Category: Gadgets

The Model 01 vs the Kinesis Advantage

Several years ago I took the plunge and bought a Kinesis Advantage (after even more years of lusting) and it’s still my favourite keyboard (so far) and the one that I have used exclusively in work ever since (every new work colleague at some point says “how do you type on THAT…?” in a tone of voice somewhere between suspicion and awe). Even so, I have found over time that it does have its issues. The tiny escape key is probably the most annoying, as well as the general rubbery crapness of the entire function key row. I find it very easy to accidentally trigger the embedded keypad, which is not as immediately noticeable as you might think. The number keys are also surprisingly difficult to type on without changing hand position.

I also found that I needed to do a LOT of remapping to get keys in a fully ergonomic position (the shift keys are by default under the pinkies rather than the thumbs, for example). And if I remove it from power for too long it forgets and I need to do the whole dance again (I have the steps stuck to the underneath in case I forget). It would be nice if this was scriptable, or unnecessary.

I did once disassemble an IBM model M with the intent of hotwiring it into a more sensible arrangement, but was put off by the difficulty of performing surgery on the underlying membrane circuitry. I think the bits are still in a box under the sofa on my mum’s landing…

The Model 01 is almost exactly the keyboard I envisioned at the time but didn’t have the patience to see through. It’s good to see someone finally build what I was dreaming of all those years ago (and after seeing how much work went into it, I’m sort of relieved it wasn’t me!). They are currently making tons of money on kickstarter, so it looks like full steam ahead. They plan to have the first shipments next year, and I plan to have one in my home office soon thereafter (the Microsoft Natural currently in there just can’t compete with the Kinesis).

In other cool keyboard news, it looks like are nearly ready to start shipping their dinky TextBlade Bluetooth keyboard. I may have one of those on preorder too…

How many notes in an octave?

Short answer? As many as you like. But some choices are better than others. The common “western” system is known as 12-TET (12-tone equal temperament), which is a modification of earlier geometrical tunings (such as the Pythagorean and quarter-comma meantone temperaments) where the frequency of each note is defined in terms of a simple ratio with respect to a reference note (the frequencies of C and G are in the ratio 2:3, for example). There are problems with such systems – frequency ratios between arbitrary notes are not simple in general, and any geometrical tuning system will have a wolf interval, whose dissonant sound must be avoided in musical composition.

By contrast, “equal temperament” systems define the frequency ratio between any two adjacent notes to be a constant, but this constant cannot be a rational number and note frequencies which were once simple ratios of each other are now very slightly detuned. Analogue instruments have a natural variability in their tuning, so this slight “error” usually goes unnoticed.

The division of the octave into twelve equal intervals is a natural progression of the 12-interval Pythagorean system, but is not the only one. The “ideal” tuning system is one where all intervals are based on simple frequency ratios, but this is impossible to realise in practise without either providing an infinite number of notes or severely limiting the musical range of one’s compositions. Many of these ideal intervals are very badly approximated by 12-TET, notably the minor third (the interval between C and E♭). 31-TET is a better match overall, however it more than doubles the number of notes required on an instrument, and many of these will not be used in the vast majority of compositions because they do not approximate a useful interval.

Compromise tunings which do not require so many redundant notes include the alien-sounding 22-TET and the more mellow 19-TET. The latter gives improved major (C-E) and minor (C-E♭) thirds compared to 12-TET, at the expense of a slightly less accurate fifth (C-G). It also has few enough notes that 19-TET instruments are quite practical to construct and play. I had to try.

19TET refretted Encore strat copy
19TET refretted Encore strat copy

I refretted this guitar two years ago and forgot to blog about it at the time. I was fully convinced that I had, up until the point when I tried to find the appropriate link to help spice up my entry into this competition. I’m addressing my earlier failing now.

I have three guitars, though technically one of them belongs to my brother. The cheapest and crappest of my two was duly sacrificed in the name of science. I bought a fretsaw and obtained a length of fretwire from a local instrument repair shop. The existing frets on the guitar were easy enough to prise out of their grooves, and new grooves in the appropriate places* were easy to cut. To cut down my workload, I only refretted one octave worth of the neck – this isn’t as big a sacrifice as it sounds, as the 19-TET fret spacing close to the body would be far too narrow to play comfortably. The biggest difficulty came in cutting and shaping the new frets – I ended up having to file off a few offending corners and in doing so scratched the edges of the fretboard. Overall I’m pleased with the result though – it plays easily and looks just like a “real” guitar until you get too close.

How do you adjust your playing style to a completely different fretboard?  The pearl inlays from its 12-TET days are still present, and provide a useful visual clue for where the fingers should go. If that doesn’t work, I usually just fiddle with the chords until it sounds right. As a rule of thumb, anything requiring a one-fret interval should now use two, and a two-fret interval becomes three.

One advantage that 19-TET has over (say) 22-TET is that standard music terminology can be (ab)used. The white-note names are unchanged, black flats and sharps are now distinct notes (C♯ is not D♭), and B♯=C♭ and E♯=F♭ are now notes in their own right:

C C♯ D♭ D D♯ E♭ E (E♯=F♭) F F♯
  G♭ G G♯ A♭ A A♯ B♭ B (B♯=C♭) C

If you are familiar with the piano, imagine that each black note has been replaced by two black notes, and the gaps between B-C and E-F are now filled by one black note each.

How does it sound, I hear you ask? Unfortunately I can’t make you a recording at the moment, as the bridge recently came apart (someone remind me to go to the repair shop this weekend please?). However, some fantastic examples of 19-TET music can be found on Jeff Harrington‘s site – my favourite is this one. He’s a much better musician than me anyway.

* D(n) = D(0)/2^(n/19) where the distances D are measured from the bridge and D(0) is the distance to the nut.

Repairing consumer electronics without solder

Motivated by the desire to chat on Skype with a young female acquaintance* I decided it was about time I repaired my Jabra headset charger. Unfortunately it was the central prong inside the male socket that had broken off. I have tried in the past to solder pins in such awkward places and found, the hard way, that it just Doesn’t Work.**

Oh, yes. And my soldering iron is at my mum’s house.

So I used one of the charger’s own casing screws as a replacement pin. It’s too fat, but it only needs to touch the end of the female plug to make electrical contact. It did damage some other parts inside the socket assembly while being screwed in, but it’s better that way because the increased pressure will maintain the contact between the screw and the stump of the old pin. Thus I felt it prudent to insert a small kaolin-saturated piece of paper from the cover of a glossy news magazine, in order to prevent the contacts shorting when the plug is removed and draining the headset’s battery the exciting way.

Of course, the screw sticks out a bit, so I had to apply some judicious penknife to the inside of the case. But from the outside, you can’t tell. Apart from a missing screw, of course.

Jabra repair


* Always good motivation. Unfortunately she went to bed… oops.
** Luckily the pin on that Pentium 3 was connected to the power rail, and therefore multiply redundant.

nüvi 310

I am now the proud owner of a Garmin nüvi 310.

I had variously been looking for a bluetooth headset for my phone(s) and a GPS navigator. The problem with bluetooth headsets is that their user interface is probably the most minimal of any consumer gadget. This makes it less than trivial to re-pair them with multiple phones while roaming. Then today, I happened to be in the Carphone Warehouse and saw some bluetooth caller-id handsfree kits, which appeared to address my needs. I wasn’t prepared to spend the money on any but the cheapest though (€199 for a handsfree kit?!).

Then I casually asked about satnav. Fair play to the sales guy (he had a badge marking him as a “trainee” but so did everyone behind the counter today) he managed to sell me on a satnav with built-in handsfree kit.

It suits me so well it’s unreal. Previously I had been using one bluetooth headset for three devices – two phones and my laptop (for Skype). Reconnecting it was a pain, but I didn’t want to shell out on multiple headsets because I’d need three in order to do the job properly (I therefore resold a very nice Plantronics headset to my manager after being given it on offer with my phone contract). In contrast, swapping the satnav between the two phones is easy using its touchscreen interface, and I only use phone handsfree in the car, leaving my old Jabra available for use with Skype.

Now if only I can resolder the Jabra’s charger I’ll be laughing…


I got my hands on a Blackberry today (for testing purposes, naturally), courtesy of  Computing Services. It’s an impressive little gadget, which does exactly what it says on the tin – it synchronises with your Exchange mail, contacts and calendar, and gives them to you in a very usable package (especially when compared with my Nokia).


It is just too easy to take it out and check for email. Too easy. And I check my email too often anyway. I’ve only had it a few hours and already I understand the Crackberry nickname.

I’ll probably miss it when I give it back, despite being yet another gadget, and a large one at that. Even so, I won’t be asking for one of my own. It does its job a little too well.