What keyboards taught me about people

I made this…

I’m going to tell you what has happened to me and my relationship with computer keyboards, and how this has taught me a little something about pretty much everyone I meet.

Last summer, this is what I knew about keyboards:

  • They’re what you use to input data to your computer
  • They have about 100 keys, laid out in some semi-random arrangement
  • There are different arrangements, QWERTY, AZERTY and a few others
  • Laptop keyboards are smaller, and they have that annoying “fn” key as a sort of crutch

I’m a programmer. I’m a traveller. Crucially, I’m on the lookout for ways to be better at both. It was in this mindset that I stumbled on Devine’s post about their keyboard: http://wiki.xxiivv.com/keyboard. Devine is also a programmer and a traveller. Devine literally lives on a boat, which is cooler than me figuratively living on a train. They use a tiny keyboard. I asked them about it, and I’m told that with “layers” it can be more useful than a full-sized keyboard, and that this is a lightweight and portable “mechanical” keyboard.
Looking into it I learn that mechanical keyboards are much more comfortable to use. There are different kinds of switches that have different properties. The most well-known switches are built by Cherry in Germany, and they put into place the de-facto colour-coded system.
Classic “blues” have a satisfying *click*
“Browns” have a tactile *bump* which can feel similar to “blues”, but without the noise
“Reds” are smooth all the way down, proponents of this style call it “cloud of boobs”

Mechanical switches have another major advantage: Their actuation point is fairly high on their downward travel.( The tactile feedback, click or bump, happens at this point). And then they keep going, until you “bottom out”. If you learn not to bottom out, you can type more fluidly and not get an annoying back-pressure against your fingers as you crush them brutally into an immovable object on every keystroke.


Well…

I’m hooked now, I have to learn more. Which keyboard should I get?
It needs to be a 60% (the small ones, which have roughly 60% as many keys as a full-size).
Also it needs to be AZERTY because I’m French and I like this layout. It has fun characters like “é” and “ù” and even “ç”.

Next lesson, layouts are complicated. It’s not just QWERTY vs AZERTY. Those aren’t actually layouts, they’re mappings. If I buy an AZERTY keyboard, it’s actually just a QWERTY but with different labels on the keys. The OS does the conversion.
Cool, so I can get *any* keyboard, right? Nope. Like anything that is going to become an obsession, even the seemingly simple bits are complicated.
There are different layouts. This means that from one layout to another, they have different keys. Not just labels, they literally have more buttons in some places, less in others, and some buttons have different shapes and sizes.
To put it simply, there’s ISO (the international standard that everyone uses), there’s JIS (because Japan is special and likes to do their own thing), and there’s ANSI (because America is also special and likes to do their own thing, except America is super big and powerful and so they pretty much dominate every market so actually ISO isn’t what everyone uses, ANSI is).

Great, AZERTY is an ISO layout (because Europe), and most available mechanical keyboards are ANSI. There are two QWERTY layouts, UK-ISO and US-ANSI. There is no ANSI version of AZERTY though…

Bummer…

Then I discover another option. It’s insane, it’s stupid, it’s going to be super fucking hard, but it’s SO going to be worth it.
You can build your own keyboard.
I can build a hybrid ANSI/ISO keyboard that is both compatible with keysets from treacherous America and layouts from beautiful, wholesome Europe.

After all, what is a keyboard?
It’s a bunch of switches wired to a micro-controller. Really, on the face of it, it’s that simple.
Turns out, there’s a whole community of people who build their own keyboards.


In for a penny, in for a pound.

I designed a layout. I call it “ANSISO”.
I converted that to a cutting pattern and sent it to a metal-cutting company.
I ordered a bunch of Cherry MX Clear switches (silent bump, fairly heavy springs).
I got a soldering station, diodes and a Teensy micro-controller.
I bought way too many key caps (the plastic bit your fingers touch).
I just received a wooden case (the bit that goes under the keyboard).

I’m almost done. In a few weeks, when I sort out some wiring, programming and mounting issues. I will type on my own, unique, 60%-sized, mechanical keyboard.


On the way though, I learnt something. Something bigger than the intricacies of keyboard design. I learnt about the depth and breadth of human knowledge and interest. It’s almost fractal-like. As you look closer and closer at any given subject, you just see more and more. You can keep zooming in on any detail, and you’ll only uncover more.

I’ve been a nerd for years.
I’ve been a programmer for years.
I’ve used keyboards for years.
Yet my knowledge of this field was so small, that I couldn’t even begin to fathom how little I knew about it.

I’m looking at my desk now, wondering what other rabbit holes there are to find.
Is there a community out there obsessing over the relative advantages of various coffee mug designs? What about notebook nerds? Desk design itself?
I know people paint mugs.
I know that there are different notebook designs (I use a dot-patterened Leuchtturm1917).
I know people use standing desks.
But how deep do those go?

I’m willing to bet that should I peek, they’ll go so far down, that I could spend months, learning about materials, weights, sizes, the history and breakthroughs, filling my mind with arcane knowledge.


Now when I meet someone who is utterly smitten with something I just don’t understand, I at least know why…

They’re travelling down a twisting, branching path, through a beautiful landscape that a select few have chosen to explore. The people who live there are excited to show them how to get to the next stunning site. And every step of the way, they are learning something new and fascinating about a world that, from the outside, can seem so dull.

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