More tales from the tip jar

People do occasionally put money in my blog’s tip jar. To encourage this behavior, I like to explain what I’m spending it on – always, so far, test equipment or hacking tools.

A few minutes ago I spent $16.50 of those donations on one of the special thin-walled 5.5mm nut drivers you need to loosen the recessed bolts on a Unicomp Model M keyboard.

We have have two of these in our house; they’re my wife’s and my regular desktop keyboards. (If you don’t understand why, read my Tactile Keyboard FAQ).

One of them, my wife’s, is somewhat flaky. When it works it works perfectly, but it drops its connection to her host USB hub quite frequently and has to be unplugged/replugged to reinitialize the device.

There are several possible causes of this; investigating any of them is going to require that I verify some facts about the keyboard hardware that I can really only check with the case removed.

In particular, it is rumored that some variants of the Unicomp are prone to cabling problems brought on by insufficient strain relief where the USB cable is attached to the motherboard.

I intend to check for this design flaw on both keyboards, add a report on its presence or absence to the Tactile Keyboard FAQ, and broadcast that over at Tactile Keyboards so it can become part of the troubleshooting lore generally available to people interested in these devices.

This is a representative example of what you enable when you donate to my tip jar. The more you give, the more I can spend on small public benefits like this without concern about my survival budget.

24 thoughts on “More tales from the tip jar

    • >Always good to see another Unicomp fan :)

      The woods are full of us. Check out Tactile Keyboards – mostly Unicomp diehards but with a healthy interest in other tactile designs past and present.

      >Did you ever get an opportunity to check out StumpWM?

      Not yet. i3 is satisfying me well enough that the StumpWM experiment has dropped low on my to-do list.

  1. How about an update on:

    Calling all hackerspaces
    Posted on 2012-01-15 by esr

    I presume that the $100 solution you referred to deep in the comments on that article was purchased with a supplement from the tip jar (I never noticed it before today!).

    I’d really like to know how you made out. And is Navisys (still) making the MX 1pps receiver? I cannot find it on their web-site.
    Less than nine-lives curious….and how many does Sugar have left?

    • >I presume that the $100 solution you referred to deep in the comments on that article was purchased with a supplement from the tip jar

      It was, but full installation is waiting on mounting an antenna mast.

      >And is Navisys (still) making the MX 1pps receiver? I cannot find it on their web-site.

      It is. Google for “Macx-1”. By coincidencem one of my GPSD devs just decided to step up and order 50 to resell.

  2. Always good to see another Unicomp fan :)

    Seconded. A lot of hackers around me seem perfectly content working all day on a rubber-dome keysponge. I’m glad to discover it’s not just me who sees something wrong with this.

  3. I’ve broken down the people who use ‘ZX81 keyboards’ into several categories. Those who:

    1. can’t touch type (a surprising number of professional programmers fall into this category; I’d have though touch-typing would be a pre-requisite for being a professional computer-user, let alone programmer)

    2. use mostly laptops w/o docking setups

    3. work in crowded ‘open-plan’ environments where the extra noise of a Unicomp is an impediment

    I fall into 2 and 3 … sadly my Unicomp languishes at home, while most of my work is done in pairs on Macs or on my personal Lenovo ThinkPad. I bought the latter on account of the matte screen (who wants a terminal that doubles as a mirror?) and excellent IBM-designed keyboard.

    I hear the new ThinkPads will all ‘feature’ chiclet keyboards though :( Perhaps it’s time to start looking for a different brand …

  4. In fact, I’m going to riff on this some more. Why are keyboards so bad, when good keyboards are so cheap?

    To quote Erik Naggum ( http://goo.gl/EwxMx ):

    “why are we even _thinking_ about home computer equipment when we wish to attract professional programmers?

    in _every_ field I know, the difference between the professional and the mass market is so large that Joe Blow wouldn’t believe the two could coexist … this is my _workbench_, dammit, it’s not a pretty box to impress people with graphics and sounds. when I work at this system up to 12 hours a day, I’m profoundly uninterested in what user interface a novice user would prefer.”

    Now I think Erik was talking about software there, not hardware. But the same thing applies to hardware. Some questions to ask about your system:

    – When was the last time you used Caps Lock? Then why is it in such a prominent place?
    – How accessible are the punctuation marks used by your favourite language?
    – Is your display a reflective glossy mirror in anything other than low light?
    – Is your display aspect ratio better suited to: A) working? B) watching movies?
    – Are your keys arranged ergonomically ( http://goo.gl/Z4xr4 )

    Continuing the rant … look at the keyboard in that last link. It’s got All The Features, but is criticised for being expensive. How expensive? $169 – $199.

    Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.???

    Taking a look on eBay I see:

    – a soldering station for $800
    – a wood chisel set for $1500
    – an alto recorder for $1800

    Why is it that most programmers continue to work on machines that, when compared to the above, occupy the ‘$5 plastic recorder from a supermarket’ bracket?

    I still remember when my personal machines started outperforming my work machines. I thought that was neat then, now, not so much.

    • >Why is it that most programmers continue to work on machines that, when compared to the above, occupy the ‘$5 plastic recorder from a supermarket’ bracket?

      Your timing is fortuitous. I was just about to blog a rant titled “Keyboards Are Not A Detail!”, on the same general theme, aiming at a similar tone of snarky pseudo-comic outrage.

  5. > snarky pseudo-comic outrage

    That’s worrying – that’s actually my normal tone of genuine outrage :)

    On a related note, I’m going to have to get myself to a store and try out the new Lenovo keyboards. Apparently they’ve switched to a chiclet style, but – they claim – it’s an improvement. See: http://blog.lenovo.com/products/why-you-should-give-in-to-the-new-thinkpad-keyboard

    If they turn out to be dire, I’m going to have to go looking for a new type of laptop to buy.

  6. @Duncan:
    >– Is your display aspect ratio better suited to: A) working? B) watching movies?

    Both. :P

    Even on widescreen displays I find myself needing more horizontal space more often than I find myself needing more vertical space.

  7. Caps Lock key – arrgh! Any keyboard I actually use (including my employers’ keyboards) is strangely missing the Caps Lock. Brutal removal by prying with a flat head screw driver is the most fulfilling, in my opinion. Like beer pong, try for your neighbor’s coffee cup.

  8. ESR

    In this comment of How do you bait a trap for the soul you mention finding various Schelling points in “war law”, also somewhere on this blog you once said something to the effect that libertarians allowed the left wing to formulate the foreign policy ideas in return for leaving the economics alone. Could you elaborate on these perhaps as part of your planned naval power projection post or in another one?

    — Foo Quuxman

  9. Caps Lock key – arrgh! Any keyboard I actually use (including my employers’ keyboards) is strangely missing the Caps Lock. Brutal removal by prying with a flat head screw driver is the most fulfilling, in my opinion. Like beer pong, try for your neighbor’s coffee cup.

    Why would you waste a perfectly good Ctrl key?

  10. There is a profound reason why my main machine is called “snapon”. I’d had a marketing guy rant at me about how a mechanic would spend money on the tools he’d use every day, that it was impossible to express how important good tools were… and I looked at the crappy box I was working with and realized I valued my time enough to spend a few days putting together the perfect box, and it was a “snapon” necessary level of investment.

    The result was a 64GB ram/multiple flash drive, water cooled, giant fanned, hexacore box with a 30 inch monitor, and of course a ubicomp keyboard. It is nearly dead silent for all that power. Draws 300 watts tho…

    It cost me a little under 3k and was worth every penny… until the day I needed an uberfast server far more than an uberfast desktop, so now that box replaces 5 others in the rack that failed, and I limp along on a laptop. I preserved the keyboard and monitor for my own use, tho, and am thankful for mosh, which makes working on it almost like being there. I think being separated from snapon is one thing that makes me work on bufferbloat so hard, because I’m separated by 80 miles from the best machine I’d ever built….

  11. The claim in the FAQ that “all clicky keyboards are tactile” is not quite correct. Once, while fixing up donated computers at a charity I worked for during high school, I encountered a keyboard which had no tactile feel whatsoever, but which had a speaker that emitted a Model M-esque click on every keypress. I was deeply appalled to discover its existence.

    • >I was deeply appalled to discover its existence.

      I am now going to be mildly casuistical and deny that this abomination actually qualifies as a clicky keyboard. Because it’s not the keywitches making the clicks. FAQ revised accordingly.

  12. This is what your average guy has in his garage for cutting lumber: http://amzn.to/13aJot7

    This is what my father left behind when he died 17 years ago: http://amzn.to/122OwcC

    Well, not that one. The one he left me he’d purchased over a decade prior at the least. He wasn’t a contractor, but at the time he had the money and he liked tools that worked well.

    Two weeks ago I pulled the saw out of storage, put a new blade on it and filled the oil reservoir and cut a couple planks up to make a planter box for my wife. She still hasn’t used it, but that’s pretty much the story of our marriage.

    I’m not a carpenter or contractor by any means, but the saw works and works well.

  13. The claim in the FAQ that “all clicky keyboards are tactile” is not quite correct. Once, while fixing up donated computers at a charity I worked for during high school, I encountered a keyboard which had no tactile feel whatsoever, but which had a speaker that emitted a Model M-esque click on every keypress. I was deeply appalled to discover its existence.

    While that keyboard is unquestionably malum in se, I’m more annoyed as a practical matter by the iDiots who keep their virtual keyboard clicks turned up to 11.

  14. > I encountered a keyboard which had no tactile feel whatsoever, but which had a speaker that
    > emitted a Model M-esque click on every keypress. I was deeply appalled to discover its
    > existence.

    It’s not just keyboards:

    http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-13746_7-20111031-48/bmw-m5-generates-fake-engine-noise-using-stereo

    “BMW’s Active Sound Design tech replicates engine noise inside the M5’s cabin using the car stereo’s speakers. What ever happened to just rolling down the windows?”

    This sort of thinking is a stain on our culture.

  15. Courtesy the benevolence of a Salesforce consultant who let me a have a drive of his new Lenovo, I’ve come to the conclusion that the new keyboard is at least as good to type on as the old. The layout is confusingly new, but change is what brains are for.

  16. >I was deeply appalled to discover its existence.

    I am now going to be mildly casuistical and deny that this abomination actually qualifies as a clicky keyboard. Because it’s not the keywitches making the clicks. FAQ revised accordingly.

    I feel compelled to ask: Is not the point of a clicky keyboard to provide audible feedback that the key switch has been actuated? And does not the speaker design qualify, even though the clicking has been decoupled from any tactile feedback? Or is clicking only properly regarded as an added bonus to tactile feedback?

    • >Or is clicking only properly regarded as an added bonus to tactile feedback?

      This, yeah. The tactile feedback is more important. The clown who simulated it with a speaker was mistaking accident for essence.

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