’s designed particularly for writers.


Typing Assignment #1

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Joe Van Cleave recently launched a new series called Typing Assignments, in which he invites Typospherians to flex their typing muscles on fun short writing assignments. This is my homework for Typing Assignment #1, which is “to anthropomorphize your typewriter and have it describe how it “found” you, and how it feels about its relationship with you, the writer.” Enjoy!


Star Trek: The Motion Picture … in One Minute

Something I whipped up this evening in response to a recent discussion in the Facebook group of the Star Trek TNG podcast “The Greatest Generation.” The topic was a 20-minute fan edit of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. One of the participants raised the question: Is it possible to make a fan edit of the movie that’s even shorter?

My response: Hold my beer:


Why I Showed Up for Science

I say “showed up” rather than “marched” because we arrived at the Ellipse by the Washington Monument early, around 9 am, and left shortly after noon, as the crowds were really starting to come in. As we joined the thin stream of departing early birds — soaked, cheerful, signs streaked with runny ink — we passed our metaphorical batons to the fresh crowds heading in the opposite direction, heartened by the fact that they outnumbered us many times over.

While we were there, we crossed the street to visit the World War II memorial, the first time Mrs. Sotto Voce and I had been there. As I viewed the bronze bas-relief scenes and read the long lists of battles carved in stone, I couldn’t help think about the role that science played in that war, for good and evil. The perversions of racial “science” triggered it, and the splitting of the atom ended it. And in between, science contributed to the development of countless things — medicine and surgery, ballistics and rocketry, propulsion and fuels, and so much more. Being reminded of that amid the pillars, victory arches, and Roman splendor of the memorial brought home to me the power of science in ways I hadn’t expected.

But science is more than inventions and discoveries that make our lives better (or, in the wrong hands, worse). The greatest, most fundamental contribution of science to our world is the method that makes those inventions and discoveries possible in the first place. Science is a way of asking questions that leads to meaningful answers. It is by far the single most successful technique that we humans have created so far for enabling us to discover how and why things appear to work, in ways that let us build on those insights to improve on what we have.

Scientific inquiry starts from a place of humility, an acknowledgment that we do not know. We come up with theories and hypotheses, we test them, we fail, we learn a little bit more, and use that to fail again better next time. A fundamental precept of science is openness to being wrong.

Of course, being human, we hate to let go of our pet hypotheses because we really, really wanted them to be right. And, being human, all too often we tie the fate of our reputations and our institutions to those outcomes too. But ultimately the preponderance of evidence carries the day and whether we like it or not the facts lead where they will, indifferent to wounded egos and failed grant applications.

A scientific fact is evidence that has prevailed.

And when we find its limits, when a fact no longer prevails, that in turn points us to the new facts that will replace it, on which we can build even further.

The opposite of scientific thought is a certainty born of a belief that one has already found all the answers that matter. The certainty that one’s way of viewing the world is complete, correct, and therefore sufficient not just for oneself but for everyone. The certainty that, because of those things, nothing needs to change — and, by extension, that change is a threat.

This issue cannot be reduced to a simple “conservative religious zealot vs. liberal godless snowflake” debate. Close-mindedness and certainty are absolutely nonpartisan and nondenominational. They affect every one of us, often in ways that we cannot see. Our fundamental mistake is to confuse “factual” with “right.”

Here’s the test: if you find yourself being faced with an empirically validated fact that challenges your worldview and you decide to stick with the worldview and deny the fact, then you’re the problem.

Sure, that fact could actually be wrong. But it’s up to you to prove it. Come up with an alternate hypothesis, test it, and see what happens. If you’re right, then we all have learned something that we didn’t know before. But you can’t be afraid of finding out that you’re wrong.

When Bill Nye debated Ken Ham about whether creationism is a viable model for explaining the origin of life, the last question was (and I’m paraphrasing here), If you were to be provided with sufficient evidence that your opponent’s point of view is actually the correct one, would you change your mind?

Bill Nye answered “Yes,” Ken Ham answered “No,” and that right there is the difference.

I stand with “Yes.”