Friday, January 08, 2010

review: a new Model M from Unicomp!

My favorite keyboard is the Model M. They're big, loud, heavy, and made of equal parts joy and engineering. Typing on one makes the familiar clattering racket that everybody loves.

Lindsey just gave me a new one! My 1988 version (IBM part #1391401) is still fine, of course. But now I can bring one to the lab.

The new keyboard is beautiful; they're making them with USB now, and they come in black! It's not quite as heavy as my 80's vintage keyboard (no big metal plate inside), and while the keys themselves are easily removable, this model doesn't have separate keycaps. But it's just as clicky as you remember, and the feel is perfect. This design is apparently the same as some of the latter-day IBM versions.

The company manufacturing the M now, Unicomp, is great, and they totally deserve your business.

The first keyboard they shipped us actually had some problems with it -- a few of the keys were sticking! So I called up the company and got Jim on the phone almost immediately. He suggested that I pull the offending keys off and then pop them back in place (usually good M maintenance advice). After some fidgeting, we determined that I wasn't going to be able to fix it myself, so he had a replacement sent out the very next day!

So fantastic. And now I have two Ms.

(here's another Unicomp review; the blogger and everybody in the comments over there seems to have had a great customer service experience too.)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel on invention

For my holiday break reading, I just finished Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. I heartily recommend it! It's about the broad patterns in human history: lots of it is about the development of agriculture ("food production", he usually calls it), how and why it happened where it did, and the historical ramifications as societies develop and come into contact/conflict with other societies.

There's a lot about germs, too. The diseases that a society carries and develops resistances to are extremely important when running into another group. A people can be totally wiped out, faced with a disease it's not accustomed to.

But I wanted to share with you a bit that particularly resonated with me, as a technology-producing person.
Thus, the commonsense view of invention that served as our starting point reverses the usual roles of invention and need. It also overstates the importance of rare geniuses, such as Watt and Edison. That "heroic theory of invention," as it is termed, is encouraged by patent law, because an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submitted. Inventors thereby have a financial incentive to denigrate or ignore previous work. From a patent lawyer's perspective, the ideal invention is one that arises without any precursors, like Athene springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.

In reality, even for the most famous and apparently decisive modern inventions, neglected precursors lurked behind the bald claim that "X invented Y." For instance, we are regularly told, "James Watt invented the steam engine in 1769," supposedly inspired by watching steam rise from a tea-kettle's spout. Unfortunately for this splendid fiction, Watt actually got the idea for his particular steam engine while repairing a model of Thomas Newcomen's steam engine, which Newcomen had invented 57 years earlier and of which over a hundred had been manufactured in England by the time of Watt's repair work. Newcomen's engine, in turn, followed the steam engine that the Englishman Thomas Savery patented in 1698, which followed the steam engine that the Frenchman Denis Papin designed (but did not build) around 1680, which in turn had precursors in the ideas of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others. All this is not to deny that Watt greatly improved Newcomen's engine (by incorporating a separate steam condenser and a double-acting cylinder), just as Newcomen had greatly improved Savery's.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Foundation Beyond Belief launches!

The new website for the Foundation Beyond Belief is up! The mission is: "To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility; and to help and encourage humanist parents to raise confident children with open minds and compassionate hearts."

Foundation Beyond Belief is a non-profit, charitable foundation that wants to encourage compassion and charitable giving for [secular] humanists. It's also working on providing support and education for non-theistic parents.

However you might feel about churches, one thing that they're good at is charity and volunteer projects. You're big-hearted and well-meaning -- but do you have somebody reminding you to volunteer for Habitat For Humanity and donate to feed the homeless every week? Apparently in the US, religious people give more to nonprofits than non-religious (according to this guide from Mint, via FriendlyAtheist).

That's what FBB is for. With FBB, you can make one-time donations, or sign up for monthly giving, and you choose how your donation is distributed! Contributions are tax deductible, and go 100% to the organizations benefited! (you can also choose to donate to FBB itself, which of course has operating costs)

There's an online community, etc! Pretty exciting!