Part 1: A Big Nothing Burger
I am sorry to report this was a bit of a boring week. Yeah, I know. How can I possibly have a boring week and nothing to write about? It’s such a disappointment.
But it’s true. The grad show doesn’t come down until this weekend, and there was no excitement during my security shifts at the show. I’ve only been over the harbour a couple of times and saw nothing exciting. The dogs have been reasonably well behaved (as well as ever) and I haven’t even pointed a camera at them.
In short, I have almost nothing to amuse you with. Almost nothing. And perhaps actually nothing if you find a discussion of computer keyboards boring. I am sorry. I’ll try to do better next week.
Part 2: A Tale Of Several Keyboards
Readers of these posts may recall my complaints about a keyboard a while back. I figured I would share the entire tale, now that I (hope) the issue is resolved.
Years ago I had an ancient, USB keyboard for the Linux computer I work on. It was OK, but nothing special. Since I was spending a lot of time on the computer, I decided I wanted a better typing experience. Also — and this is important — I wanted a backlit keyboard, as I sometimes wound up typing in the office while my wife was asleep, and keeping the lights low (or off) was (and remains) good policy.
Eventually I found a sale on a nice, mechanical keyboard that was backlit in red only (rather than those really fancy ones that can put any colour behind any key, and which cost a lot more as a result). I bought it and it worked, but the pitch (the spacing between the keys) was different from the previous keyboard I’d been using, so my typo rate went up while I adjusted to the new reality of the layout. Most people wouldn’t notice that change, of course, as my natural typo rate is astronomically high. But I noted it, and I struggled to get over it.
Then, some weeks back — years after the switch to the backlit keyboard — my computer started doing an odd thing. When booting, sometimes it would fail to recognize the keyboard and the mouse. I played with it a lot trying to diagnose the issue. Rebooting sometimes fixed it, and waiting a while caused the system to recognize the mouse again, but nothing seemed to fix the keyboard disconnect consistently. Internet searches found no references to anything like the failure I was seeing. One afternoon, after something like 10 reboots in a row failed to get the keyboard to work, I borrowed my wife’s emergency back up keyboard for her office computer. It worked. Every time.
This lead me to believe that one of two things was happening:
- The backlighting circuitry in the keyboard is failing and drawing more power than the USB ports on my computer can provide. This stops the USB system them from recognizing the keyboard at all.
- The USB ports on my computer are going bad and are providing less power than the keyboard needs to function as a result of all the LEDs involved in the backlighting. And once again, the result is that the keyboard doesn’t work.
I don’t know which of those is correct. And I suppose there could be some other issue, but replacing the keyboard with one that wasn’t backlit made the issue go away. Every time it booted the system was happy with the replacement keyboard and things worked properly again.
But, as my complaining in previous posts might have made clear, not all keyboards are the same. My wife loves a keyboard that I think was created by a neurotic hardware engineer who hated all humans. The biggest issue was that the Control and Caps Lock keys were switched. That caused all kinds of issues for me, and a lot of typos were introduced as a result of just that one difference. And yes, eventually I did figure how how to swap those keys via software, but then I had to run a script to make that happen when I needed it to, and (you can see this one coming) I would forget to do that, so the first time I wanted to use the Control key for anything I WAS SUDDENLY SHOUTING INSTEAD. Sigh.
Oh, and why use Control, I hear you ask? Well, it’s because Ctrl-C is “Copy” and Ctrl-V is “Paste”. I do that a lot. I know you Apple users have a command key for that, which is another reason I hate Apple computers, but that is off topic.
Anyway, when school eased off enough I went online to see what sort of keyboards are available these days. What I found is that everyone is pushing wireless keyboards, but those make me nervous. I did some searching to see how secure they are, and what I read was not reassuring. If the bad guys can get into your computer (or any website you have a password to) because they can see all your keystrokes in radio waves, that’s bad. In 2016, many wireless keyboard manufacturers claimed their systems were protected with 128 bit AES encryption, but a group of researchers found serious bugs in wireless keyboards from various big name manufacturers. In the aftermath, all but one said they would fix the bugs in new versions of their hardware, but that there was no way to fix keyboards in the field. The last one said they would simply stop claiming it was secure. Nice.
It also turns out that some of the security issues found were based on wireless mice and the fact that their communications are also unencrypted in most cases.
The safest (though I am not clear just how safe) wireless keyboards and mice connect to the computer via Bluetooth. But my computer doesn’t have Bluetooth, and I am just as happy it doesn’t, thank you. (More radios is not my favourite security option. It doesn’t have a camera either.)
In the end, I decided to go to a local electronics retailer and see what they had in stock. A local mall has a Best Buy and a Staples next to each other, and I figured I’d be sure to find what I wanted there if the prices were reasonable.
Amusingly, both carried the same line of wireless keyboards (made by Logitech) and I finally got to look at their current packaging. There is no mention of encryption or security anywhere on the boxes. None at all. And if it’s mentioned in their website it isn’t easy to find. So, are they secure, or not? I honestly couldn’t tell, and that made me nervous.
Staples had a $20 wired keyboard with the Control and Caps Lock keys in the right place, and I thought it would be fine, but I checked Best Buy as well and found they also had a $20 wired keyboard that would work. I was about to buy it, but then recalled I wanted a USB hub, to make connecting things like thumb drives and a scanner simpler to do. I checked Best Buy’s selection and they didn’t have anything I wanted. So I put the keyboard back on the shelf and returned to Staples. Once again I checked for USB hubs and came up empty handed, but whatever. I grabbed their $20 wired keyboard, paid, and made my way home.
On arriving, I plugged it in and the computer booted just fine. Yay. Now I could get on with life and not curse my wife’s abomination of an input device.
Ansd yet, there were a lot of unexpectesd errors. SDare I say it, there was a problem that needed to be mitigatesd. A sdecisdedly serious problem.
Yes, the Staples keyboard had a manufacturing defect. Every time I pressed the D key, I got both and S and a D. The S key worked just fine by itself, though.
That left me doing a lot of backspacing and deleting to fix all those extra S characters, and that was a problem. (Staples was closed by this point, alas, so a return had to wait until the following day.) And it was in dealing with all of those backspaces that I learned another thing: the new keyboard also had a huge enter key on the right side. One of those odd ones that is two rows tall. That meant that if I was aiming for the backspace key and missed I hit Enter, and that meant I was encountering a whole new batch of issues. Lots of messaging programs send when you press enter, even accidentally, for example. That was nasty.
Anyway, the next day I went back to Staples and returned the keyboard, being very sure to point out that it had an actual defect so they wouldn’t just put it back on the shelf. Then I went to Best Buy and bought their cheap, wired keyboard. It has a smaller enter key on the right side, so I don’t encounter that second issue. It’s true that it has a different pitch and feel from all of the others, but it works, and I am adapting. The typo rate is still high — as it always is for me when changing keyboards — but dropping.
I’m not sure there is a moral to this story. I should have looked more carefully at the entire keyboard layout before buying anything, of course. That seems obvious. But I was astonished to get a keyboard with an actual defect. I suppose is has to happen on occasion, but it still seems weird.
Beyond that, the lesson seems to be to trust nothing in the computer world. Hardware fails for unknown (and non-obvious) reasons, and replacements are not necessarily the same, and might even have significant problems of their own. Whee. That’s great fun.
May your computers all function properly forever. No, really. Forever.