Keyboards of Doom

A while ago, the CS department offered me the chance to trade in my DECStation 5000/25 for a spiffy newish IBM RS/6000 model 250 that they were planning to offer software support for "sometime soon, maybe". Besides facilities support, the only thing the 5000/25 had going for it was that it had been DEC's entry into the "Advanced Computing Environment," an early-90's hype-filled plan to end Intel's domination of the desktop. The rs6k was faster and less obsolete, with a sharper monitor to boot, so I switched. I hadn't counted on one of the rs6k's most important features, though: the keycaps on its gloriously noisy clicky-klacky IBM keyboard are removable; you can easily take off the part of the key with the label on it while leaving a key-shaped nub of plastic behind. I'm sure this sort of overengineering helps IBM serve a variety of international markets at minimal marginal cost, but what it let me do was modify the keyboard.

I started off by reversing the order of the number key caps so that I could learn to touch type numbers better. After a few weeks of subconsciously looking at the keys and hence getting the wrong number, I finally learned to ignore the appearance of the keyboard and trust my finger positioning memory. I mostly forgot about the whole arrangement. A year or so later, I was a teaching assistant for the undergraduate operating systems course; many of my students would freak out (and not unreasonably so) when they saw the numbers the wrong way as they tried to enter their passwords. I apologized to my traumatized charges, rearranged the keycaps and moved on. (Actually, I temporarily dallied with rearranged letters, figuring that everybody knew how to touch type them. I was wrong, and more apologizing ensued. I'm really not the sort of bastard TA that this incident makes me out to be.)

A while later I found myself looking at Drew Olbrich's page about his keyboard. The page amused when I realized that Drew had been roommates with Nick Thompson, and that this was in fact the other half of the story of the sawed-off numeric keypad I'd seen floating around Nick's office. After that amusement wore off, I was still intrigued by the modification step: "sprayed black paint on some of the keys that aren't used too often to give it that `survived reentry' look." I thought about this, and it became clear to me that there was only one solution; I had to paint my own keyboard all black. This would be way cooler than simple key rearrangement, and I was spending much of my time in a lab with enough machines that no one else would be forced to deal with my silliness.

A frightening trip to the computer superstore later (I always forget that the computer industry is a huge impersonal thing, rather than a bunch of my friends and vague accquaintances) I had a cheap keyboard. A trip to the local hardware store later, I had some matte black spraypaint. I took apart the keyboard, spraypainted all the keys and the undercarriage individually, put the whole thing back together, and added a few more coats. The result looks a little uneven, but in a hip mottled/melted sort of way. Those pesky redundant key name labels are invisible now. I occasionally find my fingers offset by one when using software that requires vi-style key motions, but otherwise, the unlabled letters don't bother me.

Morals of this story: