Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

The View from Mudsock Heights: The Supernatural Aspects of Computer Parts Justify a Big Collection

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 4:07 AM

My little scribbling this week comes to you from a 20-year-old, pristinely restored Northgate OmniKey keyboard. Back when the crust of the Earth was cooling and computing was young, the Northgate company was one of many upstarts that made very good personal computers. What set them apart, though, were their keyboards. They had a pleasant, clicky feel that many users loved. Northgate sold their keyboards separately, but apparently few people then bought their computers, too, so they went out of business. This made having a Northgate keyboard even cooler.

(The history of computing is full of this kind of story. Probably the most famous has to do with the Osborne One computer, which was highly regarded in the pre-PC days. The company stocked a great many of them. Then, one day, the company’s founder, Adam Osborne, said hey, if you like the Osborne One, wait until you see the Osborne Two. Buyers did just that — they stopped buying Osborne Ones, so the company never had the money to produce the Osborne Two. The company went bust and Adam Osborne moved to India, where he died in 2003. But I digress.)

I confess: I’m a keyboard addict. I have a strange and probably unhealthy relationship with my keyboards. Yes, plural. Plural many times over. There are tiny and wonderful IBM “space saver” keyboards from 15 years ago, and the truly minescule “MiniTouch.” At the other end of the size range there are the “mighty Wurlitzer,” gigantic Unicomp and Ortek units, festooned with more keys than anyone could ever hope to use. In the middle there are various clicky standard IBM keyboards from a bygone era and a couple of Northgates which I just had fixed up.

Though keyboards amuse me, the addiction is really manifested in my keyboard ritual, which derives from my vast talent in the field of procrastination. Whenever I have a big new writing project, I celebrate it for awhile. Then I make firm plans to get right to it. Then I postpone those plans. Then I postpone them some more.

Then I get a new computer, if my existing one is old and gasping, or I install a different keyboard. This is how I trick myself. If I have new equipment, I want to use it. If I’m sitting at the computer anyway, I might as well start the new project. Everything of any length I’ve written for the last 25 years has really been the test drive for new equipment. (It works both ways: I’ve gotten new equipment and written long pieces, even books, just to try it out. And sold them. Don’t tell anyone.)

There is an unforeseen effect to this keyboard promiscuity. Though a supposedly rational adult human being, I have come to the conclusion that some keyboards are good luck and some are bad luck. For instance, in early October I prepared for an upcoming project by unplugging the big, black Unicomp I’d used all year and replacing it with a dinky but sweet IBM. Within hours I received some troubling news. Then I remembered that nothing good had ever happened when I had I used that keyboard in the past. You cannot imagine how soon that thing was outa here! And the news got better.

A few days later I plugged in the refurbished OmniKey and the news got better still.
I am not sure that this meets scientific standards of proof, but I’m convinced.

Sometimes that’s all it takes. Writing is a peculiar enterprise, and if one sits down at the computer or the notepad confident of the outcome, the outcome is likely to be good. In the old days I was known to change fountain pens, or color or brand of ink, just to get myself started.

Nor am I alone among writers in this odd superstition. The songwriter Billy Joel would sometimes hit a nonproductive patch and would put on a dark, old-fashioned suit and go to Little Italy in New York, where he’d order a glass of very red wine and sit near a window, looking like a writer — which made him feel like a writer. My old colleague Adam Nagourney, now chief political correspondent for The New York Times, did not like it when others used his typewriter. He was the only reporter in the office who could touch type, so he moved his keycaps all around. That solved the problem.

Every so often I hear of some church event in which, for instance, bikers show up for the springtime blessing of their motorcycles. Each year at the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi there are at many Franciscan parishes around the world formal blessings of the pets. Perhaps what’s needed is an occasional blessing of the keyboards.

It certainly couldn’t do the wider variety of writers any harm. And it could lead to a whole office equipment liturgy, which would be welcome around here. I could get that little IBM keyboard exorcised.

Of course, I’m probably being silly. But I’m not the first. It’s not for nothing that Stevie Wonder wrote “Superstition” on a keyboard.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at