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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Keyboard Wars!

Keyboard wars!  Yes, I know this has nothing to do with pipes, but one of the reasons I haven't been updating the pipe blog as much in recent times is because I've written just about everything I can think of to write.  I try to avoid rambling on about the same things over and over again so as a result, the blog has gotten quieter.  However, this may not last, as I'm contemplating opening the theme a bit (or more than a bit) to include, well… Whatever I feel like writing about at the time, be it current events, politics, computers, gadgets, or more.  

My love affair with the mechanical keyboard is a topic near and dear to my heart.  You have to be of a certain age to remember mechanical keyboards, and the fact that I'm compelled to explain them is indicative of how much they've fallen off the map in recent years in favor of the quiet, membrane-style keyboards that ship with modern computers.  These membrane keyboards work on rubber domes - Essentially, the key press squishes a quiet little rubber switch that's responsible for registering a key press.  Benefits of this are mainly confined to noise - Rubber membrane keyboards are nearly silent.  The downsides are several - The rubber domes wear, they don't have a distinct positive "click" for each press, they get squishy, and the typing output produced is less distinct and accurate.  *Sometimes* you get your letter, sometimes you don't. By contrast, old-style mechanical keyboards have an actual hardware switch under each key that clicks when pressed, providing an immediate clarification that you've typed what you wanted to.  

Now, I do a LOT of writing.  I write descriptive copy for my own website, I reply to business emails, I write two blogs, and I write a web comic… On top of maintaining and making interesting our business Facebook page, G+ page, and keeping active in the several online forums I frequent.  I've worn out keyboards by deforming popular keys through constant use - My old Enter key looked like a sway-backed horse in the middle where the plastic had warped.  It's in service to this writing passion, and heavy writing demand, that I started looking for a better keyboard option.

I missed REAL KEYS.  Large, heavy, blocky keys instead of the flat key styles popular with Apple these days, which I find terribly frustrating to use due to the number of key presses I miss with them.  This led me to investigate the mechanical keyboards available today, and for the Mac there are only two real options, the Matias keyboard and the Das Keyboard.  Both use mechanical switches, both are clacky and loud, both are heavy duty, and I decided it was well past time to upgrade to one of these things.  But which to choose?  I couldn't decide, and as this would be a very longterm business partner for me, I chose to order one of each and compare them directly, and return the loser.  

Here they are, freshly arrived.  Sexy, sexy keyboards:

The packaging is remarkably similar on each, and I'll not go into it here as I'm not a packaging fetishist - I'm interested in the meat, not the wrapping.  My first impressions were as follows:

The Matias Quiet Pro is just that, quiet.  The key feel is good, the keys are clearly labeled, it runs off a single USB plug yet offers extra USB ports for three more devices, and the keys are each labeled not just with their letter, but also with the special characters they can create - An extra handy wonder to me, as Mac shortcuts often leave me baffled when I see them in print (Seriously, who would ever immediately recognize something like ˆ¶–√ ?)  I'd have liked to have gotten the Matias Pro but it has white keys, and that doesn't work for people who spend most of their day in a dirty woodworking shop.  The Quiet Pro is still louder than my stock Apple keyboard but much quieter to type on than other mechanical keyboards.    

So… Black keys, great labeling, extra function keys, USB overload… What's not to like?  Well, the downsides for me are two - That selfsame keyboard labeling that puts all the extra symbols on the keys makes reading them at a glance to be a challenge.  I'm not a touch typist and I often need to glance down as I'm clicking away, and what I see when I do is a dizzying spread of tiny little white marks.  The other demerit, and it's a bigger one, is in "look and feel" - For a $160 keyboard, the Matias feels very $45 aftermarket Staples house brand.  The frame is a creaky, twisty piece of silver budget plastic and the whole thing looks a bit low rent… Not what you want after spending this much cash on something as esoteric as a keyboard.

The Das Kayboard, by contrast, is the black Mercedes of the pair - It looks every inch its $130 price tag.  The opaque black housing vanishes seamlessly into my black desktop and it's a glossy surface with some nice heft to it.  Despite the nicer appearance, I was biased against the Das initially due to several annoying factors.  The makers have elected, for inexplicable reasons, to make the key lettering lower case, so where the Matias presents one with a chaos of markings, the Das gives you a squinty, stylized lettering display that takes some getting used to.  Also, it demands two USB connections, one for itself and one for its two powered USB ports.  It's nice that the Das can actually charge USB devices that need powered connections, but who really charges their iPod from their keyboard?  Finally, and most annoying of all, the Das swaps the function of the media control keys such that one has to press FN to make them work.  This is small and yet insanely annoying for someone like myself who uses Apple's media shortcut keys a great deal, always pausing music or adjusting volume.  The Apple layout wasn't broken, and didn't need fixing.

So, with all those negatives, why do I find myself merely liking the Matias and actively lusting over the Das?  It's all in the feel - The Das's key switches click like precision instruments and every key touch is a joy.  It feels, in short, like a real typing machine; something I haven't had in at least 15+ years.  Sitting at the Das and listening to the singing clickety-clack of the keys is pure bliss.  One feels like a journalist, a real reporter, a writer… Like one should be cranking out blistering exposes of corruption in high places, or serious novels to tear at the heart.  It's romantic, pure and simple, and the Das has it in spades over the Matias.  The muted keys of the Quiet Pro just aren’t quite as exact in feel as those of the Das - There’s more wander to each touch and I have to make a point to type harder to be sure that I’m not skipping letters with soft taps.  It does beat the Das in one respect, however - Key squeak.  I’ve found that continuous typing on the Das tends to produce some aggravating key squeaking that resonates on a fingernail-vibrating level.  The Das Keyboard website includes a help video describing how to grease squeaky keys, but this did little for me - A day later and they were back to the same chirpy cries.

Is the Matias bad?  No, not at all.  It's an excellent tool, and when I finally have to choose between the two, I suspect I will pick it despite my Das lust.  The Matias chunks along happily, its key presses quiet and slightly hefty in feel in contrast to the Das's Singer sewing machine clicks.  They're both good products.  For practicality, features, layout and ease of use, buy the Matias.  For a love affair with an amazing machine that demands its own terms, buy the Das.  For my own part, the Matias gradually won me over throughout the week+ of this comparison despite an initially less favorable reaction.  I will, however, readily admit that one major factor of its appeal to me is pure nostalgia… It’s the most remarkable recreation I’ve tried of an original TRS-80 keyboard.  That will make a lot of readers laugh, but it cuddles my heart  like a warm blanket.  If only it came with two 5 ¼” disk drives…

Monday, April 01, 2013

Composing vs Performing

I do a lot of very varied work in pipes - It helps keep me sane and enthused about what I'm doing, which can get a bit repetitive when you've been doing it this many years.  The divergent ways that I will approach a project are as fundamentally different as the projects themselves, and I thought I'd write a little on the subject.  For starters, the first question I ask myself is, "Is this going to be a composition or a performance?"  I speak of this in the musical context and for me it is the key difference between whether I'm working on an original design of my own, or on an interpretation of a known classical shape.  

Creating an original shape is, in essence, composing a piece of music - You've got as blank sheet and work from them, arranging elements in ways that tickle your fancy.  When working from an existing design, however, as with the two pipes I'm using as examples below, I liken the creation experience more to a public performance of an existing composition.  You have the music sheet already, you know what the melody is, you know what parts to put where, and it's all down to your own skill and personal interpretation as to how the playbook will be rendered for the audience.  

This is the point where you have to make the interpretation your own, to make this specific individual performance something unique and distinct.  For example, have a look at this bent billiard I've just completed:

I went in with the intent to make something simple and elegant - The classical bent billiard - a shape straight out of the "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" painting.  It sounds like one might be locked in, but that's far from the case - There's actually a great deal of leeway for personal expression in the minute details of such a design.  One of the most obvious is in curvature, especially shank and stem curvature.

If I were to try and list my own distinct "Talbert" hallmarks in design, one of the tops would be a freedom of flow from shank to stem to bit... Smooth curving lines that arc elegantly, without "humps" and sudden jarring curve changes from shank to stem.  In silhouette, it should look like one single piece of material that's unfurling, without a clearcut deviation between stem and shank... unless that is the specific desire.  Again, it's a matter of performance and mood, like an evening concert.  It can be hypnotic and melodic, it can be hard and sharp, it can be raucous, it can be upbeat, it can be downbeat, and all of these renditions can be drawn from the same basic musical composition (or in our case, shape library).

For this piece, smooth elegance was the concept, to the point of being nearly sensual.  On other pipes I might have gone for a tighter join of shank to bowl, but here, that was the opposite of what I was after - I wanted the bowl mass to transition smoothly from the thickest part of the bowl to the shank in a way that let the weight visually shift backward... One organic, unified piece of polished wood instead of distinct parts fitted together.  I did not want the fingers to rest on an edge, anywhere on the pipe.

(For contrast, check out this recent bulldog, which is all about hard edges - Everything in it is beveled, planed, and tight of line.  It's a brass ensemble to the billiard's soft woodwind.)

It's through the small touches like this, as well as finishes, that one maker defines his own aesthetic from another.  While some might think that doing a classical shape would represent being "roped in" or limited in terms of creative expression, it can actually be quite liberating once you're technically proficient enough to really play with the basic elements of the design.  Musically speaking, think of someone like Apocalyptica - A group of classically trained cellists who play Metallica songs.  My own version of that sort of whimsy represents itself like this:

Yes, it's a bent billiard!  In the "bones", per se, it is essentially the same pipe as the curvy example above, and yet the multitude of small differences make it an entirely different visual and tactile experience.  Rather than sensual, I wanted its theme to be fat, chubby, and if I dare say so, jolly.  The first billiard says, "Paint me like one of your French girls."  The second billiard chortles by the Christmas stockings.  Same maker, same functional underpinnings, but two entirely variant results with a distinct personality to each.  Moreover, as individual, handmade items, it's a personality that can't be replicated exactly for future pipes.

...Which is not unlike an evening's live concert performance.  You might hear the same notes being played similarly by the same group on another occasion, but you'll never hear that exact performance again.