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My new computer keyboard

The world’s creative activities can be placed along a line. At the good end of this line are the activities that politicians don’t care about, or even better, don’t even know about. The most important quality possessed by such activities is that politicians – by extension, most people – don’t consider them to be important, necessary, vital for the future of our children, etc., so they leave them alone. These things tend to be done well. And at the opposite end of the line, there are the things that politicians and most people do care about, like schools, hospitals, transport, banking, power supplies, broadcasting, and so forth. These things are done anywhere between rather and extremely badly. It is not that they are not now done at all by businessmen. But this is not enough to ensure excellence of output. If the politicians stand ready to be the buyers or lenders of last resort, to “ensure” that this or that is “always” done properly, that it (some scandal or catastrophe that would destroy a proper business) will “never happen again”, then relentless disappointment will ensue. Bad enterprises, instead of just being left to die, are endlessly and expensively fretted over, or worse, coerced into mad purposes that only politicians could dream of caring about, like trying to change (in politics speak: “fight”) the climate. Bad schools or hospitals or banks or power stations or TV channels, rather than just being closed or cannibalised by better ones, are inspected, given new targets and new public purposes, subjected to ever more regulations, asked about repeatedly in places like the House of Commons, and above all, of course, given more and more, and more, money.

It would be tempting for a visitor from the planet Zog to suppose, then, that only trivialities will be done well by twenty first century humans. Luckily, however, both people and politicians have bad taste, and bad predictive powers. As a result, many things are considered to be trivial which are actually not, and they get done and done well. Also, things which are thought to be trivial but which later turn out to be hugely important, but because the politicians and most people at first reckoned them trivial, also get done well, or get done well until such time as the politicians start taking an interest. Alas, things at first considered trivial but later deemed important tend from then on to get done badly, but at least they got done in the first place.

A good example of something which, as of now, is still considered so insignificant as to be beneath the attention of politicians is the computer keyboard.

Computer keyboards have got steadily better and better throughout the last three decades, yet at no point in the story did politicians do any “ensuring” or “supporting” of computer keyboards or of the enterprises that designed and built and sold them, even as more and more politicians became familiar with using such things. No “framework” more complicated than criminal and patent law was imposed upon the enterprise of making computer keyboards. No government minister has particular responsibility for computer keyboards. Computer keyboards thus continue to be made very well, and better with each passing year.

Yet who would now dare to say that computer keyboards are not important? Everyone who ever has anything to do with Samizdata has at least this in common, that they use a keyboard at least some of the time, and in lots of cases, surely for something like half of life when awake. For many a modern working citizen in the year 2012, the big difference – well, a (can you register the italicising of that one letter? – you can now) big difference – between misery and happiness, to update Dickens – the difference between repetitive stress syndrome and constant cursing on the one hand, and daily digital (in the literal bodily sense) bliss on the other hand (talk of metaphorical hands is all wrong in this connection but you surely get my point) – is a nice computer keyboard. Perhaps the greatest idea embodied in the computer keyboard is the very idea that computer keyboards should be separate things, plug-ins rather than built-in to the Big Thing itself. Separate keyboards were a big step forward for the home computer, if only because that way spilt food or drink only ruined the keyboard, as opposed to the entire computer. But just as importantly, a separate keyboard can be put just where you want it, without you having the shift the entire computerg.

Until about three weeks ago, I possessed, to my certain knowledge, only eight computer keyboards, although there are surely several more lurking in various parts of my home. Definitely more, if you count the keyboards of a couple of antique proto-laptop computers with built-in keyboards that I still keep high up on top of a bookshelf, in the hope that they will become antiques somewhat sooner than me.

These seven keyboards, which I gathered together for this photo …

Keyboards7s.jpg

… were all unsatisfactory in various ways. They all worked. But, as time passed, I kept finding that that I didn’t like them. The big keyboards, with there separate numerical keyboards built-in and added-on to the right, are too big to fit easily into my very cramped desk space, and their letters are too big and fat and clunky. The letters on the small keyboards are too fiddly, and are liable to come off. On one of the small keyboards, the most used letters began to fade, and needed clarifying with stick-on letters. All these keyboards felt too “plastic”, as in: not quite heavy enough to stay put, like an intensely driven racing car that won’t stay quite on line.

Time was when the very idea of a computer keyboard, as opposed to a mere typewriter, was a miracle. That I could actually possess such a miracle was truly miraculous, when it finally happened in the mid-eighties. Perhaps that is why I have found it so hard to chuck keyboards away. But whereas once upon a time, the mere fact of a keyboard was astonishing, I now want a really good one. If anyone in London would like any of the above clunkers, get in touch, soon.

Things started to look up when, about three years ago, I chanced upon a small Apple Mac keyboard, in a big department store. Would that work with a PC, I asked? Oh yes, they said, that should work.

“Should” is the IT word I most fear. Show me, I said. If you can make this keyboard work with a PC in minutes rather than hours, I’ll buy it. If you can’t, I won’t. Oh, I’m afraid I can’t do that, said the “assistant”. Please buy it anyway, said his eyes. No, said my mouth. Make it work with a PC, or no sale. It turned out the either the assistant or one of the assistant’s superiors, I forget which now, could do exactly that, and guess what, it worked, right there in the shop. Sale.

MacKeyboardS.jpg

This Mac keyboard has served me well for the last few years, as I have already written here. The thing as a whole has a solid feel to it, as do all the letters, which are flat rather than sticking up and curvy. It does not feel plastic. It stays put when used, however vigorously.

Some of the – originally bright white – letters became grubby, but I could live with that.

It cannot delete letters from the left, the way a PC keyboard can with a “delete” key, because there is no such key. In order to delete letters, I have to move the cursor to the right, and then go backwards with an arrow button which turns out actually to be a delete button. Rather odd, but again, not a deal breaker. I got used to that.

So, it wasn’t perfect, but I finally had a keyboard that was a pleasure to use rather than a chore.

The one truly annoying thing about my Apple Mac keyboard was that it was incapable of doing a screen capture. Let me rephrase that: I couldn’t make it do a screen capture, on account of it not possessing, or not appearing to possess, a key that did screen capturing, marked something like: “prt sc”. Simply for that one thing, I also kept the least bad of the seven bad keyboards permanently attached to my computer, and when that proved inconvenient I added yet another to achieve the same outcome. But the thing about screen capturing is that it often needs to be fast, the clue being in that word, “capture”. Sometimes you want to capture something before, one second later, it updates itself out of existence. Grabbing a different keyboard from its inconvenient and out-of-the-way nook, and searching out the print screen capture button, now under a layer of dust, is not what you want if you are in a hurry.

So, when I encountered another keyboard in whatever Dixon’s is called these days, which was similarly small, unclunky, solid, yet designed to be used with a PC rather than a Mac, I decided to give that a go too.

AdventKeyboardS.jpg

This keyboard is pretty much a straight copy, physical design-wise, of that earlier Mac keyboard. It looks like the boss of Advent, the makers of this keyboard, got hold of a Mac keyboard, waved it at his geeks, and said: make me one of these.

It works. As in: I plugged it in and it worked. An important feature in a computer add-on, I feel. Geeks know how to make things work when they don’t straight away. I do not.

Because of the smaller “return” key, I often try to end a paragraph but instead add on two of these.##Again odd, but again I’ll get used to this.

The screen capture thing works. So I can now dispense with a back-up keyboard, which reduces desk clutter wonderfully.

Plus, bonus: look in the photo above at the wire that connects the keyboard to the computer. That’s right, there isn’t one! The new keyboard is “wireless”, but, despite this, it works.

I have had bad experiences with “wireless” gadgetry in the past. It’s a good idea, as is anything which reduces desk clutter. But it took me a bit of getting used to, in the sense that you have to keep track of two Things which, by the nature of them are not attached to one another, which means that I find that wirelessness only really works with kit that I use all the time. Above all, it has to work, and in the past, such devices have tended not to. But, so much did the idea of wirelessness appeal that I bought a wireless mouse a year or two back, which worked first time and is still working, so clearly wirelessness is now up and running.

Computer innovations have a load-fire-take-aim approach built into them, I find. A new Thing is introduced, and if people buy it, that tells The Computer Industry that people would like this new Thing, and would like it even better if it worked, which at first it doesn’t, partly because it just doesn’t, being too clunky and far too slow or whatever, and partly because people don’t know exactly how to use it and the makers don’t know exactly how to make it. All that the Thing achieves at first is to say that it does whatever it is, on the outside of a cardboard box which shop “assistants” are forbidden to violate before purchase. At first, the price of this new Thing is so high that only the very rich or the very geeky buy it. What if it doesn’t work? If you are rich, that doesn’t matter. If you are a geek, you have fun making it work. Eventually, it sinks to a price at which regular people say: hey, I’ll give it a try. They try it, and it still doesn’t work, but those early mass purchases of useless junk encased in enticing pictures and over-ambitious promises tell the Computer Industry that working on the Thing to the point where it really does work well would be very good business, so they do this. Hence my wireless mouse which works, and now my wireless keyboard which also works.

When you’ve had a seemingly successful Thing for only a few weeks, you can’t be sure of longer term success, but this Thing is, as of now, looking and feeling very good.

Advent2s.jpg

Capitalists often takes their time and quite a bit of your money to do the things you really want, at first at all, and then really nicely. But they get there.

Provided the politicians don’t join in. Usually, in my ain’t-capitalism-great? postings here, I include a bit at the end about the contrast between what happens when politicians do or contrariwise do not interfere, almost as an afterthought. This time, I thought I’d put all that at the top, and make my computer keyboard the optional add-on part of the story. In real life, of course, there is nothing optional about a computer keyboard. You really do want a nice one if your computing life is to work well. And now, I have one.

I recently encountered another keyboard which is very like mine, but which costs five quid less than I paid, and has keys that stand out more clearly from the non-black background. I’m almost tempted to try that one as well, dammit. That’s also capitalism for you.

19 comments to My new computer keyboard

  • roystgnr

    My favorite analogy is between health care and flatscreen TVs: if $50,000 plasma TVs had sparked fury about inequality the way $50,000 medical bills do, then today we’d all be using CRTs or we’d be $50K per-capita further in government debt, depending on whether HD had been declared a “luxury” or a “human right”. Either way incentives for price reduction would never have come into play.

  • David Gillies

    Mac keyboards don’t have a Print Screen button because they don’t need one. ⌘ + ⇧ + 3 takes a snapshot of the screen (or screens in a multi-monitor setup). With a 4 it pops up a selection tool to choose an area; with a 4 + space it allows you to choose a window. I understand this doesn’t help if it’s attached to a PC, but there is a reason Apple decided not to clutter things up. Similarly, forward delete (⌦) on a mini- or laptop keyboard is fn + ⌫.

  • Yes. Mac keyboards are designed for Macs. PC keyboards are designed for PCs. One will work with the other, but there are one or two issues because the layout is not quite the same. (I am actually using a PC keyboard on a Mac at home – I find it is okay).

    Advent is actually the house brand of PC World / Currys / Dixons. This is a generic product, rather than anything branded. I am impressed if it is still high quality.

  • Regional

    Most days my keyboard is prone to grammatical and spelling mistakes.

  • Julie near Chicago

    MacBook Pro here…huzzahs & thanks to David Gillies. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get screenshots on my Macs for years.

    One little correction–it should be, ⌘ + ⇧ + F3 (not just plain numeral ’3′).

    Muchas gracias, David!

  • chuck

    There is no left Alt key and the backslash/vertical key is in an odd spot. That might take some getting used to. ISTR that there is a key combination on the Mac keyboard that gives you delete, but I could be wrong about that. I agree that the Mac keyboard is one of the better ones, but I haven’t found the perfect one yet. And once or twice a year I get frustrated enough to go out and buy another one, so I’ll be looking at these. Thanks.

  • chuck

    Whoa, here’s another one from logitech. Just out a month or so.

  • Richard Thomas

    I’m a big fan of the MS Natural keyboard. So much so that I have a spare for when my current on inevitably bites the dust.

    I don’t know if you can say they’ve advanced though. It seems like in some aspects they’ve got worse (non-mechanical keys, sacrificing real estate for Windows keys, missing insert buttons, stupid power button placement and there’s a whole subculture dedicated to hate of the placement and, for some, even the presence of the caps-lock key). It seems like by and large, inheriting from typewriters came pretty close first try.

    At least it is not a ZX81 keyboard I guess.

  • wct

    And here I am, using an IBM Model M keyboard made in 1992… and still loving it.

  • bloke in spain

    The only keyboard I want is a http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/22/KB_US-International.svg/420px-KB_US-International.svg.png but so far, Father Xmas refuses to come up with the goods.
    Any Londoners know where I can get one, next time I’m over? Cheap would be good because I really need about 3.

  • One interesting point about the keyboard we have is that it was purposely designed to slow down typing.

    Wikipedia says it wasn’t, but in effect it was, since it deliberately separated common key combinations to avoid the typebars jamming together, as they did with a mechanical typewriter if you typed too fast. I can remember this happening with my Dad’s mechanical typewriter that I used as a child, and I was by no means a fast typist.

    This has annoyed me for years when I happen to think about it. It’s worse than English spelling, the occasional weirdness of which has annoyed reformers for centuries. At least English spelling is just semi-randomly odd for historical reasons, but the keyboard, the thing many of us spend half our lives using as you point out, Brian, is actively designed to work badly. (Not that I blame the original designer, who ingeniously solved a problem with the technology available to him.)

    20-plus years ago I bought, and still do have somewhere, a gadget called a Microwriter, which had a one-handed keyboard. I remember the typing system, in which you pressed chords or combinations of keys that vaguely related to the end-points of the ends of the letters, as being easy to learn and pleasant to use. There was even a left handed version.

    Unfortunately, neither it nor its successor the AgendA passed the tipping point.

  • BigFatFlyingBloke

    Isn’t the Dvorak layout intended to speed up typing in comparison the Qwerty layout?

    As I spend a good amount of every day in front of a computer I invested in a mechanical Das Keyboard. I find that the very light tactile action makes typing a pleasure.

  • Alisa

    Natalie, as BFFB alludes, you may want to try Dvorak. I have been using it for several years now – although I may not be a good example, because when I decided to finally teach myself English touch typing, I went straight for Dvorak.

    Regional: mine is becoming increasingly senile.

    Brian: I, Pencil.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Try an IBM Model M ‘Compact’ keyboard. Heavy, standard IBM layout, excellent tactile feedback, but no numeric key pad; only about 16″ wide.

    http://vintagecomputerbits.com/catalog/images/products/vintage-keyboards/ibm-keyboards/IBM%20Compact%20Keyboard%20Top.JPG

  • David Gillies

    Julie: nope, it’s the numeral key, not the function key. By default, the screenshot is saved to the desktop. The control key saves to the clipboard (i.e. ⌘ + ⇧ + ⌃ + 3|4|4 + ␣) which you can then access via Preview using the New from Clipboard ⌘N command, or paste into Photoshop etc.. Under Leopard or later, additional modifiers can be used to change the behaviour of the selection rectangle.

    You can also use the Grab utility, or use screencapture(1) from the command line: screencapture [-SWCTMPcimswxto] file. See man 1 screencapture for details.

    I have a bunch of old Hewlett Packard and Dell PC102 keyboards lying around. They are robust and have good positive tactile feedback. They last practically for ever. But the best keyboard ever, ever, ever was the Apple Extended Keyboard II. To clean it you held it under a tap and scrubbed it. Completely environmentally sealed. Cost a stupid amount of money, but well worth it.

  • Alisa, although it seems likely that the Dvorak layout is intrinsically better I fear that I am now too set in my ways to change. The Microwriter chord system was sufficiently different from QWERTY that learning it took place in a whole different bit of brain (spot my level of neurological knowledge here) and didn’t conflict with my ability to type on the standard keyboard. I think Dvorak would. When I have needed to type on a French keyboard, differing only in one or two letter positions from the one I’m used to, I found it very difficult.

    Getting back to Brian’s original point, it is uncomfortable to reflect that one of the most commonplace examples of a standard adopted worldwide voluntarily, rather than imposed by governments, is actually, for reasons of path-dependency, a worse standard than what we’d have if a reasonably competent committee of bureaucrats were designing it now.

    However I don’t suppose for a moment that if we HAD had bureaucrats laying down the standard we would be better off. They’d have probably banned further development of non-mechanical typewriters in 1980 on health and safety grounds because they allowed people to type at unnatural speed!

  • Alisa

    Natalie:

    differing only in one or two letter positions from the one I’m used to

    That might have been a bug, not a feature – IOW, you may find it easier to switch from one layout to another if they are completely different. But then maybe not – I have not tried, so I wouldn’t know.

    it is uncomfortable to reflect that one of the most commonplace examples of a standard adopted worldwide voluntarily, rather than imposed by governments,

    Are you sure that has been the case? Don’t most people learn touch typing in school? I could be wrong, of course.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Transport and power supply are done badly?

    Hundreds of millions of people get on airplanes and fly to distant places every year. Accidents and delays are so unusual that they are major news stories.

    Billions of tonnes of goods are delivered around the world. It is now utterly normal for raw materials and finished goods to move between continents with scarcely a hiccup.

    In the First World, and much of the Second World, reliable electricity supply is as common as air. It is interrupted by only by disasters.

    I can’t see how these results are “rather to extremely badly”.

    I’ll agree that political meddling has imposed unnecessary costs on these activities. But quality hasn’t suffered especially.

    (That may change in the next few years for electricity as the Global Warmists get their way.)

  • Saxon

    Very interesting article, and fine comments as well!

    BTW, you have convinced me of the importance of the keyboard and the commenters have indicated the QWERTY is not fast, so I shall write my politician to pass a law to improve this ;-)