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Beangabang Village, Indonesia

Panorama of Beangabang Village

We visited Beangabang, a remote village on the southern side of Pantar Island in Indonesia.  The volcanic island is rocky with craggy hills in the center.  The village is nestled on a beautiful bay that curves gracefully between two out flung headlands.  A large lava flow on one side shows the islands fiery past, and parts of the beach are so hot that they are painful to walk on and the black sand of the beach is steaming.

Unlike the other villages that we had passed during our trip, there was no electric lights or cars or scooters here.  This did not feel like the most prosperous of islands.  The buildings were rough, with roofs more rust than tin, and a number of weathered buildings that were either half built or half torn down.   The areas around the houses were tidy and organized.  Dugout canoes were ranked neatly above the high tide line on the beach.  For all the lack of amenities, every person we saw and talked to was smiling.

Village girl with baby shark.

As we approached the beach in the tender from the boat, a pack of smiling children ran from all directions and converged on the beach.  A older girl, perhaps 12 is cradling what appears to be a toy shark like a baby doll.  A closer look shows that it is actually a dead baby shark.  Through out the visit she proudly carried the shark with her as she roved along with the band of smiling children.
I carried my camera, and asked one child if I could take her picture.  She solemnly nodded yes. I turned the camera around as showed her the picture and she smiled wide, and giggled, then pulled her little brother over and asked me graphically to take their picture.

A dozen of other children wanted their picture taken.  In groups and singly they wanted to see themselves on the camera screen.  Each pointed at the screen and smiled and laughed.  One boy asked to borrow my sunglasses, and posed with attitude and every other boy wanted to try them. The sheer delight and laughter was infectious.  Watching the kids interact with each other and laughing with and at us visitors made me consider how different things are in the United States.
We live in an age when playgrounds are considered unsafe, and are being removed because the liability of a jungle gym or merry go round has become too great, where children interact with televisions, gameboys, iphones, and computers instead of other people, and where learning the rough and tumble reality of human interaction is frequently left until children leave home.
The most refreshing thing about the visit was the absence of the touch.  On other dive trips, village visits have become an opportunity for the villagers to sell handicrafts or produce.  This really was a visit, an opportunity to spend a few minutes with people living a far different life and smile and laugh together.

Free hugs

Free Hugs

Its a rare thing to meet people who are trying to change the world one person at a time because it’s the right thing to do.  It’s humbling to look up from the intense focus on the routine grind of daily life, and ask yourself what you are doing to change the world, or if not the world just the life of a single person.

Fremont Street, Las Vegas

I was in Las Vegas for Photoshop world, and decided to spend Sunday evening on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.  Fremont street is the center of the old Las Vegas casinos.  It starts with the newly opened Plaza hotel  and stretches for 7 blocks with a massive screen covering the street that plays large video shows.  My self assignment that night was to try to capture the energy of the crowd.  It was the perfect evening to capture this energy on film.    Memorial day weekend was winding down, and Fremont street was hoping with live music, and the amazing crowd mix that only Vegas seems to have, of girls in poodle skirts, newly weds in their wedding clothes, cowboys, hard weathered locals and people from every walk of life across the world all milling around together in search of excitement.
I have visited Fremont street many times over the years.  I like scale of it, compared to the massive properties on the Las Vegas Strip, downtown Vegas has a much more human scale.  The properties are smaller, and feel like relics from a simpler age.  They have all the attractions, loads of neon, and all the hedonistic pleasures of Las Vegas, but on a scale that I can comprehend.  You can wander from casino to casino, taking your drink with you, and stroll down the pedestrian portion of Fremont street to watch the live music, interesting characters and the most fascinating part, the crowd itself.
Fremont has been at the

Free Hugs Anyone?

very heart of Las Vegas since the city was founded in 1902.  It was the first paved street in the city, site of the first Nevada gaming license, the first traffic light, the first elevator, and first high rise building.  Since 1995 it has been home to the Fremont Street Experience, a massive show shown on the screen that stretches the length of the pedestrian mall.
I was having a good time watching the shows and the crowd, trying to get a feel for how to capture what was going on around me.  I had decided that I was going to shoot with a 24-70 lense and set the ISO to auto to allow the best capture of images based on available light.  I knew that this would introduce significant noise, however the 1d Mark IV seems to do a great job a minimizing noise.   Later I switched to the 35mm 1.8 prime lens that is my favorite low light lens.  I wanted to ensure that I was focusing on capturing the feeling, the drama, the story, not so much on perfect composition and technical excellence.

About 20 minutes into the shoot I noticed a beautiful woman holding a sign that said “Free Hugs”.  This instantly put me on my guard because I know and believe in TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).    I took a couple of shots of her, and the crowd around her trying to look anywhere but at her, and pretend that she wasn’t there.  The photo intrigues me because the people in the crowd in the background are in focus, and she is not. (I forgot to reset the auto focus point from the previous shot.  Oops.)  I figured there had to be a gimmick, or a touch that went with the sign.

As the night wore on, I saw more people around with the FREE HUGS signs.  There seemed to be no common denominator of the people with the signs.  I watched and photographed and realized that there appeared to be no gimmick.  There was no money changing hands, no hook about religion, no politics, no touch.  Puzzling.  I asked one of the guys with the signs and he told me that he’d got his from a guy with a clear backpack and that the campaign was to raise awareness of homeless people.

Free Hugs Guys

I continued to stroll up and down through the crowd and finally saw a guy with a clear backpack filled signs.  I went up and introduced myself.  His name was Billy.  There are some people who are filled with such intense innocence and gentle goodness that you feel coarse and awkward in their presence.  Billy is one of those people.  He eagerly explained the philosophy and purpose of the campaign. For a 10 dollar donation to help the homeless in LA, I could buy a sign and help to spread the message of Hope, Unity and Non-judgment one hug at a time.  I offered to pay 20 dollars to not buy a sign.  This puzzled Billy, but finally he allowed me to give the donation without taking a sign.

I’ve puzzled over why I didn’t buy a sign and wander through the crown soliciting FREE HUGS to help make a statement.  I suspect that some of the detachment of being behind the camera applies.  I’ve grown very used to seeing the world through a camera view finder.   I can analyze and choose what I want to see and how I want to record it, so like many photographers, I have a hard time being in front of the camera.  The camera insulates me from what is going on around me and is a clear boundary between observer and participant.  Either that, or I’m shy.

I met a second organizer, Andrew a few minutes later.  He was the complete opposite of Billy.  He was a passionate man with infectious  enthusiasm for the work they were doing.  He had the courage to see the world for the sometimes dark, flawed and imperfect place that it is, and the compassion to believe the bright and shining view of what it can be.  The warm bright glow of this vision seemed to radiate out to battle against the darkness around.  Hope, Unity and Non-judgment.  There’s no profit in any of those concepts, but there is great value.
We had breakfast as the party started to shut down on Fremont Street at the California Hotel, a few blocks away.  The time after midnight is always interesting as the low ebb of the body cycles seems to allow things to  be viewed and experienced differently.  Fears and hopes hidden deep away during the bright light of the day boldly come out to play, and fill us either with a maudlin depression or the ebullient hope that dawn will bring a brighter day.
It was a long breakfast filled with lively conversation and I left with questions like, “what do I do for my community?”, and “what difference did I make today for a single person?”.
I relearned some important things from the Free Hugs guys.  You don’t have to try to change the world in one massive moment, you can make a difference, one person, one act, one touch at a time.  The simple kindness of contact, the basic respect of an other regardless of their situation, the hope that things will be better.  All these simple truths.
So while I believe that Robert Heinlein was correct, that “There Ain’t No Such Thing AS A Free Lunch”, there is such a thing as free hug, and that is a very good thing.

On Seeing

It is strange how seeing a thing of beauty all the time numbs the senses over time. I live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, Interior Alaska. Every day my jaded eyes are bludgeoned with majestic mountains, and scenic vistas filled with fascinating and photogenic animals. I checked the location tags in my photo archive, and of sixty thousand images, about 20 percent were taken in Alaska. This seems odd when I spend 90% of my time in Alaska. When I travel, I find there are so many things to see and to photograph that are new and amazing. I take hundreds of photos, trying to freeze each new sight, and spend many cold winter nights working with images of the tropics that surprise and delight.

Last week I had a friend come to visit. We did a large loop of the state, and I found myself both looking and seeing based on my friends enthusiasm. I came back with many wonderful photos, and many questions about how and why we stop seeing what is right in front of us sometimes. It seems sometimes like our brains screen out things that we see and know very well, leaving us blind to the expected but alert for the unfamiliar. I drive work early each morning and see the play of light across the Alaska range, a rugged mountain range that is snow capped year round. Most of the time these are just background, they are expected scenery. Occasionally though, these mountains sneak up on me and dazzle my eyes with their snowy brilliance. These are the days that I marvel at how beautiful Alaska is, and how lucky I am to live here.

I have learned a lot about seeing in photography. I can visualize what I want the photo to look like and use my camera gear to capture that vision. It feels like the next step on this journey is to look past the expected and actually see what is front of me. I have set a modest goal of taking 10 photos a day every day for the month of August of where I live and what I see every day. It will be interesting to view the resulting photos and if I am successful in seeing more clearly.

World Ice Art Championship

World  Ice Art Championship

Ice Sign for World Ice Art Championship

Imagine trekking though the arctic night at -20 degrees through a fantasy landscape filled with huge ice sculptures that demonstrate the strength and fragility of the single building material, ice.  For a few months each year, over 100 ice sculptors from around the world converge on a small patch of ground centered on a pond on the banks of the Chena river in Fairbanks Alaska, to transform 1500 tons of ice into amazing ephemeral sculptures that will last until the first warm day, then melt and run back into the river where the water came from.
There is something incredible about the amount of volunteer effort that goes into the creation of these sculptures, knowing that they will shine for a few brief weeks and then disappear.  Fairbanks is an ideal venue for this event for several reasons.  The ice that is harvested from O’Grady pond right inside the park is exceptionally clear.  The months for February and March have abundant light, and cold enough temperatures to prevent the ice from melting.  There is also a captive population of winter weary people looking for an excuse to get outside after the long winter.
The ice park is open 10am – 10pm daily from February 22 to March 27th.   The event is has three basic parts, the single block competition, the multi block competition, and the kids park.
The single block competition has teams of one or two people who start with a 5ft x 8ft x 3ft block weighing 7800 pounds.  They have 60 hours to transform a raw block of ice into a sculpture.   The single block sculptures are judged under white lights, then illuminated with colored light for public viewing.

An Ice bird, in an Ice Cage balanced on an Ice table!

 

The Multi block competition has teams from two to four sculptors.  Each team receives 10 blocks of ice measuring 4ft x 6ft x 3.3 foot and weighing a minimum of 46,000 pounds.  These blocks are positioned using heavy equipment and volunteer operators to the artists specification.  These teams have 132 hours to create their sculptures, an hour and a half to clean their site, then are judged under white lights and lit with colored lights of public viewing.

The Kids park is an ice formed winter amusement park filled with durable ice slides, skating ring, ice tunnels, ice mazes, and a multi slide sledding hill down onto O’Grady pond.  This is a popular destination to get the kids outside and active.
Shooting photographs of ice is a challenge under the best of circumstances.  The camera light meter is often baffled by the snow and ice it sees, and by the relected light transmitted through the ices itself.  The ice park is nightmare of overhead power lines, sun shades, trees, buildings and poles that makes it hard to isolate the the sculpture for a clean photo.  During daylight hours the optical properties of ice can make for distracting photos as the ice lens effect inverts and reflect the objects around the sculpture.  At night the sculptures are dramatically lit with colored lights, and the background clutter challenges disappear, however the temperatures plummet to -20 or -40 frequently which is hard on the camera gear and on the photographer.  My old Canon Rebel shutter used to freeze after about 20 minutes and require long periods in the warm up building in the middle of the ice park before it would work again.  My Canon 1d Mark IV does not have this challenge and works perfectly in the extreme cold.
Shooting at night at cold temperatures is a challenge.  Cold weather clothes, thick gloves, big boots and the rest make it a challenge to manipulate a camera.  Your breath is visible and it requires caution both when looking through the camera, and during the long exposures required to take the photos, to ensure that you don’t breath on the camera, frosting up the display or breath in a direction that causes your breath to billow in front of the camera fogging the lens, or just obscuring the photo.
The second challenge once the environment is handled is the nature of ice itself.  As a translucent media, light propagates inside, and shines off the outside in perplexing ways.  I have tried using flash, both single and multiple flashes, with and without gels, but the result has been uniformly

Gothic by night, boldly lit with colored lights.

disappointing.  The flash light bounces off the surface and masks much of the detail.

Camera Trivia.
During daylight hours, a custom white balance is required to prevent the camera light meter being confused.  I use an X-rite ColorChecker passport to ensure that I have a good custom white balance and to prevent the grey snow and blown detail that a confused light meter can cause.  I shoot in apature priority mode at F8 to F16, ISO 100 on bright days, and ISO 200 on overcast, and an exposure compensation of -1 or -2 depending on how bright the light is.
At night, I have been most successful shooting the sculptures using a tripod and remote trigger, in Aperture priority mode at F16 or F22, ISO 100.  This routinely results in exposures of 20-30 seconds, but seems the best settings to capturing the depth and detail of the ice, and the interplay of colored lights on the surface and inside the ice.  The AV mode seems to work well at determining an adequate exposure for most pieces.

For more information on this event, visit the Ice Alaska website.

Kid's park sledding hill

Gothic by day. Amazing detail but not as dramatic as the night version. Notice the clutter of trees and the black sun shade positioned to prevent the ice from turning milky.

Multi block by night.

Dramatically lit mask.

Bending Pixels

Wow!  I was browsing the Photoshop User magazine and came across a comment in the Photoshop Q&A that addressed the question of “what is pixel bender?”  I’d love to say that I knew exactly what it would do and that I carefully considered the requirement to download and install this Photoshop extension based on exhaustive research and careful consideration.  Unfortunately I just thought the name sounded cool, and decided to see what it was.
I reached the Pixel Bender Technology Center  at  Http://www.adobe.com/devnet/pixelbender.html, and read that “Adobe Pixel Bender technology delivers a common image and video processing infrastructure which provides automatic runtime optimization on heterogeneous hardware.”  (Is that English?  What does that mean? )  I browsed around on that page that seemed to have nothing to do with what I like to do in Photoshop, with lots of references to Flash and other Adobe products.
I liked the blurb on Programing in Pixel bender that promises: “Low learning curve: Pixel Bender offers a small number of tools that are sufficient to write complex image-processing algorithms. Learning Pixel Bender is easier than learning C/C++ and each application’s plug-in SDK. You do not need to know any graphics shading language or multithreading APIs.”  I learned many years ago that anything do with computers with the word Simple, or Easy wasn’t.  This sounded like more of the same.  Undeterred by an entire page devoted to a product with out explaining what that product does or is in anything resembling english, I decided to download and install it.  After all, it would not have been in Photoshop User, if I wasn’t meant to use it, would it?
I downloaded the product and tried to apply it to a photo, and got a “Image too large” error. I tried different formats and different photos and got the same error over and over again.  Finally I resorted to reading the README file that came with the download, but didn’t find anything helpful there.  As a last resort,  I googled the error, and immediately figured out that I had to update my video driver to be able to use the graphics processor mode for this filter in CS5.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it, just update the driver and get right to the play time.  Two hours later, multiple downloads and installation attempts and much frustration, finally the driver update was complete.  I opened my first file, and opened the photoshop filter, selected Pixel Bender, and chose Oil Paint.  The image jumped to life as the filter applied.  This effect is great and worth the effort!
This filter uses the graphic processor on the video card to process the effects, and there is a whole gallery of various filters for this product.  My favorite so far is the oil paint which allows you to add highly textured stylized brush strokes to an image.  The results have been very cool.

More as I explore some of the other offerings from the Adobe sharing site.
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16bit printing

It’s always a problem when you read specifications to understand exactly what you are getting when you buy a piece of technology.  I read and reread specs and reviews on  my recent printer purchase and I was very concerned about color gamut, and the support for the the “prophoto” color space.  I have done most of my work flow and printing in Lightroom, which uses the prophoto color space.
Printing the wide color gamut of the prophoto  color space to the 8 bit RGB used by the windows print subsystem is kind of like taking the big box of crayons and throwing out all but 8 colors that come in the little box.
Below are the bits and pieces I’ve managed to put together from the Microsoft website and varied sources on the web.

“What is ‘16-bit printing’?

First, let’s define some terminology. I used the term 16-bit above because that’s how people typically talk about this stuff, but from the Windows perspective what we’re really talking about is extended color print support. For color representation in Windows there’s a number of concepts to consider:

1. color precision: the precision at which color information is stored. All other things being equal, higher precision means smoother reproduction of colors. Typically color precision is expressed in bits per pixel, or bits per color component, and you’ll also hear it referred to as bit-depth.
2. color space: the range of colors that a system can reproduce, bounded by a color gamut that defines the limits of the color space. Larger color gamuts are typically better because more of the visible range of colors can be stored or reproduced, but a larger color space will stretch the precision that you can represent colors over a larger area causing banding artifacts. This means that you’ll often want/need to increase precision as the color gamut increases.
3. dynamic range: the range of original scene luminance that can be recorded, or the range of reproduced scene luminance that can be displayed or printed. All other things being equal, a higher dynamic range (a bigger range from black to white) is better.
(Definitions from Wikipedia)

Prior to the new XPS print path introduced in Windows Vista, and refined in Windows 7, color printing support through the operating system was limited in two ways:

1. The precision at which color content could be represented was limited to 8-bits per color channel, for RGB this means 24-bits per pixel (bpp).
2. The operating system had no mechanism to enable components to communicate the color space used when defining colors. An implicit assumption in the print path was that all color content was in the sRGB color space. This made support of other color spaces, spaces that might be more appropriate for the device being used to print, very complicated and error prone. In general this limited the color gamut to that bounded by the sRGB primaries, or resulted in vendors shipping specialized plug-ins to bypass the print path.

The Microsoft XPS Print Path extended the support for color content in several significant areas:

1. The precision at which color content can be represented was significantly increased. For example image data can be represented in pixel formats with precision as high as 32-bits per color channel (i.e. 96bpp for RGB or 128bpp for RGB with alpha).
2. Color content can be represented in integer, fixed and floating point representations.
3. Color content can be represented in any color space. The limitation to an implicit-RGB has been removed, the new path supports sRGB, scRGB, and profiled RGB, CMYK, n-color and named color spaces.
4. All color content is well known. This means that the color space for all color content is fully described (device independent), either because it is a standard color space like sRGB or scRGB, or because it is profiled. This means there are no assumptions or ambiguities regarding the color spaces used by content.
5. The inclusion of this print ticket information using the Print Schema Specification provides a robust mechanism for communicating color configuration information between components in the print path, including which components are responsible for implementing color management.

The combination of these capabilities ensures that the new XPS Print Path in Windows supports completely the requirements for high quality color printing, including color printing commonly referred to as ‘16-bit’.”

So, the question is, how does this work in practice.  What does it take to reproduce 16bit color, and is it worth the effort.  I started by installing the 16bit export plug in to Adobe Photoshop provided with the Canon ipf6350.  I printed a complex image taken in canon camera raw in both Adobe Lightroom 3.0 and Photoshop CS5 and printed with the same printer setting, same paper, and same icc color profile.
The Image I choose was a complex picture of ice with light reflected highlights, and very dark details of moving water and shadows filled with dense detail.  The 16bit image was noticeably more defined in both the highlights, and the shadow areas, and the reproduction was supior  to the image printed via Lightroom, and from Photoshop using the “FILE”, “PRINT” dialog.  The 16 bit image printed via the Canon 16bit plugin very clearly reproduced more accurately to the larger gamut of the prophoto colorspace.
The challege is that this 16 bit print path provided by Canon is specific to the Photoshop program, and bypasses the traditional windows print driver, spooler, and print sub system.  While Photoshop is an outstanding program for editing digital images, it’s print capabilites are focused on a single image on a page, and do not lend themselves easily to some of the output functions that are built into Lightroom and other image packages such as multi image photo layouts.
The Windows operating system now has increased color managment and reproduction capability, however printer manufacturers are apparently slow to take advantage of this increased capability.  This appears to be a non issue printing on a Mac.  16bit printing appears to be built in from the ground up, and just a matter of ensuring the box is checked and the resolution set to the approriate value in the application.   I’m sure the mac users are feeling quite smug about this!

For the moment, it appears that I’ll have to do all my 16bit printing though Photoshop until I can figure out the maze of possibilities to print through windows.

I picked up my new wide format printer last week and I have jumped into the world of fine art printing.  I purchased a canon 24 inch 12 ink imagePROGRAF 6350 photo printer because I really felt I had reached the limit of what my older Epson could do.  I spend months poring over reviews and specs  ( Specs ) on the internet, and finally decided on this printer for several reasons.
The first reason was the absence of any hate posts in the newsgroups.  This struck me as a curious thing because it seems that 20% of all people absolutely hate a product and go out of their way to flame it, 20% that absolutely love a product and it can do no wrong, and these two groups normally represent 80% of the posts to most newsgroups and forums.  I normally filter these out and look for the 20% that are posted by people who really want to provide feedback to other people.  Almost every post I reviewed was looking for refinements.  There were no blazing discussions cataloging a laundry list of issues like there were about the two epson printers I was considering, and reviews were universally strong. 

Printer

Canon ipf6350

The second reason was the size of the ink cartridges.  In my epson printer, I had to change a print cartridge everytime I looked at the printer.  In an average session printing I would invariably have one or more cartridges run out and spoil several prints with color shifts.  The cartridges are big and a full week of printing hasn’t even put a dent in the in levels.
Its interesting to see how polarizing technology can be.  There seems to almost be a relgious fevor to the various camps in photography.  Put a dozen canon photographers in a room with a dozen nikon  photographers, and there are sure to be fireworks as the canon missionaries try to convert the the nikon missionaries to the true path as the nikon missionaries try to convert the canon missionaries.  I have somehow escaped this level of fevor so far, but suspect it may be contagious without strong counter measures to avoid infection.
It’s another major step forward for me in terms of learning.  The past few years I have been focused on the photography and learning the necessary craft to take good photographs.  This year I have started to learn the craft necessary to make good prints.  I think the digital photographer is at a disadvantage in this process because so much of our work exists on the monitor of a computer.  I have been taking digital images for 12 years, and my image archive is over 50,000 images.  I have printed very few of these in the past, and never focused on the print as the over all reason I take photographs.
Had I started photography 25 years ago, I would have been deeply focused on the print as the whole reason for the process of taking the photograph.  Without this grounding in the chemical darkroom basics I am finding that it is much harder than I suspected to produce an outstanding print.   The simple days of producing snapshot quality prints on Gloss, Semigloss or matte Epson paper are over.  This new printer takes my printing to a whole new level.
It starts with the size.  This printer is Big, the paper is Big.  It doesn’t sound like a hard thing to do but I’ve never visualized what a print would look like bigger than 11×17.  I could never print it, so I never thought much about it.  I’m finding that some prints lose context and don’t work if printed too large.   Other prints really call for the scope and scale that a large print allows.  I printed my first panoroma of the Alaska Moutain Range at dawn over four feet long, and for the first time was able to view this photograph in the appropriate scale.  It looks better than I visualized.
The next challenge is the choice of papers.  The days of three types of paper are over.  There are a bewildering variety of papers, with an amazingly variety of finishes and properties.  To make decsions harder, I now have a choice of canvas, and other fabrics.  Visualizing the image as it moves on to these papers is going to take much trial and error to get it right.  I have found already that careful pairing of media and photo can greatly enhance  the final print.
A perfect example is an photo that has a fringe of ice around a rock in a stream with sunlight bouncing through the ice and water.  Printed on gloss photo paper, this is a good photograph.  Printed on a metalic paper, this is an outstanding photograph, because the metalic finish causes the areas there were lit with internal sunlight to glow as if lit from within, and breaths life into the print.
I have much to learn about the craft still.  I had to call my photo mentor last week and ask “I keep reading about using cotton gloves to handle paper as you load it and finished prints, in the instruction manual.  Surely no one really uses them?”  There was an icey silence on the line for a moment, then “Of course I use them.  I have always used them since I had a darkroom.”  When I visited I saw white cotton gloves next to her printer and she even gave me a bag of them to start me out, and a quick lesson the tricks to keep them on as they stretch out.
It will be fun to see where this new challege takes me.  Already shooting photos this last week I find myself not just visualizing the photo and what it look like on the computer, but taking the next step and considering what I expect the finshed photograph to look like.

Models and lights and gels, Oh my.

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In my ongoing quest to acquire the correct tools necessary to improve my writing skills, I’ve taken the next step.  Keyboards.  I am a computer professional, and type on many different computers as part of my job, and I’ve come to accept that basic keyboards that ship with the computer, like so much of the PC are not well suited for the task they are designed for.  My first computer was an IBM, and came with the amazing IBM M series keyboard.  I moved this keyboard from computer to computer for 6 replacement systems before it finally ceased to work a few years ago.
If you are not familiar with a M series keyboard, these keyboards are based on a  buckling spring key switch  mechanism.  This technology was developed by IBM for computer terminal, and early PC keyboards.  The name refers to the coil spring tensed between the key cap and a pivoting hammer  that “buckles”,  or kinks, at a certain point in its downward traverse, providing auditory and tactile feedback. When the spring buckles, the hammer pivoted forwards and strikes an electrical contact which registers the key press.
The beauty of these keyboards is that you have no doubt if you pressed the key.   You have clear feedback that the key was pressed and this improves your ability to type accurately and quickly.  In my last post, I described the challenges that modern world processors present with their thousands of features that actually prevent me from being able to focus on the most critical portion of the process, actually getting words down on the screen.  I was traveling last week, and using my new found favorite  text editor (http://writemonkey.com/), but found that I was making dozens more typing errors than I normally do on my home computer.    The difference?  The keyboard.
The M Series keyboards were developed by IBM who was responsible for the development and refinement of the Selectric Typewriter which has one of the most productive and best key feed back experience ever designed.  designed.  Imagine if you were a typist in the days before computers and you had just finished typing a long page of information, you’re on the last line, and you press the wrong key.  For most application, this meant that you had to start over, and retype the entire page,  or spend the time to white out and correct the document.  This equated to additional time and expense.
With computers, it’s easier because we can just backspace and correct the error before it hits the paper, however the typical mushy membrane keyboard ensures that we make significantly more errors, that equate to lost time and productivity.  I find using my current M series keyboard that I can stare off into space and type with the assurance that the keys that I’m pressing are actually what I intend to press.  This allows me to think and formulate what I want to say without being distracted by the process of inputting those words.
To type this document, I unwrapped and attached the keyboard shipped with my two year old  Acer computer for the first time.  I find that I have to watch the monitor to ensure that I am actually hitting the right keys to make the right letter appear on the screen.  This is a much slower process and makes it harder for me to stay focused on the actual task, which is writing.  So why do we settle for inferior input devices?  Good question.
My current M series keyboard has been getting a bit arthritic, and the S key sticks sometimes.  This keyboard was produced in 1985.  I bought in on eBay used several years ago, but it’s 25 years old.  I have owned 11 computers and 7 laps tops since this keyboard was produced.  It’s not surprising it’s getting a little creaky when it’s the oldest piece of hardware I own.  I started scouring eBay a few weeks ago for another used M series keyboard in the hopes the even if it wasn’t perfect, I could scavenge parts.
I was trying to explain to a friend why I’m going to these lengths to find a used M series keyboard, and hit Wikipedia so I could clearly explain how the buckling spring mechanism worked and found the following statement: “Unicomp, which now owns the rights to the design, continues to sell Model M keyboards.”
M SERIES KEYBOARDS ARE STILL BEING MADE!     How could I have missed this.  How could my computer geek friends and colleagues have missed this? A few trips to Google, and the cause is clear.  Unicomp does not have apparently have a corporate website, just a page that gives their phone number and location.   They’re not even on face book! (just kidding but they’re not.)  My first Google trip was to http://unic

ompincorp.com/ which doesn’t mention keyboards.  Their sales site is hosted on yahoo, and is so poor that I almost didn’t order from it.
Several days later, I was talking to one of my uber geek buddies and my jaw dropped when he responded, “Yeah, they make great keyboards.”  This is the highest, most glowing review I’ve ever gotten from this geek, and armed with that recommendation, I revisited http://pckeyboards.stores.yahoo.net/keyboards.html
I ordered two keyboards at 69 dollars each.  Quality is worth paying for, and this is cheaper than several I’ve watched on eBay.  The order form had a blank for comments, and I couldn’t resist.
“Comments:  Wow, your website really sucks.  It’s been a while since I’ve come across a website that really said, “Please don’t buy my product” as much as this one.  I am a computer professional, and have a rock solid reference for your product, but found myself, make the phone call to my reference and saying, “Your kidding, right, Unicomp?” based on the http://www.unicomp.com website and a yahoo store front.   I’m hoping your products are more impressive.  If these really are M style buckling spring keyboards, I’m very excited.  I would rather buy new products, but didn’t believe these were still in production.”

It will be interesting to see what their response is.  I received a prompt email from an actual person detailing when my order would ship.  More when they arrive.

UPDATE.

Tools for the writing trade. Writemonkey text editor and Unicomp "clicky" keyboard!

My first new keyboard arrived today.  This was the updated version that included the windows keys.  When I picked up the package at the Post Office, the heavy weight told me that I have received something substantial.  Yes, this keyboard is heavy, but it’s also built like a tank.    The touch is outstanding, with the keys firm and defined.  I’ve been going back and forth between this keyboard and my vintage IBM keyboard.  It’s clear there there is more than just the S key that is arthritic on my old keyboard.
This keyboard compared to the membrane keyboard that shipped free with my computer, is like the difference between a cheap plastic screwdriver that’s included with the assembly hardware for furniture free, and a quality crafted tool that feels like an extension of your hand.  It is, in fact the right tool for the job for inputing text.
It would be interesting to know if the reason this device feels so right is because I learned to type on a typewriter, and spent a good part of my early career working on terminals and mainframes.  Perhaps if you have never typed on a typewriter and never used one of these “clicky” keyboards, the feedback is unimportant.  When my second keyboard arrives, I will target some people that have NEVER used this style keyboard and see what their response is.

Just text.

Ok… so I’ve established that I just can’t deal with MS Word for writing. The arrogant blank white screen stretching off into infinity, taunting and daring me to sully it with type, the myriad of auto correct features distracting and blinking their mute disapproval at my feeble spelling and grammar skills, the insulting error messages, and the “are you sure, you’re sure, but are you SURE you know what you want to do” questions. Please don’t get me started on the “Ribbon of Death”.

I’ve been evaluating text editors that just write text, and found that there are many text editors out there with all kind of writer features. All are pricey, and most seems to suffer for the same issues I have with the Microsoft products, too many features and visual clutter. I have narrowed the field to FREE products, and focused on VIM and WriteMonkey.

I am drawn to WriteMonkey, a typewrite style text editor, that doesn’t even require that it be installed, but just displays yellow text on a full black screen. http://www.writemonkey.com Nothing blinks, no menus, no status bar, no flashing, no underlines, just a black screen with green letters. It took a few minutes to change default Courier font to a Century Schoolbook for a more restful display, and AUTO SAVES are disabled by default, but this appears to be an environment where you can think and write without distraction. It even has the ability to make Typewriter sounds by toggling ALT S. I thought this was hokey, but it actually is soothing to hear the sounds as you type.

It has some cool features. F3 allows you to PEEP at the screen underneath. This works great if you’ve looked something up that you want to refer back and forth to. CTRL F3 changes the background opacity so if you want to SEE what you’re referring to on the document behind, and type at the same time, you can. ALT 1-9 will take and place the current word or selection in a number of on line references like dictionaries, thesaurus, and ask.com. F12 gives you a nifty summary of your efforts, and lets you set a word target, and also a count down timer (as if you need more pressure to write.) F7 spell checks your document, on your schedule when you want to, with out flashy underline, or baffling grammar checks.

You can display a status bar that will tell you how many words you have typed and where you with your goal under the preferences F10, but even this is low key and does not interfere with your focus on the words. If you are writing a specific number of words, you can add a visual status bar that will tell you how much you have completed. Both these features can be set to only display after 10 seconds so they are not distracting while you are writing.

Now on to VIM. Typing this paragraph in VIM is comfortable beyond believe. VIM on is the latest generation of the classic old school VI text editor. I’ve spent a good part of my life writing code and modifying it in VI, and know the commands without thinking. It’s buried in my blood some where, and feels as comfortable as an old well worn sweatshirt.

The display is not as elegant as WriteMonkey. VIM doesn’t really deal with text in an word processor fashion. It doesn’t understand that words shouldn’t be broken when they wrap around the screen. It also doesn’t understand if I remove words from a paragraph, and does not automatically wrap the paragraph, like you would expect. Instead you have to run a command to manually reform the paragraph. VIM does have spell check, and if I get tired of writing a story, I can compile it and see if it runs!

Conclusions: It’s oddly comforting to be in a stripped down visual environment with both these editors where I don’t have to use the mouse. All of the commands in both of these editors are Keyboard or command line only. The focus is where it should be, on the words, and all of the commands lurk in the background until called.  I will adopt WriteMonkey for future writing tasks and see if helps my productivity and quality.