Something I Didn’t Think I Would Care About

A few years ago, I remember hearing about something called a “mechanical keyboard” and having vague memories of the huge clunky IBM branded monsters that used to be the standard. It didn’t really seem like the kind of thing I’d be into, really. I’ve written a couple hundred thousand words 1 on the ‘newer’ rubber dome models in my life; what could really be so much better about mechanical switches?

Obviously, I still have a ways to go about knowing myself better, because in restrospect this is exactly my kind of thing. One of the big turn off’s for the whole enterprise was, honestly, the cost. Spending a minimum of $100 just to get into the ground floor seemed extravagant, and I was honestly quite happy with my sub $40 boards I’d been buying. Then I noticed that monoprice.com had a “Cherry MX Blue” keyboard for not a whole lot more. “Scott,” says I, “that’s pretty reasonable. Let’s find out what the fuss is about.”

“Scott,” says I, “that’s pretty reasonable. Let’s find out what the fuss is about.”

The fuss, it turns out, is a typing experience that far exceeds the one I’d been having for nigh on two decades now. You know those bubble style buttons that’s on every microwave? You know how frustrating and unsatisfying they are to push, where you’re not quite sure by feel if you’ve done it right? Compare that to how it feels to throwing a freshly installed deadbolt lock, one that’s been oiled up and is still sitting in the doorjam perfectly. That will give you some idea of the difference between rubber dome keyboards and mechanical keyswitches.IMG_7728

My Monoprice board (pictured in the background there) was really me getting my toes wet. I immediately loved it, but I also knew that it wasn’t the ultimate solution. The first thing I noticed were the particular switch type in question: Cherry MX Blues. They felt very good, but these are colloquially known as the ‘clicky’ or ‘noisy’ switches. That descriptor is an understatement. If my office door was open and I was typing with enough force to bottom them out, the noice could be heard anywhere in my house. The sound of typing was loud enough that I felt bad using my computer when my wife was asleep2. So I knew I needed quieter keys.

As well, the form factor of the board, something I’d taken for granted for pretty much all the time I’ve used keyboards, started to get to me. I discovered that many people swear by the newer small boards. The advantage being not only a regained amount of desk space, but also a better ergonomic setup. A smaller keyboard means your mouse sits closer to the centerline of your body and reduces wrist and arm strain while using it.

When Massdrop.com featured a group by for a seemingly tiny keyboard with the new switch type I wanted to try, I had to get it on it. Since I’d just lost my job, the prospect of blowing nearly a hundred dollars on a peripheral seemed a bit ludicrous, but I excused myself by using some credit card reward points to pay for it. Thus, I became the proud owner of a KBP V60 Mini.

Worth every penny.

First off, the switches are the Cherry MX Brown switches that I ordered are a damn sight better than the blues. I was expecting them to feel very similar, and they do, with nearly the same activation force and a tactile ‘bump’ when they trigger. However, they’re also much more reasonably quiet. The feel is fantastic. The metal plate that the switches are mounted to feel exceedingly sturdy, and the caps have a nice weight and feel. Typing on this thing is a joy.

The small layout is something that takes getting used to. All of your function keys, navigation keys, and a few other things are on a function layer. For the most part this is pretty reasonable. Hitting FN+5 for F5 is absolutely fine. The sticking points come on the arrow keys and Delete. Arrow navigation is moved to FN+WASD, FN+PL;’, or through FN+Return which swaps your RSHIFT, WIN, MENU, and RCRTL buttons for a makeshift arrow cluster. None of these solutions really replace physical arrow keys properly. Similarly, Delete is FN+F or FN+Backspace, which is just a smidge inconvenient for how often Delete is used. Neither of these are sticking points, I love this keyboard nonetheless, but it’s something to remember when going for the next one.

The V60 Mini more than makes up for it with its party piece though:

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I don’t think I can accurately describe how nice it is to have a real keyboard, a really good one at that, working with my tablet. With my Nexus 9, the V60 Mini, a decent stand, and a couple of cables, I have  mobile writing station that is just fantastic. It’s been a little quest to find a Word Processor and a decent TXT editor, but once those were sorted, I can both write and do some coding on the run3. If you’re a human with a need to input characters into the digital world, this is a great way to do it.

Now I’m severely tempted to trying buying a kit and soldering my next keyboard together myself.

Honda Nighthawk CB250

Well, now you get to see the MX-5‘s real replacement in my little stable of vehicles. The Volkswagen GTI that I bought on loan is a fun car, and it gets me to work and loads people an groceries just great, but it just doesn’t inspire the same passion for driving that the wee Mazda did ((More’s the pity)) . So when the poor beleaguered convertible sold via eBay, I held the cash specifically to buy myself a motorcycle. A few weeks of assiduous craigslist-ing later and I have myself a lovely little 250cc bike to have some fun with while I relearn how to ride.

I’ve put five hundred miles on this little guy now and I’m starting to feel comfortable voicing some opinions on it. Measure all of this, of course, by the fact that I haven’t spent any serious time on another bike ((As a rider)) . “Why review a used bike?” you might ask. Well to be fair, who is going to buy a 250cc bike new anyway? A used Nighthawk is a better example of a first bike then the shiny new CBR250Rs, TU250xs, Ninja 250Rs you can grab at the moment.

It’s important to keep in mind about the CB250 ((and it’s Cruiser sibling, the Rebel CMX250)) is that it is a bike from nearly two decades ago. Mine was built this millennium but you can swap parts between it and the bikes built in 1982 without noticing the difference. Furthermore, this was a budget bike in ’82, so there are absolutely no frills. Disc brakes? No. Tachometer? No. Fuel Injection? No. Windscreen? No. Digital instruments? No. Self canceling turn signals? Haha, no. ABS? Do I need to say? The CB250 is just a motorcycle, nothing else. If there is anything above the bare minimum you can think of, Honda left it off.

That I think, is the defining characteristic of this bike, for good and bad. On the negative: it lacks absolutely anything that would make it special, any sort of creature comfort or gee-whizzery. On the positive: it’s simple, bullet-proof, and undiluted. It’s hard to imagine a purer example of the breed.

Lack of features means there’s less to go wrong. Anything left off the drawing board is never going to fail and make your life more complicated, and for the new rider, less features means less distraction, less to mess with when you should be focusing on what is on the road ahead of you.

This is a little bike. The seat height is a third of an inch higher then my wife’s Honda Ruckus but because of its narrower profile, it’s actually even easier for a smaller rider to flat foot. At less then 300lbs, it’s a featherweight in the US market. This all combines to make an easy and forgiving little bike to handle and it’s painfully obvious why MSF schools stock these bikes for training fledgling riders on.

Here in ‘merica, we like to think of 250’s ((Disclosure: the CB250 is actually 234cc)) as minuscule little engines, but in the parts of the world where the motorcycle is actually the default mode of transport it’s actually the high end of the spectrum. In this light, the CB250 is not under-powered. There is enough there to work with and not one horsepower more. It has just enough t do highway speeds, and not just for exit and then off. This will pull you up to speed and keep you there but you won’t be in the passing lane. One thing to remember with this engine, especially if your ears are used to hearing car motors instead of bikes, is that it starts sounding pretty angry just as it’s hitting its power band. If you shift up then, you’ll think you’re running out of first gear at 12 mph and the engine will never feel as sprightly as it really is. To get the most out of this little engine, you need to rev the nuts off of it.

What falls far more short are the brakes. Drums were the peak of technology at one point, but even in the 80’s they were a budget choice. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that the softer drum brakes make it harder for a new rider to panic and lock the front tire, but I remember having no trouble doing just that on a CMX250 during my MSF course oh so long ago. The drums on this bike just don’t inspire confidence and I find myself clipping more long yellow lights because I’d rather do that then try to bring this thing to a dignified halt. The brakes are probably the one area that I wish Honda had done more then just enough.

As for ergonomics, there’s not much to say. The seating position is neutral and upright, something I like. The cockpit doesn’t feel cramped, aided by the lack of a stepped seat which lets you sit farther forward or back depending on preference. The controls are all easy to reach and the instruments are nearly idiot-proof in their simplicity ((Possibly the only thing not immediately when sitting on the bike for the first time are the red-line markings on the speedometer, showing you when you absolutely must shift up for each gear)) .

And that is about all. A short review, which befits the simple nature of the bike, but that is probably its greatest asset and its greatest flaw. This is a simple, inexpensive, forgiving bike for anyone. It is efficient not only with gas but with itself. There’s nothing about it that is spare or overdone. But when I first started looking into this bike to purchase, I scoured online to try to find the community for it. Every other motorcycle I know of has a forum or site somewhere where people come together to swap information and talk about it. For the Nighthawk 250? There really isn’t one. This bike was made for more then two and a half decades, and because of its heavy use by MSF, a huge number of riders have had their butts on these. But there’s no soul. It’s the Ford Taurus of motorcycles; there is nothing really wrong with it, people would recommend it, but it never inspired anyone to ever feel anything for it. Any passion one feels for the Nighthawk 250 is a passion one would feel for any bike and no more.




Car History: New Chapter

I wasn’t expecting to be on the car market again. I really loved my little Miata, so much so that I was rather expecting to run it into the ground ((And with over a hundred thousand miles on it, it was well on its way)) . Life doesn’t always comply. On an outing to run some errands in my old home town and see my dear old mum, the scathingly volatile  Texas weather got the better of me. After a half hour huddled in a closet for fear of having a tornado make off with the house, I emerged to see my lovely little roadster looking like this:

You’re looking at it there after the windshield was fixed as well. Truth is of course, that the car isn’t any worse to drive then it was before the storm. If I was willing to sink the money for a new top and a to repair one wing mirror and a busted tail light, I’d be pretty much the same place mechanically as a I was before all this happened. I seriously considered doing all that. But every time I looked back at that beaten body, my heart just sank. The 2nd Gen MX-5 is such a pretty car, with graceful curves and that wide, long expanse of bonnet. With those looks sullied, my heart is broken. To truly get my car back, my lovely little car, would’ve cost an order of magnitude more then the thing was worth to begin with.

So it goes on the chopping block. The next person to make me a decent offer on it ought to do so at the end of long stick, lest I take their arm off in my enthusiasm.

Thus began the great car hunt of 2012. As my wife will tell you ((or more accurately, bemoan endlessly at the slightest provocation)) , I am fairly picky about my vehicle. There was a time, none too far in the past either, when my priorities were centered on things like practicality and fuel economy, which led me to buy the most boring car in the world. Later, when the fire of enthusiasm had once again flared within the more primordial corners of my brain, I bought the Miata, a car who’s only purpose in this world is pleasure. This time, however, I needed to blend the two. My lovely long-suffering life-partner has of late been bent on dropping her own car from the equation. Her commuting needs are limited to a mile or so to work and the occasional sojourn to the gym and it’s become obvious that her little hatchback is rather overkill for all that. With the Miata up for sale and myself on the prowl, it seemed the right thing to do was for me to purchase a car that would be capable of taking on the role of our only car and free her up to drop her’s for something like a small scooter. But this makes my list of car buying criteria sort of challenging: I need a car that’s fun to drive for me, something that the ponderous Mr. May would say “gives me the fizz”, but it also needs to be easy to handle for the wife and able to be stuffed with a pile of cargo for the both of us.

At one point, I sat down and made a list of every car I could think of that I’d have fun driving, then crossed everything off that couldn’t also be driven by my less automotively inclined partner, or that didn’t have room for a rhinoceros in the back. It was left with two options. One was the AMG E-class estate by Mercedes. This boasts a hefty 550 HP twin turbo-charged V8, a 7-speed shiftable automatic transmission, and the sub-zero coolness of having all of that in a station wagon, but since I don’t have $120,000 burning a whole in a bank account, it wouldn’t do. That just leaves the four door Volkswagen GTI.

So I went and bought one.

Oddly enough, even though VW makes a fair number of these every year, the particular cross-section of features I wanted actually makes for a fairly rare car. Few enough of the yobbos who typically buy the GTI want a four door model ((I’d be one of said yobbos if I wasn’t married, mind you)) but those few who do typically opt for the more feature packed “Autobahn Edition” which tacks on a number of features I don’t really care about for and extra couple of thousand I’m not willing to pay. It took a bit of scrounging to find the right one but I did and I managed to drive it home just the other day.

My opinion of the car will probably solidify further over the rest of my time owning it, but for now I have to say it is matching or exceedingly my expectations in all regards. On the face of it, ((that is to say: when my wife drives)) it’s just a car. It’s got enough room in the back for a small pack of canines, and you can fold down the seats if you need more. It may have nifty little shifters on the wheel for messing with the gears, but if you aren’t worried about them, they won’t worry about you either. The ride is firm but not jarring. It’s call all the bells and whistles modern cars are expected to come with. As far as practicality goes, it’s just a newer, petrol version of the Golf TDI that already does the hauling for our little clan.

And for me: there’s a place on the gear level with a little “S” by it.

The two liter turbocharged engine in the golf is a great little work horse. Planting your foot into the carpet doesn’t feel like setting off a bomb, but at nearly any speed it does result in a rush of power to the front wheels and a firm pressure that pushed you back into the seat and pushes the corners of your mouth up into a wicked little smile. If that isn’t enough power to please, you can wait around another 6 months or so and you can grab the new 220 HP Mk7 GTI, or shell out another ten grand and you can grab a Golf R, but those options are a waste of time and money. An hour and less the one grand at a local performance shop can will put a new ECU in the car, and that lets you plumb the depths of the GTI’s untapped reserves. Whether this is an option that I’ll be taking is unclear just yet. ((Talk to me when someone takes that wreck of a Miata off my hands and I’m wondering how I deposit cash into a bank with no branches)) .

My Grandfather’s boots

The house I grew up is a pretty average 80’s track home. The living room is pretty central to the floor plan, and laid out with a couple of large windows on each side of the house. Above one of these windows is a collection of artifacts of my mother’s family: an old violin, some pictures. The window across the way holds a paternal collection: a license plate from the truck I learned to drive in, a national geographic from the month my father was born, a collection of belt buckles, and a pair of Redwing work boots.

My father’s father died when I was thirteen. It was the first family death I remember vividly. My maternal grandmother had died some years before, but I was young enough and the distance between my mother’s family and my own so great, that I cannot pick out any salient details about the event. My paternal grandparents lived in town, and their entire clan of children and grandchildren were no farther then the, admittedly expansive, borders of our home state. His death was sudden and happened at a time when I was cusping the point when a child begins to take really take part in such events. I spoke at the service and I remember the strange air about the family for quite some time afterward.

There’s a second sort of death for a person after the physical one, when objects of their life are moved, discarded, or repurposed; when the holes they leave behind are patched over, filled in, or left to heal. This second death can take years, decades, to fully happen, and may never really finish, but it is at its most active in the days or weeks following their laying to rest. One small aspect of this, for my grandfather, was the dispersal of his clothes.

I got a number of objects, a belt and some shirts amongst else, but the most important was his size 12, 8 inch work boots.  These boots already had years of wear on them the before then went on my feet. In certain respects this counted against them: the soles were worn smooth since I got them and the wearer’s feet was subject to an uncomfortable but occasional poking from a bent steel toe. But in one factor it was a blessing; new boots are always uncomfortable, and never feet right until months of wear and tear has broken them in. These were easy to wear from day one. Wear them I did, off an on for seven years.

When my father and I rode motorcycles together, these were the boots I wore. They were the boots I learned to ride in. These were the boots I traipsed around parks in with my buddies and it was in these boots I returned later with the same buddies to play midnight games of laser tag. Sometime in high school, these became my de facto footwear and remained so until several years into my stint with higher education.

I don’t know how many years of abuse these boots took because I’m not sure how long they were worn before I got a hold of them. After seven years in my hands, they still weren’t ready to go. I decided to retire them while there were still in one piece rather then let them go completely to pot. This was when they earned their spot above the window.

After such exemplary service, there was no way I was going to buy any other brand. I cashed in a Birthday Present voucher with my mom and dragged her down to the only Redwing store I could find. That was about seven years ago. These 2238’s didn’t have the steel toe of the old ones, and somewhere along the way Redwing had starting incorporating cloth bits into the design, but they faired pretty well over the years since.

I must take this opportunity to remark upon how much I love the texture of good old leather. Unlike modern materials, it actually improves with age. I want my car seat upholstered with this stuff. I want my laptop bag made from it. When I break down and buy a really good mandolin, I’m calling up Whipping Post Leather and having them make me a case for it.

Alas, there are weak points in these new boots. The cloth that joins the tongue to the body of the boot gave up the ghost long ago, and my wife’s repair job has since been unrepaired by time and wear. The soles had long gone smooth. As you can see from the photo, they’d long since stopped being able to pass for ‘nice shoes’.

So I finally broke down and retired these too. I haven’t yet been able to throw them away. Be kind, I’m working up to it. I’m unsure about their replacements. After a long hard research online, I decided to give a new company a try, in a desperate attempt to snag some paratrooper style side-zips. I’m still in the breaking in process on these guys but I’m worried. I’ve had canvas sided boots before and they just don’t last the same way leather does. Moreover, their soles are exceedingly thick. I suppose because they are ‘tactical’ boots, this is so I can kick in doors should the need arise, but for everyday use and driving in particular, this is less then ideal.

Maybe I’ll be back in a Redwing store in couple of weeks, returning like an old friend.