Where’s My Flying Car Part I : KABOOM!

“Celebrating Gertsen, we clearly see three generations,
three classes acting in the Russian Revolution. First –
noblemen and landowners, Decembrists and Herzen.
Horribly distant from the people. But their work was not in wain.
Decembrists woke Herzen. Herzen began revolutionary agitation.”
V.I. Lenin

Computers have existed like for 200,000 years in Internet time, yet the innovation in computer technology seems to be a little slow. Brick and mortar slow. Let me present to you an approximate timeline:

In 1945 Dr. Vannevar Bush wrote an article As We May Think about a device called the Memex.

In 1960 Theodor Holm Nelson, inspired by Bush, coined the term “hypertext” and started on Project Xanadu, a vaporware Superinternet.

In 1968 Dr. Douglas Engelbart delivered the MOAD, demonstrating videoconferencing, email, hypertext, copy and paste, as well as some novel input devices including a mouse.

Bush, Nelson and Engelbart show a progression from a dream into reality. Bush was a pure dreamer – he never intended to actually try and build the Memex. Nelson at least tried to build Xanadu, although he failed miserably. He could not even get to the demo stage. Engelbart actually built enough stuff to make very impressive demos, although never to build actual successful products except the mouse. These guys suffered from the RAND Corporation syndrome–the common joke went that RAND stood for Reasearch And No Development.

The problem with these three was that they could not focus on individual problems. Luckily for us, next came Xerox PARC. Xerox corporation had money coming out of its wazoo, decided to invest in a world class R&D center. They used the same approach that Google is using today: spend the extra money on hiring the brightest technologists around and let them run free and wild.

Bush, Nelson and Engelbart were a lot like a character named Manilov in Gogol’s Dead Souls. Manilov was an owner of a large rundown estate. He spent his days dreaming about improving it. Wouldn’t it be nice to build a bridge over the river and on it build little merchant booths so that the peasants could buy stuff there. Of course, none of his projects ever went anywhere, and if they did, they were quickly abandoned.

PARC engineers were men of action. Each concentrated on a particular aspect, and they’ve built working models of many things that we enjoy today: personal computer with GUI interfaces, Ethernet, WYSIWYG text editor, laser printer, and even a computer animation system amongst other things. Sadly, Xerox was able to capitalize mostly on the laser printer, which actually probably paid for all of PARC’s expenses. PARC indirectly influenced Apple and Microsoft in the development of GUI OS. Also Charles Simonyi left PARC to develop Word and Excel for Microsoft, thus creating an enormous amount of wealth. Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs also left PARC, took Ethernet and turned it into 3COM. John Warnock and Charles Geschke left PARC, took PostScript and created a little company called Adobe Systems. Well, you get the picture.

To give you another analogy, the technological revolution of the 60s, 70s and 80s was like a hydrogen bomb. A hydrogen bomb is made of three bombs: a conventional explosive that ignites a fission explosive that in turn ignites a fusion explosion. Semiconductor industry created by William Shockley and the Traitorous Eight was the fuel, Bush and Company–the conventional explosion, PARC–fission, what came after–fusion. KABOOM!

I Like Small Keyboards and I Can Not Lie You Other Brothers Can’t Deny

The perfect keyboard. A geek’s holy grail. And I am not immune to the siren’s call of this insane quest.

If you think that there isn’t much innovation in the field of alphanumeric input devices, you are in for a surprise. If you don’t think so, then you’ll be less surprised.

There are four main schools of keyboarding thought:

1) Typewriter keyboards suck , if you are really hardcore, you should use chord keysets. A chord keyset is basically a keyboard that uses combinations of buttons (like chords on a piano) to encode letters and numbers. Since fingers don’t have to travel horizontally and vertically, tremendous typing speed can be achieved. Chorded keyset is somewhat similar, but not the same as a stenotype machine used by court stenographers. According to The Straight Dope stenotype training takes 2,700 class hours (some of the classes probably have to do with understanding law terminology and the like) and you have to type 225 words per minute at 95% – 98% accuracy to pass the state exam.

Douglas Engelbart had really high hopes for his version of the keyset. Much of his research as well as The Mother Of All Demos included a setup that had a keyboard, a mouse and one handed keyset.

A historic moment: Engelbart uses his chord keyset to delete the first Spam.

Closeup of a keyset, or Small Black Hit’em Bugger Teeth as it’s known in Pigin English

The problem with chorded keyboards is the super steep learning curve and what’s even worse, the skill of typing in chords seems to quickly deteriorate without practice.

2) Then there are those who think that the root of evil is the QUERTY layout. I am yet to see a person who regularly uses Dvorak keyboard, and the whole superiority of it seems to be just a myth.

3) In the olden times there was the horror of The Space Cadet Keyboard. There were a few other devices that LISP programming aliens seemed to use. Truly bizarre geekery.

4) On the other end of the spectrum of weird keyboards are ultra expensive contraptions. Even though outrageous prices are binding this group together, the usefulness, good looks and coolness factors are all over the board for these. You have to be one rich (or fiscally irresponsible) geek to afford them. There are keyboards that are split in two, like this Kinesis keyboard that mounts on armrests. has one and likes it.

Then there is a truly scary keyboard from the same maker that has bowl shaped indentations for keys:

This $350 keyboard has vertical set keys. I think I saw somebody’s review of it which stated that using it hurts. A lot. And I think I believe that person.

Fingerworks this $339 keyboard that has gesture recognition. Apparently uses one right now. The learning curve seems to a bit steep according to his post.

I think that all of these far out solutions are a bit too much. Split keyboards are kind of nice though. That Kinesis keyboard is 133T, but I did fine with Natural Keyboard Elite.

I also had Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro which was discontinued (I think) is just like Elite, but with a row of buttons on top. Out of those buttons the volume control was very useful. In fact, the perfect keyboard in my opinion should have a set of buttons for volume control. I might get a Griffen Powermate for that purpose though. But at $45 it’s pricey. But cool. The rest of the soft buttons were mostly useless.

I wish I could map a button to a key combination that switches between keyboard layouts (Cyrillic and English), but that wasn’t possible with out of the box functionality. Some of the soft buttons are outright dangerous, like the crappy “sleep” button. If pressed by accident it would plunge all of your unsaved data into the buggy realm of Windows power management, the cursed ACPI.

Before then I experimented with a “clicky” keyboard. I purchased an IBM model 42H1292 aka The One True Keyboard. These Irish built mastodons capable of various feats of endurance have special spring loaded keys instead of wussy rubber membrane ones. Manly. Very manly. A click of The One True Keyboard can be heard for miles in an empty cubicle farm. But also a pain in the ass. Turned out I don’t like the clicky sound, the keys were getting stuck sometimes (even though I bought an unused, keyboard gravy free one).

Right now I am thinking of switching to a mini keyboard, like the Happy Hacking Keyboard. Right now I am typing this on a mini keyboard that my friend Dan lent me. It’s called MiniTouch. I has those IBM style clicky keys and a layout that with a little remapping could really work for me. Does anybody know a good Windows keyboard rempapper? The layout feature that I use the most is a function key that turns arrow keys into page up/down/home/end. Oh, and one thing that I do with all keyboards is turn off (by ripping out) the caps lock key. That thing is pure evil.