Back to basics: Unicomp EnduroPro Keyboard

In which I go back to the past and get myself a buckling spring keyboard.

I am typing this on a Unicomp EnduroPro keyboard. PC users of a certain age who used the original IBM PC in the early 1980s will remember the massive keyboards that came with the first machines. Heavy, beefy, noisy monsters that weighed enough to break a big toe should one drop it.

These keyboards are a far cry from the plastic contemporaries turned out by Logitech and Microsoft. There are no special shortcut keys, no split layouts that purport to be more ergonomic. Just big raised keys that make a strangely satisfying click as their “buckling spring” mechanism kicks in and lets you know that you are actually typing and getting stuff done.

I have the version with an integrated TrackPoint pointing device — complete with the familiar red cap found on Lenovo’s ThinkPads. I’m a big fan of the pointing stick because it means I don’t need to take my right hand off of the keys to find a mouse and click on something. Alas, the Unicomp driver doesn’t let one adjust the sensitivity of the pointer, and on my Windows machine the thing is way too twitchy to get much done.

But typing is another thing all together. The tactile and auditory feedback is very satisfying, especially if you type with only index fingers and thumbs like I do. This is a keyboard that brings me back to the days of actual mechanical typewriters and now that I hear and feel things the way I used to when I write I actually feel invigorated by the experience.

Rudyard Kipling wrote an essay about his desk which can be found in John Hersey’s excellent compendium of writers writing about writing, The Writer’s Craft. Kipling described how everything had to be arranged just so in order for the muse to inspire him, describing how every detail of the desk in front of his eyes had to be perfect in order for the mystical experience of creativity to flourish. Other writers have mused about the impact of their tools on their craft. William F. Buckley’s mused about the impact of the first word processors and XyWriute on his writing. David McCullough continues to bang out his work on a manual typewriter. Jack Kerouac fed a continuous roll of butcher paper into his typewriter so as not to interrupt his steam of consciousness when he wrote On the Road.

I won’t get into the fundamental truth that writing on any device connected to the internet is a recipe for distraction and procrastination. But for now, this $105, seven-pound revival of the original PC keyboard is making me very happy.

Date Formats

How do you write the date? I worked with a CEO who demanded the company respect its international operations by writing the date this way: DAY-MONTH-YEAR, or 17/5/2019. That’s backwards from how I was taught to write it in grammar school when it was MONTH-DAY-YEAR. or 5/17/2019. What’s an Ugly American to do in a globalized world?

I still hew to the common American format in my writing and speaking when I need to insert a date into a sentence: “Today is May 17, 2019.” But Non-American English speakers prefer to say the day first, as in “The Japanese attacked on the 7th of December,1941.” This follows the “biblical” construction used in many formal religious and legal documents: “On the 7th day of December, in the year of our Lord 1941.”

But neither written or spoken expression works when managing a lot of files that are being reviewed and red-lined by clients and their lawyers. I need a format that will allow me to sort a directory and the contents of each subdirectory in chronological order. In that case I follow the ISO 8601 format which seems to me to make the most sense: YEAR-MONTH-DAY. For example. a document is named with the date first, in descending order of the time units’ “size” and then separated by hyphens with an underscore after the date and before the document’s name, followed by another hyphen, my initials, another hyphen and the version number: 2019-05-17_documentname_DCC_V1.ext

The ISO format can be sorted but every single-digit month and day –like “May 5” –must be preceded by a zero, (e.g. 2019-o5-17) or it won’t sort correctly.

The various options are bewildering without the International Standard Organization’s official guidance.

  • DMY: Day-Month-Year: this, according to Wikipedia, is “common to the majority of the world’s countries and is the preferred form used by the United Nations. This is what that old CEO wanted. But even then there are a lot of options when writing in that format. “17 May 2019” is expressed with a period after the date in German-speaking countries: “17.May 2019.” Then there is: 17/05/2019; 17-05-2019;17-May-2019; 17May19; “The 17th of May 2019”; 17/May/2019; Friday 17 May 2019; 17/v/19 (when the Roman numeral is used to signify the month by some schools and by the Vatican (to avoid using the names of months named after Roman pagan gods) and in Canada to make the format bilingual for English and French speakers.
  • YMD: Year-Month-Day: this is favored in East Asia and a few other countries and is expressed as: 2019-05-17 or 2019/05/17. ISO 8601 follows this format, but expresses it as a monolithic eight digit number for digital file names: 20190517.
  • MDY: Month-Day-Year: This is the U.S. format (also used in the Philippines and English-speaking Canada): May 17, 2019 or 05-17-2019 or 5/17/19/
  • YDM: Year-Day-Month: 2019.17.05 or 2019 17 May. This is how they write the date in Kazakhstan,Latvia, Nepal and Turkmenistan. In case you wondered……

Internet dates are defined by RFC 3339 and is expressed as YYYY-MM-DD.

So why get all global and follow the ISO standard? Wikipedia explains:

“One of the advantages of using the ISO 8601 date format is that the lexicographical order (ASCIIbetical) of the representations is equivalent to the chronological order of the dates, assuming that all dates are in the same time zone. Thus dates can be sorted using simple string comparison algorithms, and indeed by any left to right collation….The YYYY-MM-DD layout is the only common format that can provide this.”

Wikipedia: “Calendar Date”

The Fair-Haven Sharpie

While going through some junk I discovered a copy of a paper I wrote in 1977 in college on the origins of the Fair-Haven Sharpie, a flat-bottomed oyster skiff popular in New Haven, Connecticut in the 19th century. I wrote this for Professor William Ferris, then a professor of American Folk Lore in the American Studies Department of Yale. While most of the syllabus and lectures focused on his work in African-American music and culture of the Mississippi Delta, I went down a more local path and researched the development of the sharpie, tracing its origins back to the dugout canoes built by the Iroquois.  The research entailed me walking east from my dorm room across to the Fairhaven neighborhood on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in search of any old timers who might have worked in the once burgeoning oyster fishery. I had a cassette recorder, a notebook, and a cheap camera.

sharpie.png

I thumbed to Mystic Seaport a few times to check out their collection of small boats and did my time in the research library there reading Howard Chapelle, the dean of American small boat design and curator at the Smithsonian. Chapelle had speculated on the dug out canoe origins of the long, narrow skiffs and I went a little deeper and keep digging into the construction techniques and coastal migration of the design up and down the East Coast. The sharpie was a very popular working boat and was utilized in the commercial oyster fishery from Cape Cod to Florida.

I lucked out with my leg work when I poked my head into a Fairhaven barber shop and asked the old timers there if they knew any old oystermen.  I was directed to a local nursing home and there I met three very old codgers who still had their wits and could regale me with stories about the boats they built, sailed and worked from most of their lives.

When it came time to present the final paper in Ferris’s class, the grad student who ran my seminar (the once a week gathering of a dozen students and their assigned seminar leader) interrupted me and told Ferris I had never, not once, attended a single seminar during the entire term. Which was true. I worked in the library printing press during the afternoon before rowing practice and needed the job to keep my scholarship, so I blew the seminar off which I did in almost every lecture because I saw no point listening to blowhard classmates suck up to the grad student.

Ferris (who also graduated from The Brooks School, my prep school) said something to the effect of, “Oh yes. The oyster boat paper. About that. Have you considered post-graduate work in maritime history? I’m giving you an A+ and recommend you continue the work, it’s fascinating and the most novel piece of work I’ve seen in ten years of teaching this class.”

Wow. Okay. Wonder how he would have felt if he knew I had handed in the same paper to two other professors that same term and racked up two more A+’s for the same work.

Anyway, a reporter at the Cape Cod Times was doing some research on sharpies for his brother who was building one, and he came across a copy of the paper on file at the New Haven Historical Society. I guess one of the three professors deemed it good enough to submit it on my behalf.

Here it is — my writing circa sophomore year.

The Fair-Haven Sharpie