Pushing The Right Buttons

Keyboard (courtesy of Serif)

Keyboard (courtesy of Serif)

It may sound slightly obsessive but my search for the ideal keyboard is more drawn out than my search for the perfect pen.

The fashion today, often wrongly attributed to Apple, is for the flat, minimalist, chiclet keyboards which were originally applied to cheaper home computers in the 70s and 80s but made popular more recently by Sony’s Vaio laptop range however the best keyboards I’d used were classic IBMs. The first PC I owned myself was a 486DX based IBM, a huge beige box with a battered compact keyboard, a version of the PS/2 keyboard (the model M2, or so I’ve just been informed by Google Image Search). I also own an earlier IBM too though I’ve not actually used it.

It was a great keyboard to use and since then the only keyboard that came close to it was a cheap one that cost less than a fiver from Argos (it was replaced when my new PC came without PS/2 ports – I couldn’t find an adaptor).  This was true until a few days ago when the Lenovo one I’m using now was delivered which I bought because it’s one of the descendants of those IBM PS/2s.   You can tell.

One important aspect of a keyboard is comfort and this is lacking in most modern keyboards, the Lenovo for example has good key travel, good cushioning and good return response which results in comfortable typing over long periods without numb fingertips while still retaining a pleasing clicking sound which is subtle and low-pitched, a kind of burble when you’re typing quickly which is almost a vocalisation of the words you’re pouring into the on-screen page. I also find that the tall key caps mean you hit two keys at once less often, the one you’re just touching stays put and guides your finger down with the one you were aiming for. These are the qualities I liked with the IBM keyboards and had been missing in the many others I’ve tried over the years. Modern flat keyboards are all very well but many can be less accurate, harsher or squishier, just not as satisfying to use for long periods, even if by the same token many are, to be fair, really quite good – I own one bluetooth one for the Nexus 7 which has a nice clicky feel to it but even that’s just not the same.

Of course there are the even more expensive keyboards with the same kind of mechanical keyswitches that old keyboards possessed which are beloved of gamers for their millisecond accuracy but I don’t need that level of sophistication.

Keyboards like the Lenovo aren’t pretty or cool and minimalist but they work, and despite being low-cost they don’t sacrifice comfort and accuracy and that’s what’s important. The daft thing is that they’re so old-fashioned looking they’re at risk of becoming popular as retro tech.

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Becoming Too Human?

English: The following is the author's descrip...

English: The following is the author’s description of the photograph quoted directly from the photograph’s Flickr page. “Researchers from many fields will use the new IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility. Photo, courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that Artificial Intelligence still has some way to go.

Last year a computer was given YouTube to look at and it learned how to identify a cat, now it has been revealed that IBM’s Watson computer which famously won a game of Jeopardy on American TV was given access to Urban Dictionary as part of its education in the English language – to enable it to understand the nuances of the language and slang terms.  Unfortunately, due to the level of fruity language in Urban Dictionary and its inability to distinguish normal from profane language it simply learned how to swear, at one point using the word “bullshit” in answer to a researcher’s question.

As commenter Bleary said on Gizmodo UK it would have changed the film 2001: A Space Odyssey somewhat – “My mind…it’s going….I can fucking feel it.”   “Open the pod bay doors HAL,”  “Fuck you Dave”

Hmm, if the computers can’t decide what’s appropriate in polite society what else could they be capable of?…

[Gizmodo UK]

Just as an aside – as I was choosing the image at the top, of IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer I realised that David Bowie’s Blue Jean was on the radio.  Spooky.

Keep Calm and Carry British Tech

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the United Kingdom reading “Keep Calm and Carry On”, created during World War II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Look at your phone or tablet, most will say Made in China, Korea or Taiwan, some will say Designed in California, but what about the technology at the very heart of the device?  Where were the creators of that based?  Silicone Valley?  Shenzhen?

More than likely they were based in the UK.

Despite the likes of Jeremy Clarkson implying that if it’s designed or made in Britain then it’ll inevitably go wrong our nation has produced some of the best minds in technology, architecture, literature and science…  in the world.

Most PCs, even Apple Macs run on chips that are designed to be compatible with the Intel processors that powered the earliest IBM PC and their dependents.  Mobiles though need less power-hungry processors and this is where the Brits come in.

Back in the eighties Acorn (who had created the BBC Micro computer to accompany a pioneering TV show intended to teach computing to the public, and one of the first computers I learnt on) created the Acorn Archimedes which used a RISC processor – which basically uses a simplified set of instructions to run programs which allows for powerful processors using less actual power – perfect for mobile devices which was why Apple chose the processor for their Newton handheld and were one of the three partners that formed ARM.  Our school had an Archimedes and it seemed like a glimpse of the future compared to the BBCs and PCs.  We had no idea.

Since then ARM has developed the core designs that they licence to manufacturers such as Samsung who build the chips that drive iPhones, Galaxy SIIIs, HTC One Xs, LG Nexus 4s, Nexus 7s, Kindle Fires…  You get the idea.

The other company that has done the same with graphics chips is Imagination Technologies.  In the early nineties Hossein Yassaie joined the company and decided that computer graphics were the future, shortly afterwards he decided that people would one day want to do everything they could do on a PC on a mobile – a vision that seemed impossible to many at the time due to limits of the available technology.  However, like ARM, Imagination’s technology had lower power demands.  As smartphones have taken off, so has demand for both ARM and Imagination’s designs.

Their strength lies in the demand for new phones, the latest, faster, brighter, better, smarter every year; chipmakers couldn’t each dedicate the kind of design teams that the British firms have to such projects and so licensing from these independents is the perfect solution, and of course having so much design talent and experience in just two companies helps to ensure constant innovation to keep us all equipped for the future.

[Also BBC News]

Imaging Atoms

Graphene Micrograph

Graphene Micrograph (Photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

As well as looking out into space and simultaneously back in time with the Hubble space telescope to understand where we came from scientists are also looking further inwards to understand how we are here.

In the last few months the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider have confirmed the existence of a Higgs boson though this is simply a beginning rather than an end as there is still much to understand about this fascinating sub-atomic particle that is theorised to give matter mass and whether it is the Higgs Boson they expected based on computer models.

Now a team at IBM have used a modified form of Atomic Force Microscopy to image a single molecule showing the atomic bonds.  This technique would enable, for example, inspection of sheets of single-atom thick Graphene for imperfections.  As with so many discoveries and new technologies this will no doubt have many more future applications as well as furthering our understanding of our world.

[Higgs Boson & Molecule Imaging at Gizmodo UK]