Mar 3 2010

Blank keycaps on my keyboard (stage 1)

As a long time fan of the daskeyboard and having been newly introduced to the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) yet having never owned either one, I thought it might be a nice idea to make my own. I have delayed posting this blog to enable me to spend around a month actually getting used to this new keyboard and the benefits that having no indication on the keys will actually provide.

I am happy to say that over the last month, I have been switching between this keyboard and my laptop keyboard. This was a pretty standard thing anyway but as this is now all blank, it was a change indeed. As background, I have been touch typing for around 8 years after progressing in a less than standard fashion. Normal hunt and peck to start with as always and then as I sped up, I forced myself to not look at the keys.

Traditionally, most people would either cover their hands or would still dip and look at the keyboard out of habit. Thankfully I have managed over the last 6 years to iron out my habits of looking at the keyboard so I’m fairly competent at typing. Sadly just not at spelling…but that’s another story.

One thing that this keyboard has taught me over the last month is that I already know exactly where all the keys are on the keyboard but that on the odd occasion when I miss-key or go for a rarely used key, I still look down. This is quite perplexing for me as I was wholeheartedly convinced that I was actually quite good at not needing to look. I seem to do it only for a split second but it is enough now to remind me that I still do it. I have since been forcing myself to go for the backspace key than looking down as I know where that one is without even having to think about it; then I simply gauge by the mistake as to where I need to nudge my fingers.

I have found that my typing speed and accuracy actually went down a fair amount over the first 2 weeks of using the keyboard and I was getting most of my passwords wrong. Thankfully though with another 2 weeks of perseverance, I have manged to get back up to my normal typing speed and I have only a small way left to go until I hit my old standard of mistake making. Sadly that is still yet to improve as fast as I was hoping.

The beauty is that moving back over to my laptop keyboard is actually MUCH easier. It really is a superb way to learn by actually working out your problems on the most difficult way you can come up with. Needless to say that it doesn’t really help switching keyboards at the best of times but this really is a challenge not for the faint of heart. I am happy to report that after a month of fairly frequent use though, I’m actually back to where I was before, this can only mean that improvement shall be made in later weeks/months.

Anyway, enough about the waffle, let’s talk about the build itself! I started out with a generic, bog standard UK 102 key PS2 keyboard that I bought on eBay a few months back. It’s black, normal high-profile keys and virtually the same as everyone’s first keyboard. As a twist from the HHKB I decided to go for the additional red Esc key and to also have my W, A, S & D keys in a metallic blue for when I’m gaming, and because it looks kinda geeky too.

I used a standard sheet of sand paper (120 grit) to actually sand the tops of each key one by one. Silly I know but I fancied doing a nice job of it. The keys currently have a semi-brushed look to them but I suspect that will fade over time and with use. They are all nice and smooth though, which is the feeling I was going for. Considering keyboards with heavy use tend to become smooth in groups and as this keyboard is destined for some very heavy use indeed, I thought it would be nice to start where you will inevitably end up.

It didn’t take too long to sand each key by hand but I did experiment with a polishing bit on my Dremel at one point with some less than beautiful results. Each key took about a minute of sanding to get the desired result but naturally, it wasn’t something you could do all in one go with that number of keys. I ended up sanding them in batches which worked rather well. For the coloured keys I went for some Humbrol Enamel paint but sadly the WASD keys have not quite come out as I had hoped. For the second round of tweaks I am going to use some acrylic paint which is much lighter and then varnish over the top of them for the extra protection. Anyway, here’s the picture below at the end of round one.

The nearly finished article

For the future I shall be monitoring the typing progression for myself, painting the WASD keys again with a lighter blue, swapping out the green LEDs for some nice blue ones and with a bit of luck, converting it all over to USB and even building in a USB hub too. More to follow after round 2.

Feb 4 2010

Building the (old) work desk…

As some of you may already know, I’m somewhat of an eccentric; this post may do nothing short of confirm that I am indeed, a bit nuts. I am going to document some of my more random ideas as I’m entering a phase in my life where I am in a position to actually bring some of them to life.

For a little background on this particular project, I recently moved from Haydock to Bristol and with this I had to prioritize on what I really needed compared to what I had simply collected over the last 7-8 years of building an IT company. I did however get news from my business partner and new housemate that as he has a bigger room than the one I was moving into, he would happily let me house one of my desks next to his.

This was due to be ideal, it would mean that because his room is directly above mine, I could wander up and work on my machine in his room so that we could collaborate in person and not via something like Google Wave or phone.

This left only one problem, the machine! The desk itself was a rather standard black desk; nothing special by any means. This was easily sorted by screwing some 9mm ply to the underside of the desk, removing the top and then attaching it with a piano hinge. This turned a standard desk into something I could open, store stuff in and in turn have a little extra space. This is when it hit me…

“Ooooh! I know! I have a spare Dell machine that doesn’t really seem to work too well. Perfect!…The desk!”

…and thus the project was born. After finding a set of parts that would actually enable this machine to work, I began to build it into the desk. As it stands now, it all works, really well. But this is not the end of it, there needs to be more!

The critical information, the machine itself. It was a Dell something or other that was donated to me after completing some other work for a friend. The machine was dead, nothing I seemed to change would actually let it work. As far as I could tell, the only thing I hadn’t changed was the motherboard. It would begin to work and then just stop. Random things that could not be pinned down to anything logical.

We had problems installing windows, new RAM, optical drive, hard drive, still no joy. Let’s try Linux, 6 versions later and only one would actually boot up. This made no sense! Everything that could be swapped, had been. Things that where on the board were replaced by cards, still nothing.

After taking the board out of the box, building a custom frame out of ABS plastic to hold the heatsink onto the CPU and then building some other custom cooling, Blue Peter style, I managed to get something I could test on a table. I took the standard PSU out of the same case, hooked that up. Some RAM that I had kicking about, a random SATA hard drive I had laid around and some other bits. I pressed power and it worked!

The desk! Typically, it wouldn’t fit; the computer was far too tall. Here’s where the simple ideas work the best. I grabbed some longer screws and lowered the boards under the desk, this worked. It’s not pretty but it works. After a lot of playing around with locations, holding things together with pipe cleaners, removing anything that wasn’t actually useful and trying again, it lives.

The picture below gives you a rough idea of how it looks up to now. More will be done in the very near future and more information will be added as soon as there is something to post.

Desk PC

The build so far