Michael McClimon

RSS

New Blog

September 18, 2013

Once again, I have started a blog, and once again, the first post is to say “This time will be different! I’m going to write, really!” I tend to start blogs when I have a lot of other more important things to be doing, and I just started studying in earnest for doctoral exams; you can do the math for that yourself. Partly as a result of studying for said exams, I’m often thinking about things that I should write down, and here’s where I’m going to write them (here we see Michael justifying his newest procrastination technique).

About the blog

I used to write my website in PHP, because that’s the only way I knew to include extra content (headers, footers, etc.) in all of my HTML files (I think this is a pretty common way people get into PHP, incidentally). I have since decided that I hate PHP, despite the fact that most of my work at CHMTL is in PHP. After a brief stint with Mojolicious (I do love Perl, after all), I decided to rewrite the site using Sinatra: I like Ruby (Perl with a non-insane object system), and I don’t need all the complexity of Rails.

After spending a couple of hours hacking in Sinatra to get a blog working without a database, I realized that someone had already done all of that hard work, so I decided to use Jekyll instead. I hadn’t planned to have any real dynamic content on the site anyway, so something like a static site generator will be fine for my purposes, I think. Besides, it’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, and I can host it for free on Github Pages.

More real content later, but for now, a warning (with a hat tip to xkcd): this blog will occasionally contain strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), computer talk (which may be unsuitable for musicians), jazz (which may be unsuitable for squares), and music theory (which is definitely unsuitable for any reasonable person).

The Tactility of Typing

September 18, 2013

If there’s one thing I do a lot of in all of my hats (student, programmer, music theorist), it’s sitting in front of a computer, typing. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the act of typing, primarily because I’ve gotten some rather annoying pain in my left hand that I’ve been trying to get rid of. Behind the jump, some collected thoughts on typing: equipment, technique, and why I’ve been thinking so much about it.

Equipment

When I started working at CHMTL, I found an old IBM Model M keyboard in the desk. You probably remember them from the early 90s…I learned to type on one in elementary school. Some time around February I bought an adapter and started to use it at work. I really enjoyed the tactile thunk of the keys when you pressed them, and that high-pitched ping the buckling spring makes when it hits the side of the tube. (I don’t think my colleagues in the basement of the library appreciated it as much as I did, however.)

Some time after that, I stumbled into the world of mechanical keyboards, and realized that they’re experiencing something of a comeback. A company, Cherry MX, has started making mechanical key switches in several different varieties (see a comparison, if you’re into that sort of thing). I had a small unexpected windfall over spring break, and decided to spring for a mechanical keyboard of my very own. It’s a custom from WASD Keyboards, with Cherry brown switches:

wasd keyboard

I really like the feel of the mechanical switches: you get a distinctive bump (with the browns, at least) when the switch actuates. There’s no mushy feeling that a lot of keyboards have, and I’m actually know when I press a key (something that often frustrates me with Apple scissor-switch style keyboards). In an effort to stem my left hand/wrist problems, I also recently got a Vortex Poker II to use at work:

poker ii

Mechanical keyboards tend to be much more expensive than their membrane or scissor-switch counterparts, unfortunately. I spend a lot of time typing, however, and I’ve started to go by the comfort principle: spend your money where you spend your time. If I spend ~8 hours a day (a low estimate, for many days) in front of a computer, a keyboard easily pays for itself in a month’s time or so.

Technique

This is not a post about learning to touch-type. I did that at a very young age, and it’s in my blood: my granddad operated teletype machines during WWII, and he could bang out some text on a typewriter like nobody’s business. As Steve Yegge notes, however, it’s lazy to spend hours in front of a computer every day and not learn to type. In programming and music theory alike, most of my work consists of thinking, with frantic typing breaks in between to get my thoughts down “on paper,” so to speak. When this happens it’s crucial to get the thought into the machine as quickly as possible so that the thought doesn’t escape. (I could write a lot more here about the cybernetic implications of “putting thoughts into the machine,” or why I love Vim, but those are posts for another day.)

A while back, I read Steve Losh’s excellent Modern Space Cadet post, and I’ve done some of his modifications. In particular, mapping Caps Lock to Escape (when pressed alone) and Control (when pressed with something else) has changed my typing life, especially in editors where I need to type those characters a lot. More importantly though, his post made me realize that I was using the wrong Shift keys: essentially I only ever used the left shift, which meant that I was contorting my hand into unnatural shapes whenever I needed to type a Q or a ~:

wonky hand

The Ways of the Hand

Thinking so much about my typing has reminded me of David Sudnow’s Ways of the Hand, in which he gives an extraordinarily detailed account of learning to play jazz piano. He writes about first having to think consciously about every motion, coaxing his hands to land in the right places, and only later getting to the point where he can just think of a musical line and his hands do what’s right.

Though I’m long past the point of having to think where a given key is on my keyboard, thinking about typing has made me hyper-aware of things I do that are a bit unusual. For example, I always hit the backspace key with my ring finger, despite the fact that it makes me reach awkwardly to do so. I’ve tried to train myself to force my pinky to do it, but it’s not quite so easy as the shift key problem to solve: the software can’t tell which finger the key is pressed with.

I’ve also been periodically doing something that Phil Ford suggested once in class of his I took last spring, which is to try to type without stopping for some length of time (a minute or two). What I’ve noticed is that I often realize when I’ve made some mistake—transposed two characters, what have you—but that it doesn’t register until I’m well past it. There is just a disturbance in the flow, if you will, and only a split-second later I realize that I’ve typed “acutal” instead of “actual” once again. Writing mostly in a text editor makes this more apparent, since I can turn spellchecking off easily and it doesn’t try to “correct” things unless I tell it to explicitly.

It seems to me there is something Heisenbergian about typing: the act of observing it changes our relationship to it. Maybe typing is where hip is headed next.

Test post, please ignore

September 17, 2013

This has been a post.