The Cult of Keyboards

As I approach the end of my 40th year, my body is falling apart.  Okay, that may be an over-exaggeration, but every morning, it feels like another piece has been overextended or abused or mutilated, from the various discs in my back to the muscles and joints in my shoulders or arms or knees or toes or whatever.  Ever since I’ve started working from home, poor ergonomics has caused a rash of various repetitive stress injuries.  Or maybe all of the steps I’ve tried to prevent said injuries have caused it.  I don’t know.

I do know that my keyboards have been the main focus of this hell.  I mean, I also bought extensions to raise my desk, a different mount to raise my monitor, and one of those freaky bicycle seat-looking office chairs to prevent me from slouching, and that all helps.  But I think in the last decade, I’ve probably put down about a million words between work and fiction, and all of those go through my ten digits via some kind of USB-connected appliance that’s based on a design originally thrown down a hundred and a half years ago by opium-deranged business machine sadomasochists trying to find a way to keep busy women in between bouts of making sandwiches.  Never mind the fact that we don’t yet have machines that read our minds or let us simply talk to our computers like we’re Scotty whipping up a batch of god damned transparent aluminum. The fact that we still use essentially the same QWERTY design as a century ago, the one that was specifically invented to slow down typists, is a travesty to all things mechanical.

When I got to Seattle in the mid-90s, ergo-mania was happening, and I knew more people who had RSI or carpal tunnel than I knew in Indiana who thought the earth was created 3000 years ago, and that’s a lot.  Ergo was huge, and there were all of these bizarre startups running out of garages churning out short runs of chording keyboards and strange split devices and custom DVORAK layouts, not to mention all of the alternate mouse designs, like track balls and track pads and track pens and track cocks and whatever else.  And this was before the advent of USB, when this stuff became really easy to make, and before Microsoft upped the ante on RSI by inventing prolific right-click menus and then the scroll wheel, two things that have caused more arthritis of the right hand than all of the collected works of Megan Fox.

Microsoft both created and destroyed the ergo market by coming out with their own mass-produced split keyboard.  I will give credit where credit is due and say this is one product that Microsoft got mostly right.  I’ve gone through a succession of these split keyboards, most recently using the Ergo 4000, which has a large number of “media” buttons, which are nice for doing things like pausing iTunes or skipping tracks or zooming the browser window.  However, aside from the fact that I go though about one of these a year (mostly because of a combination of eating at my computer and the fact that the letters wear off almost instantly) there’s always been something slightly wrong with these peripherals.

Before the Microsoft models, I went through a series of IBM Model M keyboard clones; in fact, my first keyboard I bought in 1991 was an honest-to-god 83-key IBM keyboard from a 5-slot 5150 PC.  In 2012, there are a lot of issues with these keyboards, aside from just the total lack of ergonomic comfort; you’re not going to find a Windows key or an Apple key, and they use a cable that predates USB by at least two or three iterations.  Most of the vintage ones have also gone from the 90s computer beige to the yellow-brown color of linen in a ten-pack-a-day smoker’s house.

But the switches in these keyboards were magic.  New keyboards don’t use individual switches; they use dome switches, where the keys push this rubbery sheet that contains little bits that complete the electrical connection. The result is a quiet and cheap keyboard that feels like typing while your fingers are suspended in a bowl of mush, and at some point, the little domes will sporadically fail, and every 10,000th character you type will randomly miss, eventually causing insanity and the cost of both replacing the keyboard and the window you throw it through in a maddened rage.  The old keyboards used actual mechanical switches, each one happily clicking with a sharp tactile feel as you snapped away at the keys.  Even if you couldn’t type fast, it felt like you were typing fast.

This introduces this never-solvable paradox that seems to creep up in every damn aspect of my life.  I want an ergonomic split keyboard, that is modern and uses USB and has all of the new keys people use like Win and Alt, and has mechanical key switches.  The Microsoft ergo uses rubber dome switches, and at some point, those fail and cause madness.  It also means that even with a brand new keyboard, it feels like I’m typing underwater.  There’s a whole cult of mechanical switch keyboards, mostly from gamers who need lightning-fast key response.  Those are all standard layout, mostly because gamers only use the WASD keys.  There’s also the issue that these keyboards are all marketed to 14-year-old Asian boys, and have names like the “Viper Frag Kill 9000” and you will pay $200 for backlighting and extra buttons specifically used for Skyrim or whatever.  And outside of Microsoft, the ergo keyboard market has largely been killed.  Add to this the frustration that every single computer sold comes with a keyboard, and because the cheapest way of making them is good enough for a person who types at most 140 characters in a row, the $19 OEM POS is fine for almost everyone.

My problem with this – or with building a kitchen island, or finding the right desk, or getting a set of sliding glass doors done, or whatever the hell else, is I fall down these deep internet k-holes of endless searching and frustration.  There are several internet discussion boards full of game playing fiends touting their favorite boards.  But of course, if you posted asking for a good ergo keyboard, you’d get a thousand responses saying RSI is a myth, kind of like if you went into a random bar in Arkansas and asked the locals about global warming or evolution.  And your first 900 results in a google search are links to the Microsoft Ergo 4000.

This fall, I finally gave up and bought a Kinesis Advantage.  They are not cheap; I spent just shy of $300 for mine.  But they use actual Cherry mechanical switches, and feature a unique split system, where the bulk of the keys are in two “bowls”, and all of the modifier keys (ctrl/alt/win/apple) plus keys like the backspace, delete, enter, and space, all sit under your thumbs.  This means you can do 99% of your typing without stretching your hands out of the home position, and the keys happily clack away to confirm your speedy typing.  The Kinesis also has a complex and powerful system of keyboard remapping and macro programming in its firmware, which I will probably never use.   The one real bummer, aside from price, is that the function keys are these little rubber chicklets that will inevitably get jammed or stop working.  There’s also the issue that I am not historically a touch typist, and I had to spend a month using a touch typing tutor program (the wonderful and open-source Tipp1o) to get to the point where those ring and pinky fingers were hitting the As and Ses and Ls and ;s with regularity.

The k-hole has been reopened lately, though.  I’ve been wondering if there’s a good way to replace those damn chicklet keys.  Maybe I should get a keypad or jog-shuttle control to remap these keys.  Maybe I should get out the dremel and buy a dozen and a half loose Cherry keys and replace the switches.  Maybe I should remap the largely useless Home key so Home-1=F1;Home-2=F2, and so on.  Maybe I should stop all of this and actually write books.  Sure, right after I try to find a Kinesis macro programming FAQ online, and then hem and haw about buying a Griffin PowerMate.

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Dot Matrix and Word Processors

I was writing about something completely different the other day, and went on this side diversion about dot-matrix printers, and thought about how a giant subset of the population (like everyone born after about 1985) never had to deal with them, while I spent far too many hours fighting them in computer labs, pulling apart the intricate pieces to pry loose jammed scraps of paper that got worked into the machinery.

There’s so many distinctive features of this whole era of printing that are long forgotten.  Dot matrix printers usually used eight little pins to stamp a ribbon as the print head jumped across the page.  My friend Matt had one of these, the Commodore 801, and the thing I remember most about it was that it was unidirectional; the little print head would zip across the page at a breakneck 50 characters per second, then the page would move up a line, and the head would return to the left.  But it didn’t print on the sweep back to the left, which meant it was half as fast as the expensive printers that would print on both passes.

The printers were also tractor-feed back then.  The paper had those little perforated runners hanging off of each end, little strips with holes in them, and the box of paper was fan-fold, so you could feed in the sheet and it would continuously chew through the giant thousand-page sheet of paper in a carton.  Then, after you spent 20 minutes staring at the printer, hoping the thing got through your term paper in one pass, you then had to fold and tear apart each page, then tear off the feed strips on either side.

And, of course, that never worked right.  If you didn’t line up the paper exactly, turning the little knob on the side of the printer, the end of the physical page would not match up with what the computer thought was the end of the page, and you’d get this mangled mess with a blank strip of what was supposed to be the top and bottom margins in the middle of the printed page.  The whole operation of aligning and feeding and advancing paper was a precision thing, and if the paper got folded or creased or otherwise fucked up, the printer would have no mercy and create an origami disaster out of your precious schoolwork.

The output of a dot-matrix looked like shit, and they did a lot of little tricks to get it to resemble actual type.  Like some printers had this “near letter quality” feature, where they’d do multiple passes on the same line to get a higher resolution, and they started adding more pins.  When I was at IUSB, we had armies of these Panasonic KPX-1124 printers, which had 24 pins instead of 8.  These pieces of shit were the bane of my existence back in 1991, and I spent untold hours tearing jammed paper out of these while some dumpy housewife screamed at me about her Psych 101 paper getting trashed.  (If you ever did time around one of these, watch this video and tell me if the clunking sound of that print head slamming into the left margin over and over doesn’t make you go full postal.)

It seems like everyone forgets the other bastard child of that era that made perfect typewritten letters, at the sake of glacial speeds and 120-decibel print runs.  The daisy wheel printer had a hub with a bunch of little spokes coming off of it, each one carrying a little type letter.  It could spin the wheel with a servo motor and then hammer it against the ribbon with a solenoid, making an ink impression that looked exactly like a typewritten page.  These were a big deal if you were printing out things like college admission letters, or you had an English teacher that had a hair up their ass about dot-matrix printers and wanted you to hunt down a selectric and hammer out the damn thing the old fashioned way.  Daisy wheel printers were louder than fuck, and a low-end model typically cost more than your entire computer.

But not everyone had computers.  When I was in high school, I had this “word processor” which was a glorified typewriter, except it had a single line of an LCD display, and it used a thermal print head.  It took these cartridges of some kind of crap that it could transfer to a page with a set of heated pins.  If you have one of those label maker machines, it was a similar deal, but masquerading as a desktop machine.  I think you could only type in one line at a time, and then hit return and wait a minute for it to etch onto the paper.  This wasn’t the best machine for stream-of-consciousness writing, but it was way faster than hunt-pecking on the K-Mart manual typewriter I got at a garage sale as a kid, where you’d type any faster than three characters a minute and all of the little hammers would get wrapped around each other and jam.

I somehow lucked into finding this girl in my freshman year of college that thought I was some kind of writing genius, and got her to type my papers for a semester.  I guess that sounds sort of chauvinistic, but that’s an arrangement that I feel sorry the current generation won’t find themselves in.  The “can you help me type my W131 paper?” pickup line has gone the way of the dodo.

After I wasn’t able to fully seal that deal, I dated someone who bought one of those Brother word processors, which were a very brief halfway-house between a typewriter and a computer.  It was this huge microwave oven-sized thing that was a fusion of a printer, a tiny CRT monitor, a keyboard, and the Notepad.exe program in ROM.  You could type a few pages at a time and then save them to a floppy disk (which was totally incompatible with any other computer) and then when you got it all situated and edited, you pressed a key and it would spit out the creation on actual paper.  My roommate Kirk later had one of these beasts, and I think I remember Larry working off of one for a while.  Here is a nice video of one in action.

Now, computers are cheap as hell, something it seems that most people forget, and laser printers or nice inkjets are everywhere, and we don’t really think about stuff like this.  But I remember the smell of the fine paper dust inside of a monster line printer on campus, one of these washing machine sized beasts that would mass-print thousands of pages off of VAX computers, so long as one of us consultants hooked it up with the occasional corrugated cardboard box of 17″ wide tractor feed paper, that cream and light green-lined stuff.  Every now and again, some idiot would send an ASCII-art dragon to the printer, a giant picture rendered in letters that would print banner-style across three dozen pages of paper, over the course of an hour.  (Even better, when you’re sitting in a public lab and someone in a dorm sends through a picture of a Penthouse Pet done up ASCII-style.)  That was all infinitely better than when someone would accidentally dump a binary file to the DEC LG06 in the library, and it would spit out page after page of random junk until you could get an operator in the machine room to kill the queue.

My last hurrah with dot matrix was about five years ago, when I bought a Tandy 100 off of eBay.  The guy threw in a bunch of other random crap, including a Radio Shack printer from circa 1985, with some bizarro serial cable and no chance in hell of ever working with a machine produced this century.  It went straight to the dumpster, but I probably should have videotaped it going off of a four-story building, or getting it Office Space style with a baseball bat.

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