Category Archives: Hardware

Where I Started Typing

My Aunt moved earlier this year and, in cleaning out her house, came across any number of items that had been stored away for years.  One of them was a typewriter.

Nothing to do with deviled ham

Probably one of the reasons I have done as well as I have in the computer age, or the information age, or whatever we end up calling this era, is that I learned to type at a fairly young age.  And the first place I started was with this typewriter.

A look under the lid, the ‘N’ key is the one sticking up in the bunch… we’ll get to that…

That is a 1937 Underwood Champion portable typewriter that my grandmother hauled off to college when she was 18.  It was portable by virtue of the fact that it came with a hard carrying case with a handle.

Typewrite and case

The typewriter sat in that case in the hallway closet at my grandmother’s house and when I would come over to visit I would often haul it out to bang away on it just for the feel of putting words on paper.  There was something about that action that made words feel more “real” or “official” to young me.

Later I would take typing in school and get my own typewriter, an Olivetti Lettera 32.  It was also a portable, though considerably smaller and lighter than the old Underwood.

The baby blue Lettera 32

(Picture source)

That was probably a fitting choice of brands as the Underwood company was purchased by Olivetti back in 1959.

I do not know where the Olivetti ended up.  With the coming of my first computer I immediately started shopping for a printer and what passed for a word processor back then.  After some fumbling about I got a copy of AppleWorks for my Apple //e and was off to the races.  At that point the typewriters went back into storage, rarely to be heard from again.

And so it goes.

Now I write a blog on much more sophisticated (or bloated… or both) software and share some of my words not on paper but electronically across the world via the internet, but I still put my fingers on the same keyboard layout I started to tinker with back in the early 70s.

And it was the internet that helped me figure out how old this typewriter was.  There is no date of manufacture stamped on it that I could find.  But I could see a serial number stamped into the frame.

Serial number inside the unit

With that number I was able to use Google to find the Typewriter Database site which includes a page of Underwood Champion serial numbers by year.  That pinned down the year, which lined up with my grandmother graduating from high school and heading off to college.

The typewriter itself still looks to be in prime mechanical condition.  “They don’t make them like that any more” might be cliche, but it has some grounding in reality.  And among the other things you can find on the internet are ribbons compatible with it.  I am sure the ribbon in there hasn’t been replaced since the 1950s at the latest.  There is scant print ability left in the dried out husk that is in it currently.

Some words are just visible

Actually typing on it requires quite a firm touch.  I recall how my grandmother used to brutalize the IBM Selectric in the library where she worked, pounding on those keys that would activate with a much lighter touch.  The mechanical operation requires you to push it, and hitting the shift key lifts up the entire platen unit, so not something you can do without a pinky that has been working out at the gym.

And then there are the quirks of early keyboards.  Each key cost money, so they only included what was necessary.  You will see there is no key for the number one.  The lower case ‘L’ was deemed sufficient for that.  And with no key for the number one, there is also no key for the exclamation point.  To make one you would type a period then backspace and type a single quote over it.  And forget about your angled, square, or curly braces.  Straight up parenthesis is all you better need.

You do, however, get a special key for the fractions 1/2 and 1/4, while some of the other standard punctuation is scattered about the keyboard in places you might not expect to find them.

The keys work… mostly… save for the ‘N’ key, which sticks.  It used to stick occasionally, now it sticks every time you hit it.  The arm of the key is slightly bent so gets stuck as it strikes and you have to reach up and pull the key back every time you used it.  Nobody will be typing the great American novel on this machine… not very quickly anyway.

Also, there is a little bell that rings when you hit the end of a line so you know when to hit the return lever to start on a new line.  I had forgotten about that aspect of manual typewriters.

The case however has seen better days.  The hinges on the back are broken, so you can no longer carry the case by the handle.  You have to carry it like you were carrying a cake in a box lest the typewriter come loose and fall out.

Now I have to figure out what to do with the unit.  This 80 year old typewriter is a minor bit of family history, but not really an heirloom.  My daughter was interested in it momentarily before going back to her iPhone.  I expect I will find some room for it in my office with the rest of the junk I hang onto.

Replacing the G15

In what will probably come as no surprise to any regular reader of the site that I have had my current keyboard for more than a decade.  The keyboard, a Logitech G15, appears in a picture I posted of my desk back in middle of 2007, while Amazon says I purchased it in 2006.

The table is unusually clear in this picture

As noted every time I use this picture, not much has changed.  The headphones have been updated, the iPod dock is gone, a second, even smaller monitor has appeared, and a lot more crap has managed to accumulate.  But the monitor, keyboard, trackball, and speakers are all pretty much as they were ten years back.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The G15 has been a solid keyboard and, while I haven’t taken full advantage of every feature of it, I have grown used to some unique aspects of the keyboard.  Chief among them is the LCD display.

In the picture above you can see the LCD display, nicely back-lit with a blue-ish tint, at the top center of the keyboard.  Not a huge piece of display real estate, but I have grown used to having it there.  As it turns out, quite a few games and applications wrote out to Logitech’s display API.

Not that everybody uses the LCD well.  I posted back in 2007 asking what would be useful to put on the LCD display.  You can’t put anything there that won’t otherwise be available in game, but you ought to put something useful on it.  Games, like WoW, LOTRO, and EQ2 default to putting your character attributes, hit points, and maybe mana/power/whatever on the screen.  But things like hit points are already better represented in the main UI, while your stats like strength and what not aren’t generally something you need to be updated on constantly.

Still, some games, like World of Tanks, use the display well.  And I can always swap the LCD back to the default clock display, which is handy when playing games that do not have real world time somewhere in their UI.  Or it can show me what I have playing in iTunes currently.

EVE Online does not support the display, but Mumble and TeamSpeak do, showing on the display who is currently speaking.  That is probably more useful than any in-game data I might want.  I know many people by the sound of their voice on coms, but there are still a lot of strangers out there, or people who sound very much like other people, so having that name up without having to use the wonky (and, to me, annoying) in-game overlay running is of value.

Basically, I’ve gotten used to having that display.

However, wear and tear has worn down the keyboard.  After more than a decade of heavy use, the back lighting on the LCD has failed, I’ve worn through a couple of the key caps, the back lighting on the right half of the main keyboard flickers and goes out regularly, and I have to hit the space bar at the left end because the senor doesn’t register if I hit it on the right.

So I went to the Logitech site to find a replacement.  I knew the G15 itself was long gone, supplanted by new models and, as I recalled, even a color LCD display.  But I was sure the LCD display would still be a thing, given how many apps support it.

However, the LCD display on keyboards seems to be a thing of the past at Logitech.  Technically it is still supported via their G13 Gameboard accessory, but the keyboard they offer are all LCD free these days.  I suppose the list of titles supporting their game panel LCD is a bit of a clue as to how long gone the display might me.  Some selected historically interesting entries:

  • America’s Army
  • Duke Nukem Forever
  • Everquest II: Extended
  • Hellgate London
  • Neverwinter Nights 2
  • Star Wars Galaxies
  • Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
  • World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

I think you could pin down when that list was written based on when those titles were all viable.

Logitech does have some new technology called Arx Control, which can put up a panel on your smart phone or tablet.  I tinkered with that for an evening, wondering if they would be able to  just pipe things from their older game panel API to it.  I have seen posts saying that this is possible.

However, most of those posts are a couple of years old, so if it was once the case it does not seem to be that way any more.  Arx only appears to work with items specifically built for it, which appear to be few and far between.  World of Warcraft was the only supported title I could find, and I couldn’t get it to do anything that made WoW appear to actually connect and display something via Arx.  All it could do was launch WoW, which isn’t all that useful a feature, especially since it launches it directly and not through Battle.net.

So Arx seems to be a complete bust.

If I want the Logitech game panel support, it looks like I have to go shopping for a vintage Logitech keyboard with an LCD.  However, I distrust used ones and the few new-in-box- models I have seen are priced pretty high.

And if I am willing to let go of the LCD panel, then I have a plethora of keyboard choices to wade through.

For now though, the G15 on my desk continues to soldier on. The back lighting flickers, and I can feel the “a” and “e” keys due to their tops being worn off, but it still does what it needs to do.

 

Dual Monitor

While my last few video cards have been perfectly capable of supporting multiple monitors, I’ve not bothered to hook a second monitor up to any of them.

That is mostly because I don’t have a second monitor lying around to hook up.  My main monitor is still the same 1600×1200 Dell unit I have been using for more than a dozen years now.  It certainly wasn’t very new when I posted a picture of it as part of a post back in 2007.

The table is unusually clear in this picture, but most everything is the same a decade later

A new monitor is on my wish list, but the combination of price for what I would want, uncertainty over what to get, and the fact that my old monitor is still chugging along without issue has kept me from pulling the trigger on a new one.  And, of course, we always have other things to spend money on.

However, a second monitor has become available of late.  At work our office moved annoyingly far from home.  My commute, which was once five miles over surface streets, is now 20 miles over a mountain highway that has to close any time we get a hard rain because the mountain decides to roll onto the road.

To help with that the company gave me a dock for my laptop and a monitor to hook up to it to give me a little more screen area.  It is a crap monitor.  You can tell what your company thinks of you by the equipment they give you.  This is a 1600×900 monitor in an age when full HD 1920×1080 monitors are dirt cheap.  Not exec at our HQ would put up with this for a moment, but somebody not in management in a satellite office a couple thousand miles away gets their choice of leftovers in a closet.  It is basically my old monitor with 25% of the vertical cut off.  But it is still bigger than the laptop monitor, so it is better than nothing, which was the alternative.

When not using it for work I found that I could plug it in to my current nVidia GeForce GTX 960 video card just fine.  Most of what I play at home doesn’t really benefit that much from the second monitor.  I generally play games full screen and the second monitor sitting there tends to be distracting.

But for EVE Online and multi-boxing it is quite the boon.

I have multi-boxed with a single monitor on fleets before, alt-tabbing between clients.  For a travel op or when the enemy doesn’t show up, that works.  But when it is time for combat I tend to forget the client in the background for long stretches, only to find that account is sitting in its pod in a station having been blown up while I was busy elsewhere.

But with the second monitor hooked up and a client running on it I seem to be able to keep track of both and at least keep them alive.

Two clients running… same desk, keyboard, etc.

It can still be a challenge in combat to keep both clients active.  We were in a fight a couple of weeks back and my main was in the DPS ship for the doctrine while my alt was target painting (which improves damage application) and in comparing the kill mails after the fight, there was quite a bit of variation as to which targets got hit.  The alt was on a lot more kill mails as well, due to locking and activating faster (and splitting two painters).

My daughter, walking in while I was playing was taken aback at the sight of two monitors.  She has a 27″ iMac and has all the video real estate she needs for drawing and games, even if it won’t play Overwatch.  She wanted to know how two monitors on one computer would even work.  I had to show her the cursor moving between the monitors and clicking to change focus before she got it.

Anyway, I have that going for me.  I just have to pick the right fleet roles.  Two clients that both have to actively target is a bit of a chore.  But scouting or fleet boosting might be a role complimentary to DPS or logi.

Nintendo and the NES Classic Edition

I cannot decide if Nintendo is stubborn, crazy, or just knows something we all don’t.

Yesterday’s “WTF Nintendo!” news was that they were killing off the NES Classic Edition console.

NES Nostalgia for only $60… if you can find one

If you have tried buying one of these consoles in the fives months that they have been for sale… well, you’re probably at least a bit angry.  They have been selling out like crazy and the short supply has led to speculators snapping up all they can find to resell them for 3x or more their list price on the gray market.

As a company, what do you do when you have a product that is so popular that you cannot keep it on store shelves?  At a minimum you keep producing it to exploit that demand.  Maybe you even refine the product or make some minor addition that allows you to charge more for it.  I mean, how many variations of Atari 2600 classic consoles and game packs for various platforms have there been over the years?  Atari has been milking that nearly 40 year old cow for at least 30 past its peak.

While I am not at all in the classic Nintendo fan club… I was on my third or fourth computer by the time the NES came to the US… this sort of nostalgia console and how it plays in the market still grabs my attention.  I figured it was popular enough to have a nice long run.

But Nintendo cancelled it, with this statement going out to the Americas market:

Throughout April, NOA territories will receive the last shipments of Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition systems for this year. We encourage anyone interested in obtaining this system to check with retail outlets regarding availability. We understand that it has been difficult for many consumers to find a system, and for that we apologize. We have paid close attention to consumer feedback, and we greatly appreciate the incredible level of consumer interest and support for this product.

I do not understand.

I have seen a number of theories as to why Nintendo has cancelled the NES Classic console.  They include:

  1. It isn’t profitable, or profitable enough
  2. Licensing issue with one of the non-Nintendo games
  3. It is taking attention/resources/shelf space from the Switch
  4. More profitable to sell these games a la carte on Virtual Console
  5. The fact that it can be hacked for other uses
  6. They have something else planned (SNES Classic?)
  7. Some other Nintendo reason we cannot imagine

The reason could be any one of those, some combination of them, or some reason not on the list including, as Ars Technica put it, Nintendo hates money.

When I think of Nintendo, three different things come to mind.

Nostalgia farmers – They have worked and re-worked Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, and, above all else, Mario for decades now.  You buy Nintendo hardware to play these franchises.

Hardware focused – As somebody who has worked for hardware companies before, from the outside at least they betray all the signs of a firm that measures it value in terms of hardware units shipped.  It was a huge break with tradition for Mario and Pokemon to appear on smart phones.

Bad at Forecasting – Having demand exceed supply is a good problem, but only if you handle it well.  And Nintendo has had the reverse problem as well.

Odd Man Out – In the console wars if often seems like Sony and Microsoft are battling each other while Nintendo is over in the corner wondering what Mario should do next, unaware that it has competitors.

Unfortunately, these characteristics can be mixed and matched to come up with almost any of the suggested reasons for why Nintendo decided it was time to cancel the NES Classic Edition.

Why do you think Nintendo made this move?

The Nintendo Switch Announced

Nintendo finally gave us a real peek at their new console, formerly referred to as “NX.”  Its official name is Switch and looks like this:

Nintendo Switch, for your TV and elsewhere

Nintendo Switch, for your TV and elsewhere

Nintendo has previously said that this unit is no meant to be a direct replacement for the 3DS and Wii U product lines.  Instead the Switch looks like it is meant to fill roles currently taken by both.  As shown it has a dock that lets you hook it up to your TV in the traditional living room console fashion.  But it can be removed from the dock, which reveals a small high definition display.

The controllers are… um… they seem to have many roles in the Switch universe… and a silly name… Joy-Con controllers.   From the press release:

Gaming springs into action by removing detachable Joy-Con controllers from either side of Nintendo Switch. One player can use a Joy-Con controller in each hand; two players can each take one; or multiple Joy-Con can be employed by numerous people for a variety of gameplay options. They can easily click back into place or be slipped into a Joy-Con Grip accessory, mirroring a more traditional controller. Or, if preferred, the gamer can select an optional Nintendo Switch Pro Controller to use instead of the Joy-Con controllers.

Given how small the controllers look… something that matters when you have giant mitts like mine… I am happy that other controllers will be available.

Another item that sticks out from the press release is the idea of Switch users being able to bring their units together to form up a local mulitplayer network.

Furthermore, it is possible for numerous people to bring their Nintendo Switch systems together to enjoy local multiplayer face-to-face competition.

The return of the LAN party?

Of course, Nintendo has many fanciful visions of people using the Switch, carrying it from place to place, and never being without it… ever… in the video that accompanied today’s announcement.

Friends calling you to come to their roof top party?  Now you can bring your video game obsession with you!

Of course, for me, the big question is, “What does this mean for Pokemon?!?!?!”

Console play isn’t really much of a thing at our house.  We got many hours on the Wii back when my daughter was in grade school, but now it just sits and collects dust, while the PlayStation 3 has been primarily a Blu-Ray playing and video streaming device over its five year life in our living room.  So I never gave a thought to buying an XBox One, PlayStation 4, or Wii U.

The only console I do play is the Nintendo 3DS, and that is pretty much just for Pokemon.  So if the Switch is going to get the main line Pokemon RPG games at some point, then I might have to look into the system.  In the video they show the Switch taking a cartridge, ever the delivery vehicle for Pokemon games.

53 seconds into the video, a cartridge is inserted

53 seconds into the video, a cartridge is inserted

Of course, that may never happen.  Despite Nintendo’s statement about the NX, now Switch, not being a direct replacement for either 3DS or Wii U, it sure feels more like a Wii U replacement than anything else.  It is a living room device for use on the TV, even when mobile the screen looks a bit big to be pocketable, and the video shows people playing Splatoon, one of the few hits on the Wii U.

Meanwhile, as the Wii U has languished, the 3DS line remains a good seller, seeing a significant boost in sales over the summer has Pokemon Go seemed to stir interest in the “real” Pokemon games, the core RPG titles available on the 3DS.  And, of course, the next installment in the core Pokemon RPG series is due out next month on the 3DS platform.  No need to hurry any transition for that line.

The flip side of that is Nintendo’s long standing tradition of supporting games from the previous console generation.  Without an optical drive, that isn’t going to happen for Wii U titles.  Of course, that might be the whole point of saying it is not a direct replacement.  It is a replacement for the Wii U, but it isn’t going to play any of your Wii U games.  Given how PlayStation and XBox backward compatibility has been handled… and the slow sales of the Wii U… this might not hurt Nintendo all that much.  Still, you can see how this might be a… heh… switch for them.  Ahem… anyway… no more motion controllers and no touch screen.  And no mention of VR.

And that is about all we know.  The press release has a list of developers who have signed up to support the Switch, but as we have seen in the past, studios saying they are going to support a platform fully and getting them to actually do it are two different things entirely.  You can watch the Zero Punctuation episode from a couple weeks back about the Capcom 5 to see how Nintendo has been screwed on that front before.  Other than that, we have the video, the press release, and the promised date of March 2017.

The date in block letters on a red background to emphasize it is a date

The date in block letters on a red background to emphasize it is a date

Meanwhile, the video game sites are jumping all over this and picking apart every nuance of what has been show (like the fact that Splatoon players have pants on the Switch version) so I expect the Wikipedia entry on the unit to get a lot of edits and updates over the next few days.

So the Switch is coming in a few months, so people can start building up a supply of headline puns playing on the unit’s name.

Joining the Smart Phone World

Mr. Yoshida did me in.

It was some of his tangy sauce that leaked out of my lunch container and got all over my aging LG Rumor 2 phone, rendering it a sticky mess.

I was able to clean the outside pocket of my laptop bag well enough, but the phone itself was never quite right after the spill.  After putting up with it for a couple months… I don’t make that many calls with it… I decided it was time to replace it.  So I headed over the the Virgin Mobile site to see what el cheapo model I could get to replace the sticky LG.

At the Virgin Mobile site though I found out they really aren’t into phones that are just phones any more.  They have one simple flip phone model these days.  However, since I am as likely to text as talk, I generally try to get one with the slide out keyboard, as I have no mind to master the whole dialing from the keypad thing.

And I didn’t want to go to another vendor, as my VM account was topped up with enough cash to last me a long time.  I have been putting $20 on the account every 90 days for years to keep the phone active, but use maybe a $1.50 of it every cycle.

So I decided it might be time to bite the bullet and get a smart phone.  While there were certainly some el cheapo choices on that front, I figured if I was going to go that route I had best go with a phone that is supported, which left me with the Samsung and Apple options.  After some hemming and hawing, I decided to go the Apple route, in large part because everybody in my family who has a smart phone has an iPhone.

And, of course, there was a cheap option.  The 16GB iPhone 5s was only $199.  So I ordered one and it arrived late last week.

iPhone 5s

iPhone 5s

This also happens to be the same phone my daughter has so… and it has come to this… she can show me how to use it correctly.  When did I become my father?

The phone itself seems to be a pretty nice piece of equipment.  My only problem so far has been getting a case for the unit.  There are so many case options out there, I am not sure how anybody decides, aside from just hitting choice fatigue and taking whatever looks okay just to get on with their life.

Quote of the Day – The Optics of VR

The games with peripherals that do the best are highly social games that demo well at parties – think Rock Band or the Wii.  Both were compelling experiences that made observers immediately want to rush home and buy their own.  VR, on the other hand, makes you look like an idiot to observers.

Damion Schubert, I’m Still Skeptical of VR

GDC came and went last week up the road in SF and Virtual Reality was a major topic (and gimmick fest) at the event.  Mr. Schubert was there and came back with a few bullet points for one post and then a whole post about the harassment potential of VR in multiplayer experience that needs to be addressed.

Out of all of that, probably the most trivial bit, how VR looks to other people that tickled me.  It isn’t as bad as made out by that Time magazine cover…

Time Magazine

Time Magazine

…which became such a meme that my Google search to find a copy of the cover was almost nothing but parodies.

Feel the Bern... erm... Burn!

Feel the Bern… erm… Burn!

Nothing right now is going to get you up and running around and jumping in your living room with that tethered headset.  Not without some lawsuits.  VR right now is about your head being in the game, so to speak, with the player being able to orient their view in the way we do in the real world.  It will be a long time before it is something akin to bad interpretive dance.

But even then VR is something that you cannot really get a sense of until you are the person sitting there in the sensory deprivation mask and headphones actually experiencing it.  Watching somebody else don the equipment and begin to play is a bit eerie or comical or silly as you watch them move and react to things to which you are not privy.  Having the mask on, being the person in the gear, is a very solo experience.