Open Mike: My Dumb Young Self (OT)

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

I have a tiny little first-world problem, but one that I still have yet to solve. And one that I have to solve.

I had better solve it. I feel like a veteran photographer whose favorite material has just been discontinued. I could tell you stories about that. (I was going to, but this post got too long.)

Very brief background: I made the decision to hunt-and-peck on my then-brand-new typewriter, a gift from my grandmother, when I was 14. I remember it clearly. Bad decision. Very bad. I told myself back then that I was never going to need to know how to type. Nobody told me computers were a-comin’.

Apple extended ii

Apple Extended II keyboard, 1987–1994

When computers did arrive, I didn’t think they had too much to do with me. But big honky mechanical keyboards like the IBM Model M seemed fine. They typed more or less like my father’s IBM Selectric electric typewriter. Didn’t confront me either way. Then I started using the Macintosh in 1984, the year it came out. It came with a keyboard, so, once more, I never thought about keyboards. Although I never even saw one that I’m aware of, Apple’s last big mechanical keyboard, the Extended / Extended II, came out in 1987 and was discontinued in 1994. Was that about when the tiny, flat, “chiclet key” keyboards for the Macs, a smart and stylish design accessory as well as a petite but pestilent pox upon persons, began to show up? Whenever they arrived, I never got along with them even a little bit. Even my early Powerbook 190 (picture), one of my top-three all-time favorite Macs, had better keys. By the time chiclet keyboards proceeded upon their plaguey proliferation, I was already having problems with RSI (repetitive strain injury). They made it kick in even worse. My hands, wrists and arms seemed to always hurt somewhere. The more I typed the more it hurt.

Win vs macI still have this taped to my monitor. Thirty years is not long

enough to ease my Windows vs. Mac confusions.

One of the first “ergonomic” keyboards, Microsoft’s then-radical Natural Ergonomic keyboard, came out in 1994. Microsoft’s very first keyboard. I got one; my hands felt better. It was made for PC’s, and half the features didn’t work on my Macs, but I got used to it. It eventually morphed into the physically identical Natural Ergonomic 4000, which I’ll abbreviate NE4k. I’ve now been using them for 30 years.

Malicious obsolescence

I’ve gone through more than a dozen. Usually the first point of failure is that the legends wear off the keys, which is ridiculous—simply poor manufacturing, never corrected. They fail in a variety of different ways. Annoying little problems crop up; on my current one, the Shift key is slow to release, so capitalized words not infrequently look like THis. Eventually they get dirty; I even tried cleaning one in the dishwasher, following instructions I found online! It worked, but it was a project. It was easier to just buy a new one when the old one got grody, or lost its feel, or started sticking, or wore out.

When you use something every day for 30 years, you get used to it. I can now “hunt and peck” on a NE4k without much, well, hunting. (I do have to look down from time to time for specific keys, or to re-orient myself.) I basically type with three fingers, plus one thumb for the spacebar—sometimes a fourth and fifth finger for specific reaches—but I can do it while barely looking at the keyboard. Unfortunately, I can do that only on my keyboard. My exact keyboard, the NE4k. With other keyboards—even (perhaps especially) with those that look similar to the NE4k but are just that little skosh different—my effed-up muscle memory is just wrong enough that I can barely type at all.

Confession: Actually, if I’m honest, my typing is so idiosyncratic and wrong that I have good typing days and bad. This sounds absurd, but it’s true—sometimes I make so many mistakes that I give up for the day. Other days my fingers fly. My typing speed goes from about 25 WPM + frustration on bad days to as high as 55–60 WPM on the best days. I don’t know what makes the difference. Brain farts? The phase of the moon? Leprechauns in charge?

Here’s the rub, alas: the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 went the way of all things in 2019. Discontinued. I wasn’t aware, or I would have bought a dozen and salted them away*. I’m on my last one now, and the usual signs of decay and failure are starting to appear.

I have to do something about this. And the sooner I start the better, I’m guessing. Unless it’s already too late for that.

You might think that the replacement for the NE4k would be the natural choice, but not so. The NE4k is far from well-built—a creaky plasticky slab—inexplicably with dog hairs under the keys!—but the confusingly named 2019 Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard (MEK), which Microsoft just handed off to a company called Incase to make and sell, is much worse. I have two. Cheap and flimsy. The NE4k itself was hardly known for having great feel, but the MEK doesn’t rise to the NE4k’s modest standard. Made to sell, not to use. Bleh, and yech. It’s also not an exact duplicate of the NE4k, so it almost fits my muscle memory but not quite. I type on it like I’ve suffered a TBI, no offense. I dislike it.

Voyage to the unknown

When I first tried to deal with this problem a few years back, it seemed to me that the solution would be to learn something entirely new and completely different. My old habits are just going to frustrate me if I tried to duplicate the keyboard I’m used to, I figured. The NE4k is not coming back.

I feel like I’m a good candidate to learn touch typing at this point, although maybe this old dog can’t learn new tricks. A few years ago I did some research and got a regular straight, flat mechanical tenkeyless keyboard, but within mere days it became clear that that’s never going to work for me—my hands started hurting almost immediately. I then splurged on what seemed to be the most ergonomic of all ergonomic keyboards, the Kinesis Advantage 2. Since I intended to learn an all-new keyboard anyway, I also tried to learn the Dvorak layout and touch-typing all at the same time. Three radically new things all at once was probably, ah, overly ambitious (my most realistic friend, Ken Tanaka, probably could have predicted that!), but at the time I felt like I was mostly doing it as a mental exercise. I ended up getting up to 20 WPM with that setup. I worked on it every day for months. But only 15 to 30 minutes a day. Muscle memory never kicked in. Eventually I stopped tilting at that particular windmill.

Back to the drawing board, down to brass tacks

A few days ago I hauled the Kinesis Advantage 2 out of the closet again, wiped the dust off, switched the keyset back to a QWERTY layout from Dvorak, and started in again at Sigh.

(As an aside, here’s a great explanation of why keybr. might be the best “learn how to type” site. As Popeye would say, faskinatin’.) 

I’m not sure the Advantage 2 is for me. I’ve used it a lot, and although it’s easy on my hands, I can’t seem to get the hang of it. So I’ve started poking about the wilds of the unknown ‘Net for other alternatives. All I know is that I’m going to have to learn something new. And that I’d better get to it.

Keychron alice

Keychron Alice V10, with a Keychron Pro K Blue switch

I don’t think there’s any answer to this problem other than to pick a keyboard, set goals, and get down to work.

Looking at the Keychron Alice right now. Looks nice. No idea if I’d like it better or worse. How would I know? I’ve been with one keyboard for three decades, and that’s longer than all but 26.2% of marriages last.

This is just a very old bad decision circling back around to bite me. Ever made a casual decision you came to regret later? We all have, so no use complaining. I am just a bit peeved at 14-year-old me right now, though! Jeez, young Mike, just take a typing class** and do it right. Why did you always have to be different?!


*Actually I just discovered this morning that there are still a few available new on Amazon, but for $399. They used to be $59. I could buy one of those, I guess, but it would only delay the inevitable.

**Available for free at my high school just for signing up, and, as a bonus, full of girls. Dumb, Mike. I probably thought I’d be the most awkward and slowest typist in the class, and I didn’t want to look bad in front of all those girls. That’s important when you’re 14.

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