Sunday, March 31, 2024


 "Shift Happens" is a two-volume, 1200-page book about the keyboard. It's a tour de force of the history and significance of the keyboard over the past 150 years. The book is a work of art, with hundreds of beautiful pictures, drawings, old advertisements, font samples and illustrations in a high-quality print, presented in a sleeve with a third volume of background notes and commentary on the book itself.

There's an extensive history on the typewriter, with all the different early keyboard layouts; chapters on calculator and telephone keypads (and why they're different); on how (and why) the QWERTY layout was adapted to other languages. There's a whole chapter on the IBM model F and M (one of the best regarded keyboards of all time); and another on the Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum (one of the worst).

This is one of my favorite books of all time, and if they ever do a second print - a possibility, given how popular the first print was - I urge you to get a copy.

A HHKB keyboard and a book.

My Happy Hacking keyboard, and the second volume of Shift Happens, on the page discussing the Happy Hacking keyboard line.

But - keyboards? Why do I care? Why should you care?

Perhaps you don't care, and that's OK. We live in a world that's managed to make meditation into an equipment sport and a way to flaunt our taste or wealth. Caring about  keyboards, and spending sometimes quite serious money on them, seems like another self-indulgent hobby for the technology-obsessed.

But perhaps you should care. A keyboard is a device we interact with every day, like a monitor or a desk chair - or even like a mattress or pillow. It's a part of your working environment. How much your keyboard — or your chair — matters depends a lot on how much you use it.

If you're sitting on the subway tapping out a message on your phone then neither the seat, the overhead glare or the tiny non-tactile screen keyboard really matters at all. If you only occasionally work from home then your laptop and your kitchen chair is fine for a couple of hours at a time. A laptop is also fine for meetings or business trips.

But as you work for longer stretches, and do it more often, the ergonomics start to matter — for your chair and for your desk, for your monitor, and for your keyboard. When you're at your computer for 8-10 hours every day for years on end, your working environment is critical for your long-term well-being

And yet, we tend to forget our keyboards.

It's not unusual to see people insist on a Herman Miller office chair and a high-end color-balanced monitor, but still use a regular Apple or Dell keyboard that got thrown in for free when they bought their computer. Most people have probably never given their keyboard a second thought, and have no idea that their recurring back, shoulder or wrist problems could be due to the keyboard in front of them.

Mechanical keyboards are all the rage right now — that link goes to a pretty good explainer of the different keyboard types. They're "mechanical" in the sense that each key has its own mechanical switch built in. This tends to make them larger and more expensive (and sometimes more noisy) than a regular keyboard. But they allow for longer key travel; a softer touch; and better, more definitive feedback. Over time it makes for less finger strain and fewer typing errors.

But you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a decent keyboard. The one you got with the computer (even the cool-looking metal Apple one) or built in to your laptop really isn't very good; with really shallow key travel, unsteady keys and a hard, jarring bottom-out that hurts your fingertips.

You can go to a computer store and try a range of keyboards. Even fairly inexpensive ones in the 40-50$ range are probably already better than the one you have. There's no need to get some extreme gaming keyboard or anything.

My personal favourite is the Happy Hacking keyboards. At a research lab I worked at many years ago, they had a couple spare HHKB keyboards with Topre keyboard switches, and I got hooked. I soon bought one for home; it's now almost 15 years old, and still works as new. I still use it daily, now at work, while I got a new one for home (that's the one in the picture at the top). Yes, they're expensive, but they tend to last a long time.

If you are looking to get a new keyboard, a few tips:

  • You may not need the separate numeric pad on the far right of full-size keyboards. If you do a lot of numeric data entry it can be useful, but it takes up space and forces you to stretch to use the mouse. Even if you do find it useful, it may be better to instead get a separate USB numpad that you can put away when you're not using it. A "ten key-less" (TKL) keyboard is usually the better choice for most people.

    The Happy Hacking keyboard (and many other enthusiast ones) are even smaller, with even fewer keys (often called "60% keyboards"). They do that by moving more keys into key combinations. Some of them (Scroll Lock, Print Screen, Pause/Break) are rarely used, and even frequent ones, such as function keys, soon become second nature to press with a function key combination.

    I like these small keyboards and have no problems even playing control-heavy games. But it's very much a matter of taste, and you should maybe not make a 60% keyboard your first good keyboard.

  • Remember that you can always remap your keyboard. I'm in the weird situation where I'm used to Swedish keyboard layout, but I live in a country where getting a Swedish keyboard is difficult and expensive.

    So I've standardized on using Japanese keyboards, but remap the layout to Swedish, with a couple of tweaks. It works fine; my fingers know where the symbols are even if they don't match what it says on the keys.

  • Don't underestimate noise. Klicky keyboards can be very satisfying, but if you're working in an office with other people — or you like to work at night when family members are asleep — then you may be better off with low noise or silent keys. You can still get a clicky feel without the noise.

  • You probably don't need a wireless keyboard. It's most likely going to stay in the same spot on the same desk for months at a time. You may think it's useful for laptops, but you want to plug your laptop in to power anyhow, and as you're probably using USB-C for that these days, you can plug the keyboard into the same hub as the laptop.

    With that said, it can be useful in some circumstances. If you're using the same keyboard for 2-3 different machines, and they all have Bluetooth, then that is one possible solution to share the keyboard with them all.

  • Keyboards often have adjustable feet. In many cases you probably want to have the keyboard closer to flat rather than angled up. But it's again very much a matter of personal preference. Give yourself half a day to type in each position and find out which setting feels best over time.

If you are a heavy keyboard user, take a look at your current keyboard. How does it feel? How do you feel when using it? Are you getting strained and fatigued? Do your fingers and wrists kind of hurt after a couple of hours? A good keyboard will cost less than a night out on the town, and can have a much more positive effect on your life.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Web is broken

Happy New year! The Web is Dead!

No but really, have you noticed how the web kind of sucks nowadays? Search is broken, social media is people screaming at each other, the web is full of useless sites that all seem to copy each other, and it's full of intrusive, noisy, bad ads everywhere. I used to love the web. But it's really no fun any more. Cory Doctorow calls this process "enshittification", and he describes the whole thing much better than I can. Go read that, please.

At First

The pre-web internet content was all created by individuals, who skewed very male, very white and very nerdy (an old joke is that "On the Internet the men are men, the women are also men, and the 13-year olds are FBI agents"). "Content" was mailing list messages and Usenet forum posts.

The early web was primitive and bad, but still a major improvement. Regular people soon picked it up and the web filled up with information about, well, everything. If you wanted to know about an old TV-series or the history of a defunct camera company, somewhere somebody probably had a page about that. Perhaps it wasn't well-written, correct or well designed, but it was earnest - somebody's pet project or deep interest, put out there for you to find, often through the magic of Google search.

Companies and organizations soon joined the web, and by and large they've mostly enriched the web with more information and new services. News, travel bookings, shopping, online gaming, banking, even doing your taxes — this has been a good thing.

The Web was a new wave of communication. OK, that's a bit strained.

Things Change

But things changed. Google bought Doubleclick and transformed from a search company to the largest ad-tech company on earth. Search began to favour company web sites that ran advertising and made them money, over blogs and private sites that did not.

Large-scale social media took over. You no longer made a web page or wrote a blog; you posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Reddit. The social networks are as dependent on advertising revenue as Google, and so they push you toward staying on their sites, and toward posts that increase "engagement" — by making you upset and argumentative — so they can expose you to more ads and make them more money.

Social media users fishing for comments.


By now the net is a full-on garbage fire. It's the chaos of fifty clowns in a clown car, except the clowns all have fangs and rabies, and their fake flowers squirt burning napalm. Any real information is drowned out by millions of machine-generated fake SEO sites with badly copied content and dozens or hundreds of ads. Social media is full of right-wing bots screaming hate and bile into the void.

How the web feels today.

I did a small experiment
recently. I searched for a specific phrase that appears in an older blog post of mine. Google returned two pages worth of SEO garbage sites before my own blog post appeared somewhere on the third page. None of the garbage sites even had the phrase anywhere on their page.

Google is probably OK with this — they make money each time you visit any ad-laden site after all, and the more sites you have to visit the more money they make. But for the rest of us search is becoming unusably bad.


So who is to blame? The giant online companies that control the web come to mind - Google, Meta/Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, as well as regional companies such as Rakuten, Yahoo Japan and so on. They all make money from ads, and their incentives are all pointed towards more SEO garbage and less individual content. Towards removing competition and silencing anything and anybody that don't make them even more money. If that means inciting genocide or promoting racist garbage then that's just the externalized cost of doing business.

Regulators aren't blameless. They allowed these companies to take control over the web in the first place — to buy or kill smaller companies and create impenetrable moats against competition. Yes, the EU is moving in the right direction, but it is very little and very late.

To be clear, I don't believe there's much evil intent on the part of most companies. CEOs are not by and large twirling their moustaches while tying maidens to railway tracks. But their income depends on inciting anger and violence, promoting garbage, discourage civil discourse and suppressing any alternatives to the big tech behemots themselves. As Upton Sinclair put it, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

We also must blame ourselves. Me, I'm personally to blame. It's partially my fault. And probably yours too.

Over time we have stopped putting stuff online. We stopped making web pages and posting on forums and writing blogs in favour of Facebook, Twitter and other siloed social media. And now, as public social media is becoming increasingly shrill, competitive and nasty, we have started to withdraw from the public internet altogether.

We write less. We post less. And when we do, we increasingly do it in private spaces - in private chats on Whatsapp, Line, iMessage, Slack or Discord. When only you and your friends can see your conversations you won't get harassed by fake followers, far-right bots or some reply-guy high on painkillers and resentment towards your race, gender, political stance or opinion on superhero movies.

But when only you and your friends can see what you write, nobody else can. When you share your neat trick for getting lint out of the washing machine, or a surprising fact about the db V65 diesel locomotive, or explain a new paper your research group published, or that you've discovered that the Kalevala mythos is really cool, or that you have trouble doing a consistent cross-stitch, then nobody else will learn from it and nobody else will give you feedback. Like with open source software, sharing information makes everybody just a little richer. And when we don't share, we all get just a little poorer.

Moving Forward

Over the past ten years my regular blogging has gradually dropped, and a year ago I gave up. It felt pointless to keep writing here, shouting into an uncaring void with only spam comments to keep me company.

I also started using Mastodon. It is, for once, a social media network that doesn't promote "engagement" — that is, make people upset for money. It is a slower experience but, also, I think, a much healthier one. I feel comfortable there in a way I haven't been elsewhere. There certainly are assholes there as anywhere, but it is much easier to avoid them; nobody is pushing posts on to you that you don't want to see. It's easy to block people and filter out subjects.


Looking forward towards the future. Or something like that.

And it is there that I realized that the death of the common web is not inevitable. It was our collective choice to give in to the big tech companies that is killing the web. And it's ultimately our choice to start ignoring those companies that can revive it.

I thought I was writing into the void, but everything I've written is read by quite a few people. I got inspired to search a bit, and found many other blogs and web pages that refer to some old post of mine (especially posts about old cameras). I just never heard about it. I should have realized that's a thing — I read and use other peoples' blog posts in the exact same way.

So what am I arguing for? Not a revolution — nobody can touch the big corporations running the web. Instead, perhaps, an escape. We can't do anything about the dissolution of the web at large; but hiding in private chats is not our only way out either.

What we can do is simple: Start writing stuff again. And recording stuff. And filming stuff. And put it out in public ­- not on the corporate social media, but in your own blog, in your own web page, on Mastodon, on Peertube and wherever; put it where anybody can find it and react to it and link to it. Anil Dash has a great piece in Rolling Stone about this.

And link to other people's stuff. Tell your readers, listeners or viewers where you got your ideas. Where they can go for more information. Where they could get inspired. Could be individuals, could be companies' sites. Yes, it could still be on Youtube or other corporate social media — not everybody is on board with this and it's still really valuable.

Me, I'm going to start writing here again.  How, exactly, I don't yet know. I will probably take some pointers from the idea of a digital garden and start treating this space as more of an ongoing notebook, not a set of essays. That's how this blog began almost 20 years ago after all, and I think it's time I returned to that.