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.

Failure Modes

A couple days ago, after work, I was tooling around YouTube and came across a documentary I hadn’t seen in a while: “Failure is Not an Option: A Flight Control History of NASA.” It’s ever so slightly over the top, but that’s okay because the subject — how a group of young engineers invented the procedures that got us to the Moon — is part of a modern epic that should be told in the grand, sweeping language of the sagas and ballads of yore. Growing up, my idols were guys like Christopher Columbus Kraft, Gene Kranz, and John Aaron. So I don’t mind seeing them idolized. And of course, “failure is not an option” entered the popular lexicon with the movie Apollo 13, which elevated the lunar program’s pit crew to the status of heroes.

Yesterday, following SpaceX’s terrific success landing its Falcon orbital booster autonomously on its ocean-going barge, I came across an article on the tech news website Ars Technica titled “Because failure is an option SpaceX can do stuff like land rockets on a boat.” With the documentary fresh in mind, I was naturally curious to read it.

The article opens by noting that “there is a belief among some that, since the heady Apollo days, such an attitude [that of failure not being an option] has made NASA’s managers too timid and too risk averse.” It then constrasts this attitude with something SpaceX’s Elon Musk said in a 2005 Fast Company article: “There’s a silly notion that failure’s not an option at NASA. Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

In reading that, it struck me that we’re talking about two fundamentally different ideas of failure here: failure of imagination, and failure of responsibility.

Following the pad fire in January 1967 that killed the flight crew of Apollo I — Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — Gene Kranz assembled his flight controllers in a room, shut the door, and gave the greatest speech of his career:

“Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’

I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: “Tough” and “Competent.” “Tough” means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. “Competent” means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write “Tough and Competent” on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee.

These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”

That day, NASA had failed in its duty of care to the three astronauts who perished. What Gene Kranz was saying was that as far as Mission Control was concerned, it would never again abdicate its responsibilities to others.

The losses of the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 were not the result of failures of imagination; everyone involved in both missions knew that spaceflight is a risky business. They were failures of responsibilty. In both cases, crucial decisions were made by people who were more concerned with the consequences to themselves than the consequences to others — precisely the opposite of Kranz’ tough and competent dictum.

There were plenty of engineering failures in the testing and development phases of Apollo — engines, structural, design, you name it. They were expected, anticipated, and sought out — how else could they figure out everything that could go wrong before they sent people to the Moon? Nothing could be left to the imagination; everything had to be foressen, tested, and designed for or against. Apollo’s track record makes it clear that there was no failure of imagination there.

The thing is, they worked out all those kinks before they ever put anyone up into space. They were willing to risk failure all the way up to the moment when the astronauts climbed in. Those failures were sought out in order to prevent that failure.

The most recent successful Falcon flight is a perfect example of the balancing of the two kinds of failure I’m talking about here. The design of the Falcon launch vehicle brilliantly isolates two distinct event chains: the delivery of the payload to orbit and the return of the booster to the landing barge. SpaceX does not risk failing its responsibility to its launch customers by tying the success of the former to the success of the latter. Here’s a simple graph:

Function Failure Type Duty of Care
Payload delivery Responsibility Customer
Booster landing Imagination SpaceX

SpaceX doesn’t take risks with the customer’s payload, because the customer is paying them to do the job. (Sure, SpaceX has liability in the event that a booster malfunction results in the loss of the payload, but that’s an incentive, not a risk.) On the other hand, SpaceX can afford to take risks with the booster landing because, hey, whatever SpaceX wants to do with its own property after fulfilling its contractual duty is its own business. SpaceX’s approach neatly compartmentalizes the respective failure modes.

Now SpaceX is talking about sending a Falcon to Mars. Certainly no failure of imagination there. But I think we can be damn sure that the company isn’t proposing to send those astronauts up in a ship that hasn’t been tested to its limits and beyond. Musk surely knows that, as a private company, SpaceX would never survive a public revelation that it had failed its responsibility to the crew.

“Failure is not an option” is not synonymous with “risk averse.” Fear of failure in the everyday sense — “what if I try this and it doesn’t work?” — is not something that NASA currently suffers from. If you have any doubts, just recall the batshit-crazy descent profile flown by the Mars Curiosity lander. Which worked, by the way.

No, “failure is not an option” means “tough and competent.” It means having the balls to hold yourself accountable and the audacity to aspire to perfection. NASA has it, SpaceX has it, Blue Origin has it, and anyone who blazes a trail — to outer space, to inner space, to anywhere in between — has it too.

So say we all.

What’s in a Preposition?

The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions. – Antony Jay

As usual, I’m two or three issues behind in my New Yorker reading, so it was only a few days ago that I had a chance to finally read Alec Wilkinson’s controversial article about avant-garde poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The article caused a stir not just because of the subject matter (at issue: did Goldsmith, in using the autopsy report of Michael Brown as a performance piece, demonstrate egregious and self-serving white privilege?) but also, in the aftermath of the article’s publication, for the way that Wilkinson characterized (or mischaracterized) the reactions of poets of color to Goldsmith’s act.

Merits and shortcomings aside, the article did at least try to explore some of the complexities and challenges that literary writers are facing right now in our increasingly polarized and powder-keggy society. It’s a tough subject to discuss constructively because of the centuries of cultural baggage that it hauls around behind it. There are layers of racism and sexism and power and class wrapped around the subject like explosives that have to be carefully disarmed without setting the whole thing off.

But for all the good intentions, there was a premise or a presumption at work in the article — and, by extension, in the dialogue — that troubled me. It’s best exemplified by this line from the last section of the article:

“Who is allowed to speak for people who have been harmed or who have suffered is an open argument.”

What snagged me then, and what continues to snag me, is the preposition for. There is something stealthily xenophobic about the whole “who gets to speak for someone” question. For all the concern about how the political right in this country has focused on the alienness of the “them,” the political left is just as busy focusing on the exclusivity of the “us.” They’re flip-sides of the same thing. Both the left and the right have tacitly agreed that the premise of the discourse is difference.

And in doing so, bam. You’ve tricked one group into wanting to build walls around others, and tricked the other group into wanting to build walls around itself.

Instead of asking who speaks for the people who have been harmed or who have suffered, the much more vitally urgent question is, Who speaks about them?

Because that had damned well better be everyone. And until it is, we will just go on inflicting and experiencing more harm and suffering.

We all must bear witness to people who have been harmed and who are being harmed. Young black men being murdered by unaccountable law enforcement is not an “African-American issue.” The subjugation of women is not a “feminist issue.” The denial of social rights to differently gendered people is not an “LGBTQ issue.” The disempowerment of indigenous peoples is not a “Native American issue.”

Like it or not, these are our issues. Because these injustices affect people first and foremost — regardless of the adjectives that are used to classify them. And encouraging people to split into squabbling identity groups is a divide-and-conquer technique that will prevent us from finding solutions to them together.

The premise of the discourse has to change. We can no longer afford to pretend that we are defined by our differences. We need to remember that we all bleed. We all cry. We all mourn. And we all celebrate. We all lift up. We all ennoble and embolden and encourage. We all dance around the fire and tell our stories and listen with wonder to the stories of others.

“These prison walls that this age of trade has built up round us, we can break down. We can still run free, call to our comrades, and marvel to hear once more, in response to our call, the pathetic chant of the human voice.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry