Input

When you work with the computer all day, the human-machine interface is of critical importance.  I spend all day typing, so the workstation should optimize my ability to work rather than getting in the way.  So it is well worth putting some attention into getting right.

Here is a photograph of the “input” portion of my work desk:

kb-overview

Main Keyboard

It’s mostly all black, so it is hard to see in the photograph I’m afraid.  And I do mean all black—the keys are solid black with no labels.  Visitors are surprised by that, and I point out, “neither does a piano.”  This is a Das Keyboard II, featuring Cherry MX mechanical switches.  It is a little different from the third iteration that was introduced in 2008, in that it does not have an internal USB hub, has a matte surface, and is a fully rectangular case, something that I make use of.

Using an unlabeled keyboard does indeed make one a better typist.  The first time I learned to type was on a mechanical typewriter that had belonged to my grandfather.  The buttons were small and round with nice gaps between them to catch your finger instead!  The keys needed to be depressed a long distance and with great force.

I wasn’t that great at touch-typing and had to look at the keyboard.  It was once I became a professional computer programmer (late ′80′s) that I decided to better learn to touch type without looking.  I used Typing Tutor software, and learned the normal letter area quite well.  Typing forum posts and other prose writing, I easily made 60wpm.  But, I never really learned to “touch type” the funny characters like {} and &.  They are rare in prose, but bread-and-butter for programming languages.

I’d always appreciated a good quality keyboard.  Typing confidently with speed means not having the keys slide from side to side, and having a better feel than a cheapo keyboard.  When PC computers started getting cheap (shoddy!) keyboards, I found the Keytronics KB-101Pro, which I wore the labels off and started to wear down the plastic on some of the keys to a noticeable extent.  Eventually common keyboards improved in quality and an inexpensive keyboard from a stock PC was not too bad, and an inexpensive after-market keyboard was only subtly inferior to a high-end one.

A high-quality keyboard that was unlabeled made sense.  The labels wear off anyway, and you are not supposed to look while you type.  I recall someone improving upon the normal “don’t look” instructions for learning how to type well by using a box that hid it from view.

After I got this one, I had to learn all those funny keys that were not covered under lessons.  If I hit the wrong button, I could not cheat by looking at the labels.  I really had to learn them.  For letters and most other keys, I didn’t notice the difference because I never needed to look anyway.

Today, the only keys I ever worry about are the three to the right of the F-keys.  They are so rarely used at all, and never for their original labeled purpose anyway.  (Now I use them for different varieties of screen capturing.)

Keyboard Extension

kb-closeup

In this close-up you can see that there is another row of keys above the normal top row on the keyboard, and these are white.  Actually, they are hand-written labels under a clear flat cap.  This is a 16-key X-Keys stick.

The idea is pretty simple:  16 buttons, and USB.  But the software it came with was utterly useless.  The MacroWorks software could only issue codes for keys that you could already type!  I guess that’s for sending whole words with a single button, but I was specifically wanting it for characters that were not already on the keyboard.  I tried to hack the saved file format, but the software didn’t like the codes anyway.  I tried to use the plain USB keyboard mode and program it with codes that are defined but not on my regular keyboard (there are actually a bunch more F-keys than 12, and a few non-US keys) and then use other software to map those to what I really wanted; but that didn’t work either (I don’t know if it was the XP operating system or more funny business with X-keys).

Almost ready to give up, they pointed me to the Developers Kit.  Using the DLL they provide, I obtain the keypress.  Then it is trivial to call the Windows API function SendInput with the Unicode character.  Their original MacroWorks software installed a bunch of device drivers for a fake keyboard and fake mouse.  I asked why they didn’t just use SendInput — Win95 compatibility or some other features?  They never answered, but the next version of MacroWorks did not install a bunch of drivers.

My motivation for getting a keyboard extension was writing a chapter of text full of things like “1.23×108 kg∙m∙s−2

Trackball

To the right of the keyboard is a Kensington trackball.  It nicely matches the black motif, but that’s simply the color they sell it in.  Years ago, I realized that reaching for the mouse was not at all ergonomic.  Having piles of stuff on the desk doesn’t help either!  So I tried trackballs.  Many are too poorly made and are useless.  I actually liked the Microsoft model, but eventually wore down the ridges on the scroll wheel and they stopped making it so I could not get another of the same.  Other “ergonomic” trackballs I’ve tried make the mistake of thinking that one size fits all.  When the placement is for hands three sizes too small, it becomes the exact opposite of ergonomic.

Kensington has made professional trackballs since before mice became mainstream.  And their classic model is hard to improve upon for the actual ball.  Some day I’ll make a mod to add mouse buttons on the left side of the keyboard.

Shuttle

To the left of the keyboard is another gizmo, a ShuttlePro2.  This was recommended for use with some software I was using to edit video.  Since it can be programmed to issue keypresses for the jog and shuttle actions, it can be made to work with other software that doesn’t specifically know about it too, if you watch out for where the cursor is or what control is activated.  It’s basically a must-have for video editing and quite helpful for audio too.  For other programs it’s a bunch of extra buttons too!

Wacom  Tablet (not pictured)

For photo editing, I use a 9×12 inch Wacom tablet.  I got it around the year 2000, so I’m worried that they will stop supporting it although it works fine and there is no real reason to get a newer one.  What the trackball can’t do well, a mouse isn’t very good either:  try writing your name in a painting program with a mouse.  The stylus is the tool to use.

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