This is not only the first newsletter for Shift Happens, but my first newsletter ever. I came up with the format below; let me know what you think!
I’m writing, slowly nearing the end. The current goal is to have a finished first draft by year’s close. I think I have some 150K words right now, which is way too much already; the next thing on the docket is finding a good editor to help me shape the book.
In December, before I wrote a single word for the book itself, I wrote a list of things I wanted my book to be. It felt important to establish why I’m embarking on this huge project. Maybe you find it interesting, too.
This, by the way, was my screen just before I wrote the first word. It was “There’s.” It no longer exists
I’m not an experienced interviewer. I haven’t done much of it, ever, and so I was rather stressed out when I finally arranged for an interview with Rick Dickinson. Rick is an industrial designer behind some of Great Britain’s most popular home computers - chiefly among them, a ZX Spectrum from 1982, with its (in)famous keyboard.
I only slept four hours that night. I agonized over how to record it (and how to have a backup). I worried about my questions. I thumbed through The art of the interview one more time.
Early in the morning, I called him on Skype. He answered lying on a couch after a day of skiing in France. And… he just started talking. He told me about his work with Clive Sinclair. He mentioned a few of his projects. He answered some of my questions. But then, something magical happened. The unapologetic way Rick talked about the ZX Spectrum, about his love for the project and the team, about his belief in the very power of design… I found it riveting, and it took me by surprise.
I’m an occasional public speaker, but that part of my career has always felt a bit uneasy. I always wondered: why would people listen to me? do I really have anything interesting to say? But Rick telling me about this odd little keyboard from 35 years ago, and how he was telling me about it, was a wonderful affirmation of the power of storytelling. This is why people listen to other people tell stories, I thought, and then, in a moment which is rare for me, I thought this is why they sometimes listen to me.
Today, it remains one of my favourite moments of working on the book. I hope the book will make someone feel as excited as I was when listening to Rick.
The chiclet keyboard for IBM PCjr, released in late 1983, is often called the worst keyboard ever made. Typing on it was compared to “massaging fruit cake,” other quotes were similarly brutal and indeed, I cannot say I’m having a lot of fun right now. The keyboard was a big blow to IBM’s reputation, the computer a failure – and as far as I know, replacing it was the only time in history where there was a press conference about a keyboard gone bad.
I mean, just look at this. What a joke!
The PCjr keyboard is rattling, cheap, unpleasant. It feels alien. You can’t touch type on it. There are other bad keyboards out there, but each one comes with some people’s fond memories. This one? Universally unloved. It was replaced in 1984, and the whole computer was gone by 1985.
And yet… I’m typing on this keyboard right now. I got one for cheap on eBay, and I teamed up with Jacob Alexander, a keyboard guru. We reverse-engineered the protocol, and built an USB converter using Arduino. And we did it all without compromising the keyboard itself, which was important; it felt like we never disrespected it, and breathed new life into it after three decades of ridicule. (I even wrote my first C code in the process!)
I might be the only person writing on this keyboard in this millennium, and I have a suspicion this is the first internet newsletter ever sent from it. I love that this is even possible (thank you, Jacob!). The chapter I wrote about it is one of my favourite ones so far, and I’m excited for you to read it whenever the book comes out.
I was just writing the chapter about word processors, and read through the manual of Wang WPS, a computer from 1976. At some point I arrived at the list of its error messages, and those were out of this world. So, I collated them in this tweet, which subsequently was picked up by Boing Boing!
Kate Lee for being incredibly supportive, Eric Fischer for being a fount of knowledge, and Theresa Bradley for putting the idea of leaving my job to write a book in my head.
One of the fun parts of digging deep into this subject is discovering hidden gems. As I was writing about numeric keypads, I stumbled upon a YouTube channel where Chris Staecker walks the audience through different calculating machines. It’s really informative, to the point, and surprisingly funny. Check it out if you care! It definitely deserves more views.
Send me any questions you have, any keyboard thoughts, or any feedback on this newsletter! Until next time.
PS typing this on the PCjr keyboard really sucked. And yet next time it’ll get even worse.