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 …
… 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.
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.
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.
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.