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Month: May, 2022

After the Moonlanding.

Note: This meandering, at times uncomfortably personal article overlaps in places with the much shorter, more straightforward Tips for creating a Moonlander keyboard layout post. If you just want advice on getting started with a Moonlander, go read that one. If you’re on the fence about trying one, try this:

I’ve been using a ZSA Moonlander keyboard as my ‘daily driver’ since a couple of days after it arrived in the mail — what, six weeks ago? I love working with it. Like my Baltz and Karas Kustoms pens, Hobonichi Techno planner, and Apple Airpods Max headphones, the Moonlander affords me the unique sensual/cognitive pleasure of using a thoughtfully designed tool that’s better at its task than anything I could have imagined. The concept of ‘a pen that’s a joy to write with’ simply didn’t exist for me before I was given the Baltz; now I have a handful of gorgeous pens and writing by hand is an opportunity to experience a tiny sort of music. The pages of the Hobonichi Techo aren’t just thin and nice to write on, they’re impossibly thin and unspeakably nice to write on. The Airpods Max’s built-in Transparency Mode isn’t just a good idea, it’s a minor miracle — as is their effortless, automatic switching between Apple devices; they provide beautiful solutions to what I hadn’t even realized were problems.

The Moonlander is like that. It is unnecessary, and it is incredible.

The first computer I used was probably a Commodore 64 at my elementary School in the mid/late-80s. I played a lot of Zork in the late 80s, and consequently became a fast hunt’n’peck typist in elementary school. In middle/high school we had a typing class, where I learned to touch-type with high accuracy at 80+ wpm. In college I spent a hell of a lot of time on my computer, and was up above 100 wpm by the time I wrote my Masters thesis. All of which is to say, I’ve beeen typing fast for a long time.

Recently I topped out at 140 wpm and 98% accuracy on a split/tented mechanical keyboard (the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB, my previous ‘daily driver’ and quite a fine piece of ordinary equipment). For a while I was using a really serious tenting angle — 45° or so. Challenging to learn but potentially excellent if you can solve certain setup problems,1 and I had.

All of which is to say: until a month ago I had a decent setup at home, I was an expert user of my writing/typing tools, and strictly speaking, I didn’t need a new keyboard, much less a Luxury Keyboard.

Well-made tools tend to be expensive

Permit me to talk briefly about money, before we talk about homerow modifiers.

The Apple Airpods Max are probably the best noise-canceling nonprofessional headphones you can buy, but they’re $500. My Baltz pen was a Christmas gift, from their first Kickstarter — $200. For a goddamn pen! A Hobonichi Techno A6 planner runs, what, $40? $50? And until recently you had to have it shipped from Japan.

The ZSA Moonlander keyboard costs about $350 all told. That’s an enormous amount of money — nearly as much as a cheap iPad, if I remember correctly.

When I was in elementary school we bought an Apple IIgs with 512kb of RAM, and it was the only best-of-its-kind item in our home — a joy to use; everything else was Good Enough for Now. In middle/high school money was really tight, and our shopping got even stingier. For a long time I understood belt-tightening to be not only necessary but morally correct behaviour, less about saving for the future (which might not happen, and anyway it’d take a miracle to save enoough) than about denying the present: you resign yourself to never owning anything really well made, and to replacing your junk painfully often; you console yourself with the idea that you did the Virtuous Thing, always and only optimizing for ‘making it through the month’ even when a longer play is possible. There’s a sad sort of ‘honour’ in being downtrodden in this way, with no good choices. You adapt to it, and start to think it’s inevitable if not natural.

This is poverty logic, though at the time I didn’t understand that.

Now my wife and I can afford well made things. In our early 40s we’ve passed through a socioeconomic phase-boundary or thermocline: on one side, the cycle of buying shitty things to replace the shitty things that wore out too soon; on this side, a quite different cycle of saving in the long term because you can afford to buy good things when you need them. We’ve moved, in other words, from constantly spending in a trickle punctuated by larger catch-up expenses, to spending in big but rare bursts. The amortized cost of sane buying at ‘higher prices’ ends up lower, if you put some thought into it, than the cheap’n’cheerful ‘low cost’ solution.

Put another way: if you walk through three pairs of Payless shoes a year, you’re spending more than if you buy a decent pair that lasts a couple of years. Same for buying a crap laptop instead of a Macbook, etc. This is ‘privilege’ and luck among other things, and it’s one of many reasons why the rich get richer while everyone else gets poorer. The system is built to reward money with more money.

A Moonlander keyboard is designed to be a forever device, one that eliminates your all your typing-related problems all at once, even the ones you don’t know you have. It is never bad; everything about it is qualitatively better than what you’re almost certainly just enduring now. After the first two weeks of adapting to the many strange things about it, it’s revealed as obviously correct. Are there better keyboards? Depends on your needs. Could be the intense contours of a Kinesis Advantage2 are right for you, etc. For me, the Moonlander is perfect.

So I sit down to use a perfect device every day, and anticipate doing so every day for at least a decade. For that, $350 is a steal.

Steve Jobs used to describe the first Mac as ‘insanely great.’ I choose to take that to mean: good in ways that defy sense; overflowing the boundaries of the comfortable and familiar. In retrospect, not only obvious but inevitable. A tool that seems ‘magical’ because its makers rejected convention, and so opened up new avenues of possibility. We might say: ‘uncompromising.’ It takes a while for such tools to become affordable for people on both sides of the phase-boundary, that’s one way they keep you in your place. A good keyboard is already worth it.

All of which is to say: if it’s even occurred to you to think about keyboard ergonomics, then you would be a fool not to let your money solve this problem.

Ordinary limits

What’s invisibly bad about ordinary keyboards?

  • Non-split, non-tented (wrist problems). Again, I’m not going to sell you on this, which I now consider a nonnegotiable feature of any keyboard I’ll use in future. (My company paid for the Freestyle Edge, and if I had a software engineer job instead of a tech writer one I’d’ve asked to be reimbursed for the Moonlander — though I do want to own one outright.) Having a single typing device that you have to contort your arms/wrists/hands to use is an ergonomic disaster and you owe it to yourself to switch.
  • Pinky work. On an ordinary keyboard, Enter/Return and Backspace/Delete are right-pinky keys. The left pinky deals with Tab and Escape — and both Shift keys are for pinkies as well. But all these keys involve a shift/stretch: either splaying the hand, rolling the wrist, shifting the arm, or (if you’re mad) actually just stretching out your poor pinky finger. This is lunacy. Your pinky is terrible at these tasks, and even if it weren’t slow it’d be under unnecessary strain.
  • Stretching for modifiers. If you’re like me, you’re constantly hitting Cmd+S to save, Cmd+Z to undo, the various Cut/Copy/Paste commands… Bad enough on a Mac, where Cmd is largely a thumb/index key but on the bottom row; much worse on a Windows/UNIX machine, with the Ctrl key out at the edges of the bottom row. More pinky work. Typical users go through contortions to use these keys. As above, eventually muscle memory makes up for the extra stretching time, but the ergonomic cost is real.
  • Numbers/symbols. Be honest: have you memorized the layout of the number-row symbols? At this point in history you should know that Shift+2 yields the @ symbol; can you hit it without looking? Most can’t — partly because the number row is a two-key stretch from the homerow, which leads to some hand-placement imprecision, and partly because of the next issue.
  • Asymmetry and stagger. Maybe you’ve notice that the rows on a typical keyboard are staggered. That’s a weird historical artifact but you can live with it, obviously. But have you noticed that the stagger is goddamn asymmetrical. In other words: the qwerty row is shifted way left of the homerow, so the left index finger has a short reach to hit T while the right index finger goes much further to land full on the Y key. Never mind why things are this way; think about what it means for touch-typing numbers, and even the zxcv (bottom) row. Then consider: historical typewriter-related questions aside, if staggered rows were good in themselves, why can’t you buy a staggered numpad?
  • Distant arrows. I can’t be unusual in needing to use my arrow keys all the time, all the time. The fact that I need(ed) to reach for the most remote part of my keyboard to navigate through a large piece of text — whether hunting Home/End, PageDn/PageUp, or the arrows themselves — imposes a small but nonnegligible cognitive tax, not to mention slowing my hands themselves. You can find those keys by location in physical space, sure; you can even take your eyes off the screen for a moment if you need to, no harm in it. But what if they were already under your fingers the whole time? What if all arrowkey usage was lightning-quick mode-switching, like in vim?
  • Arbitrary Shift+ assignments. It makes sense, maybe, that square brackets and curly braces share keys. (For non-programmers, it makes no sense that curly braces are even available as first-class characters rather than special chorded ones, oh well.) But why isn’t there a dedicated open/closed parentheses key for prose writers? Why are parentheses way off at top right? Why must you press Shift for both? In God’s name, why are relatively frequently used symbols like % and $ still hidden up in the number row?
  • Every key does only one thing. This is the essential limitation of the standard keyboard: the number of single-stroke commands is limited by the number of physical keys. asdfjkl; occupy billion-dollar real estate beneath your resting fingertips, and in a standard setup those keys serve one purpose each (plus who needs ‘k’ that often?); to get more out of them you have to reach for modifier keys, or foot pedals if you’re one of Those Fascinating People. It needn’t be this way. The keyboard isn’t just a bank of levers now; like the piano,2 it can benefit from smartening up.

Dvorak, Colemak, etc.

There are non-QWERTY layouts, and I’m sold on their advantages. QWERTY is an artifact of the mechanical-typewriter era, I know the history, etc. But at this point I’m not going to switch, and it’s extremely unlikely that you are, either — QWERTY is a common physical device-language, and several mnemonics are built around it (e.g. cut/copy/paste are all adjacent qwerty keystrokes). If you’re serious about absolutely minimizing your finger travel while typing, lemme propose that (1) your energy might be better spent elsewise, finger travel isn’t the only thing that matters, and (2) you probably don’t need this blogpost.

Bring the keys to you

The Moonlander’s marquee features, as I see them:

  • Columnar layout. It’s confusing, then good, then intuitive. (It’s not a strictly ‘ortholinear’ layout — the columns are vertically staggered to account for finger length. This is good, though it looks silly.
  • Split/tented. Yup.
  • Thumb clusters. You have no idea how good these can be until you try them.
  • Extreme programmability. This is the big deal.

One of the mantras of the ergonomic-keyboard community is: Don’t reach for the keys, bring the keys to you. With a programmable keyboard, you can relocate important functions within the 40-50 most commonly used keys and move little-used commands to the fringes, or to another layer. You can implement redundancies (e.g. additional Shift keys to reduce pinky stretching), combine complex chords (e.g. Cmd+Ctrl+Shift) into single keys, and group linked functions (e.g. open and close paren) together instead of scattering them. The goal is ergonomic sanity and sustainability, which is partly ‘efficiency’ and partly comfort. In an ideal world, your fingers would never have to leave the home row; this can be the next best thing.

Note that the beloved/reviled text editor vim is built around this principle: you can pop out of typing mode into navigation mode and the right homerow keys turn into arrow keys instead of letters. Hit space in nav mode, though, and you can start typing an extended command. Escape always takes you to Normal (‘do stuff other than typing’) mode; hit ‘i’ and you go right back into inserting text. Expert vim users are terrifyingly fast at navigating files and manipulating pieces of text/code. A programmable keyboard brings some of the power of that modal editor into systemwide usage. Again, the goal is to fit the work to the body — to bring commands to your hands.

Note that ZSA makes a crafty little 47-key keyboard called the Planck EZ, which also uses ZSA’s brilliant Oryx configurator. It is certainly a neat idea — its sheer portability is impressive, and the idea of ZSA’s fine build quality in a tiny board (with full-sized keys) is appealing, in an ‘expensive novelty’ way. But you absolutely should not be using something like the Planck for your ‘daily driver.’ The keyboard you spend most of your time using should be good for your body and the Planck, its many merits aside, simply isn’t. Your wrists deserve better.

How I’m doing it

My current Moonlander layout tries to take advantage of vim-like modal commands, and includes some major usability improvements over standard keyboard layout.

  1. Homerow modifiers. My keyboard has four Command keys, four Option, four Control, and (until I winnow my homerow down to what works best) six Shift keys. This is ludicrous, except it’s not: common commands like Cmd+S for Save are now entirely homerow chords, and my strong/fast index finger is enlisted to replace my weak/slow pinky for my most common key combinations.
  2. Enter, Esc, Space, and Backspace to the thumb clusters. Spacebar on the thumb makes intuitive sense, though I’d previously trained myself to hit Space with both thumbs so that took some work; Escape on the Moonlander’s infamous Big Red Button(s) is logical. It even looks like an Escape key. And hitting Enter with your thumb seems sensible, right? It’s not where you’d expect, but given the lack of a dedicated Enter key at far right, you’ve got to put that key somewhere accessible, ideally somewhere visually distinctive. You don’t hit Enter often enough to want it in the main four-finger body of keys, but it should obviously be on the main layer. So: right thumb. And Backspace for the left thumb is easily the most challenging part of the whole layout for me — yet it’s infinitely preferable to the whole-hand stretch for the top right, once you stop stumbling over it mentally. (Honestly, I’m thinking about replacing that key with Opt+Backspace, but let’s leave that aside.)
  3. Arrow layer. Oh, baby. This is the other trickiest part of switching to this keyboard — complicated enough to merit its own section below.
  4. Number pad. It turns out — and I did not expect this — that I can touch-type the number pad very quickly. Probably a combination of Nethack, old-school calculators, and telephones. At any rate, I hit the ‘Layer 3’ key with my left thumb and there’s a number pad directly beneath my fingertips, including arithmetic functions. This feature is always one of two things: totally irrelevant, or indisipensable.
  5. Square brackets to the right thumb. A bit random, you might think — but Cmd+[ is the Back button in a web browser, and Cmd+Shift+] is a standard ‘move to the next tab’ command. My thumbs naturally curl to the space between the thumb clusters and the left Cmd/[ keys, so one of my most commonly used browser/window nav commands is just right there. That might sound ‘handy’ to you, or ‘neat,’ but once you build muscle memory around it, it is revealed as Strictly Better than the previous setup. Honestly, I’ve forgotten where the square brackets are on a normal keyboard. They make sense where I’ve got them.
  6. Open/closed paren together. To make this work, you employ the Moonlander’s — or rather, the QMK firmware’s — astonishing, retrospectively obvious/inevitable quadruple-function keys, known as ‘tap dance.’ Tap the paren key and get (, double-tap it and get ). This takes getting used to, particularly the timing/speed issues — you end up with some accidental (( entries before you get fast enough. But once it’s in your hands, it’s simply strictly preferable to the old setup, which had you reaching for Shift+9 and Shift+0…
  7. Lights. Obviously the layers are indicated w/different lighting schemes — but crucially, individual keys are lit up in their own colours. You start out thinking this is charming but a bit ‘extra,’ as they say, and then for a while you rely on it…not least to indicate visually which ‘mode’ the keyboard is in. (I’ve done a lot of accidental arrowing-about, thinking I was in nav-mode on Layer 1 instead of insert-mode on Layer 0.)

The arrow layer

My arrow-key setup is wild, and it’s the one part of the setup that’s been slow to pay off — ergonomically it’s an instant win, and I’m even faster arrowing around on that inverted-T (like WASD but on the other side) than I was on regular arrow keys, because of my wrist angle. But key combinations are a hassle, because I’m trying to do too many new things at once, and the only solution to that is time and muscle memory (and probably a practice program).

My most frequently used arrow-key combinations are:

  • Opt+Left/Right. Move to the next word-boundary.
  • Opt+Up/Down. Move to the next paragraph.
  • Cmd+Up/Down. Move to the top/bottom of the page or document. In the Finder, pop up and down one level on the directory tree.
  • Shift+various. The hard part: select one of the above three ranges of text.
  • Ctrl+Left/Right. Irritatingly, this is the ‘swipe’ maneuver to move between desktops and fullscreen applications. Right now this chord is S+leftthumb+L, which isn’t bad but I have no muscle memory at all. The trouble here is that either I don’t need this command or I need it frequently, e.g. when moving between an essay and a browser on a single screen.

Note: I use Opt+Backspace a lot, which deletes a word at a time — indeed I normally use this in place of plain Backspace, since I type quickly enough that it’s usually worth it for me to shitcan an entire word and retype it rather than delete one character at a time. Right now this has a nice convenient chord: K (i.e. Option)+leftthumb, basically just striking resting-position keys though the thumb cluster isn’t strictly the ‘homerow.’ There’s a part of me that wonders if I shouldn’t remap Backspace to Opt+Backspace…

The current solution I’ve hit on is groovy — essentially a numpad of navigation commands, with Home/End in a sane place, Opt+Up/Down as single-stroke commands, Opt+Right/Left the same, PgUp in the 9 spot, and PgDn mapped to ‘,’ — but having these oft-used commands on a ‘separate’ layer means mentally remapping one of the most basic elements of my computer interaction model. I’ve had arrow keys in basically the same spot for 35 years! Switching up is very difficult.

This is basically equivalent to learning vim’s interaction model and nav commands — in my case, at the decreasingly neuroplastic age of 43 — but for the entire system, every app, with no way back to the ancient conventions. ‘Tricky.’

Yet in the long run, I’m confident it will be worth it. And here’s why: this mental remapping is also reinforcing little-used commands that are enormously handy in my daily work, like trusty Ctrl+A and Ctrl+E (goto beginning/end of line). With homerow modifiers, Ctrl+A turns into L+A. Think about that for a second, will you? And L+E to hop to the end of the line. Instead of visualizing a layer, which I currently very slowly do, I can be hopping around lines/paragraphs by remembering simple two-letter chords. Now add the semicolon key, which doubles as Shift when held, and ‘Select the paragraph up to the caret’ is L;+A. When I remember to use it, that’s just rad.

Adapting to the new world

How slow is the learning process?

After a month or so, I’m back up above 100 wpm with ~95% accuracy. I’m not quite where I was — the brain/screen connection is no longer seamless, which has definitely affected my productivity and even the nature of my writing work — but I’m back to top-2% typing speeds, i.e. I need to be grateful to have regained expert facility so quickly and I need to practice systematically. When my son practices piano, I remind him that playing scales is boring as hell but you have to do them, have to, because (1) all they take is time, and (2) they make it possible to play actually interesting music without worrying about those low-level mechanics. And the fact is, just playing a passage over and over again won’t do the trick. Instrumentalists all know this: you have to break it down, return to the boring atomic elements. That’s the discipline.

I’ve been a fast typist so long that I’ve forgotten that it ever took discipline. Moving to sane, sound ergonomics and sustainable practices is like…well, it’s like fixing a bad embouchure. You’ve been routing around your own bad habits, and becoming aware of them and deliberately correcting them is worse in the short term — then in the long term you can do things you had convinced yourself were simply impossible. After a while, the ‘impossible’ becomes natural.

But it’s slow, yeah. Compared to some other things anyway.

The first couple weeks were rough. My first extended writing sessions after getting the Moonlander, I packed it away in its (very groovy) neoprene travel case and regressed to the Freestyle Edge for a few hours. My hands were flying — man, it felt liberating. Now I’m experiencing long moments of peak dexterity using this new tool. It’s not quite the same, it doesn’t yet feel like going home, but I’m learning not to misread my intimate familiarity with the old weird staggered single-layer qwerty setup as healthy or preferable.

And honestly, every time I pick up a stupid conventional keyboard I want to tear my hear out — they’re just full of terrible goddamn ideas.

Shoutout: ZSA’s Oryx configuration software has made adapting much much easier than it might be — it’s trivial to swap/remap keys, flash the keyboard firmware, and see how the new layout works. Its search feature, which lets you browse other Moonlander users’ publicly shared layouts, is a great way to comparison shop. Indeed that’s the killer app — and it better be, because the default Moonlander layout is notoriously terrible. My own layout started out as a clone of some other Mac user’s vim-inspired setup; I’m still paring away the unnecessaries, e.g. the mouse-emulator buttons on my Media layer.

OK, enough of this.

  1. I won’t try to sell you on split/tented keyboards; either you understand that they’re straightforwardly better for touch-typing ergonomics or you don’t. If you type a lot and have pain in your neck and upper back, just buy one. 
  2. Acoustic piano is irreplaceable, but for everything else there’s…everything else. 

Tips for creating a Moonlander/Ergodox keyboard layout.

I bought a ZSA Moonlander keyboard this spring — it’s incredible, well worth the large expense. In this post I share some Handy Tips and some Things to Look Out For — mostly applicable to the Ergodox keyboard as well. For a logorrheic personal account of using the keyboard, along with the sales pitch for fence-sitting potential Moonlander/Ergodox buyers, read this article.

Here’s my layout for reference.

The default layout sucks, don’t use it

Everything about ZSA’s default layout is bad; as a result it’s actually a great teaching tool, as you’ve got to think on it a bit to understand why it doesn’t work. Imagine hitting Cmd+S to save a document — what does your hand do? On a normal kb you move your left thumb a tiny bit to Cmd, and hit S on the homerow, no stretch at all, or else you hit right Cmd with your right index/thumb for a little more authority. On the default Moonlander layout, you either splay your left hand across most of the keys, or else you reach with your right pinky…gaining nothing in terms of efficiency or comfort.

You want a homerow modifier for this task — stick Cmd under the J and F keys and watch your most oft-used commands get faster and more natural.

Similarly, what kind of psycho wants Space and Backspace both on the left thumb? Share the work, share the wealth! And who splits the arrow keys across two hands?! Who needs redundant L/R arrow keys? Who wants to be layer-toggling with the right pinky? Why do square brackets need dedicated single-function keys an in inconvenient spot?

And by the way, that thumb-cluster Cmd key is way out of normal reach. You really really don’t want to be chording with the most remote key on the board unless you have no choice. (I use mine for a rare layer toggle.)

Ditch the default layout immediately — honestly, you shouldn’t even use it as the foundation for your own setup. Pick something you like, and tweak that instead.

Spacebar on thumb cluster?

For users w/medium or large hands, the top ‘piano’ key on either thumb cluster is a good spot for the spacebar, though you’ll notice the placement at first. It’s big enough to strike with the middle joint of your thumb, or beside the nail if your posture is better. You surely don’t want to map the spacebar to the weird red 2u keys on the thumb cluster unless you have very big hands — the thumb actually has a long stretch to reach those, so they’re ideally suited for special-case work: Escape, Tab, or an oft-used chord.

However, users with smaller hands could profitably map spacebar to the leftmost key on the right bottom row (or its opposite number on the other half of the kb) — where the up/right arrow are, on the terrible default layout. If your thumb naturally curls under like that, and you don’t mind a tiny spacebar, that’s a compelling, characteristically ‘bring the key to your hands’ heterodox option.

Don’t think about specific keys: think in terms of their functions. Build your keyboard layout around the functions you need to perform — the actual characters your keyboard sends — and make performing those functions comfortable and efficient. That’s the whole game.

Where does Escape go?

I use the right-side red 2u key for Escape, along with the leftmost key on row 3. I don’t type Escape, I slap it — often I’m hitting it because I fucked up, or something else did, and it’s time to cancel or back out. Psychically, that weird red key is a good fit, as is the old-fashioned spot at upper-left of the keyboard.

And to be honest, you probably don’t want that key to be coming into play all the time. It’s a special-purpose key, limited use.

So if you’re a vim user, maybe you want Esc right there to get you quickly back to Normal mode. On the default layout, you could use the Hyper/Meh spots — but you probably don’t want to be hitting Esc w/your right index finger if your next keystroke is the same finger doing hjkl navigation. To me, the spot to the left of A makes sense. On conventional keyboards that’s the irritating, largely useless Caps Lock key. Under no circumstances should you have a dedicated Caps Lock key in a high-traffic part of the keyboard.

Homerow mods

My favourite feature of my keyboard, one of the big ergonomic game-changers: asdfg and ;lkjh double, respectively, as Shift-Ctrl-Opt-Cmd-Shift. Being able to hit Shift (and Cmd!) with zero stretching is such an obvious win that you might wonder why it isn’t simply standard on all keyboards. Do you really need three Shift keys on each side of the kb? Probably not. But why should you make do with one?

Training myself to actually use homerow Shift in normal typing has been difficult, there’s some deep muscle memory holding me back there, but adapting to dual-function keys has been surprisingly easy; homerow Cmd already comes naturally, and has integrated right away into my normal patterns. It seems weird/daunting but you can absolutely implement homerow mods on day 1 and slowly grow into using them. Honestly, if you set them up and don’t use them, you’ll never even notice they’re there…

…because, miraculously, with the default Advanced Settings governing roll-offs and delays and such, I now get zero false positives for homerow mods after just a few weeks. Maybe I’m subconsciously slowing my l-y rolls a little, I doubt it but dunno — yet at this point the dual-function homerow keys Just Work. It’s incredible. (I use the default 200ms delay for dual-function keys.)

Symbol layer

One of the most intriguing notions I’ve seen is a dedicated symbol layer or similar setup, which brings the distant Shift+number symbols like @ and # within easy reach. The idea is never to stretch two rows for anything — this is why you use a numpad layer (see below) — and it’s totally doable if you’re willing to trade, say, Shift+2 (@) for layertoggle+W. If you’re doing heavy data entry or programming and need regular access to those keys, definitely consider a layout that puts number-row symbols under your fingers. It’s potentially a very big change; all the more reason to try it.

That said, I haven’t bothered with this — I work mostly in ordinary prose and haven’t yet found myself needing to hit ‘@’ often enough to justify the additional (short-term) cognitive tax of learning another layer.

Number pad!!!!

I knew I could touch-type on a number pad, but it didn’t occur to me that it’d be useful outside of, er, playing Nethack. Yet for things like typing in phone numbers and doing quick calculations, being able to toggle on a dedicated numpad layer has been an actual time saver, and relaxing to boot. It’ll surely take the edge off of doing my taxes next time — the number row is a pain in the ass to touch-type, not to mention an unnecessary stretch, so the numpad (with jkl mapped to 456, etc.) is a big ergonomic win.

Arrow layer?

This is so hard. But if you master it — and I’m confident you can — it’s one of the biggest timesavers available with a multilayer keyboard.

Here’s the theory: vim-style mode-separation, with arrows on the homerow but hidden in their own dedicated layer. So instead of lifting your hand to get to dedicated arrow keys, you use layers to map them to, say, an inverted T — either WASD for gaming nerds, or IJKL/ESDF for pragmatists. Then surround them, on that navigation layer, with modifiers and other nav keys: Home/End, Opt+Up/Down, PgUp/PgDn, etc. You end up with a clever little cloverleaf formation of navigation commands. The trouble is, selecting text requires some heavy-duty mental remapping. I’m having the devil’s own time with chords like arrowtoggle+Shift+ijkl, though I’ve made good progress just this week.

Of course, it’s been less than two months.

I firmly believe that a dedicated navigation-key layer is exactly right for this keyboard; it’s also necessary, unless you want to cut into row 4 and move the ? key to stick the now-conventional inverted T arrowkey setup at bottom right. (Moving the question mark seems fucked to me. Fucked.) But this is the hardest thing to internalize. Don’t hold it against yourself if adapting to layer-separation takes time.

Typing-only layer

For gaming, this is a must. Just duplicate the base layer, strip out all the fancy dual-function keys, and hide the toggle in a non-base layer, so that you have to toggle a couple of times to get to game mode. I don’t play games on my computer (except Nethack lately) so it hasn’t been a thing for me, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

Dedicated Oryx/firmware keys

For the first month at least, you’ll want a dedicated key for launching Wally (the firmware-flashing program) and need a dedicated key for resetting the kb hardware itself, which would otherwise require a paperclip. If you’re gonna do browser-based Live Training or view a live display of the currently active layer — which doesn’t work in Safari btw — you’ll need a dedicated ‘Oryx’ key. I haven’t used that tool and can never remember where the Oryx key is, but it’s there somewhere. On the ‘Media’ layer I guess?

Oryx is superb, by the way.

Media keys

If you muck about with music/volume controls throughout the day — and who doesn’t? — you’ll need convenient keys for managing media. I’ve got a dedicated Media layer, which also hosts the function keys (e.g. F5) that I never need. I’ve got a dedicated volume-control knob (yeah, an actual rotary controller)(!) on my home machine, but when I’m at work the kb setup is still pretty handy: lower-left key toggles the Media layer, and the keys around it are mapped to systemwide shortcuts for handling Play/Pause and volume control. I’ve also overwritten my ‘spacebar’ with Play/Pause on the Media layer, but I never actually use it. Which is odd — that was one of the ‘definitely for sure’ mappings I didn’t think I’d have to think about. ‘Hit spacebar to play/pause’ seems like a no-brainer.

Which only goes to show that usage must determine design, and if you’ve been working with a conventional keyboard setup for a long time then you certainly have a distorted view of what’s appropriate for that tool. This is true even if you’re one of those Dvorak/Colemak lunatics — conventional keyboard hardware is suboptimal by design, and swapping alphanumerics around can only go so far to fix it.

‘Mouse’ keys

These seem like such a neat idea — who among us doesn’t dream of completely replacing the stupid mouse with keys that’re right there, literally at our literal fingertips? — but they appear to have no utility to ordinary users outside of dimly lit, cobwebby corner cases. For instance, you might be putting together a complex macro that involves not just keystrokes but mouse clicks/movement…I guess? Or setting up an autoclicker for God knows what reason? Out of the box, the mouse-emulation keys strike me as a cute tech demo and nothing more, but some obsessives are getting use out of them. I think they’re not the way to a mouseless future. Good luck.

Hold for Cmd+letter

This strikes me as insane — the chance for bad trouble from false positives is too high — but some people, e.g. user graemeg, use dual-function keys (separate functions when tapped / held) to implement, say, ‘tap Q for Q, hold Q for Cmd+Q.’ Graeme is even using a 180ms delay, below the default, meaning these single-key chords are happening really quickly. I can’t imagine introducing the possibility of accidentally quitting a program because I was slow to pull my finger off Q, or pasting some arbitrary data into a window because I got lost in thought while typing V. But the ergonomic win is clear: as Cerebus the Aardvark would say, ‘One less mouth to feed is one less mouth to feed,‘ where by ‘mouth to feed’ we mean ‘key to reach for.’ Contorting to play key-chords is bad.

And let’s be clear about this: 200ms is a shockingly long time to hold a key. Think on it:

…a person that types 60 WPM (where words are an average of five chars), is typing 360 characters per minute (which includes spaces between words, but excludes punctuation). This is about six characters per seconds which gives us an average inter-character time of 167 ms. However, this is just an average, it will be higher or lower for different character combinations. (source)

Of course, if the only dual-function keys you’re using are the kind you want to deliberately slow down, you even could crank up that delay another 50ms or so. But if you’re a fast typist, this’ll feel unnatural and weird. I dunno what it’d be like to adapt to that rhythm; YMMV.


Look, you should be tenting your keyboard (tilting it outward to reduce wrist strain) — it takes some getting used to but is infinitely more comfortable, because more natural. But the Moonlander uses the thumb cluster as a leg, meaning you can’t tent the keyboard without increasing the distance from the cluster to the main board. That’s a bummer.

I find the Moonlander comfortable even when laying flat, but for daily use I actually put my mousepad on a book and use the book to tent the keyboard. And there are 3D-printable solutions available on Thingiverse etc. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the layout — give it a few weeks or a month — figure out a tenting solution.

Irreal Life Top Ten, allergy season 2022.

Title and form inspired by Greil Marcus, obviously, and little enough to do with ‘irreality’ but I like the name and what, I ask you, what is either of us really gonna do about it. I ask you.

  1. RIP Vangelis. Ευάγγελος Οδυσσέας Παπαθανασίου had a pop songwriter’s instinct for hooky satisfaction and an experimental sonic approach but worked on a ‘classical’ scale, i.e. he wrote Hollywood music and was perfectly suited to film scoring. His Blade Runner score is better than you remember, not just the future-chintz of the main titles and love theme but the ambientronic weirdness of the underscore for scenes like the replicants’ murderous visit to Mr Chew, the man who designed their eyes. Vangelis’s 1975 Heaven and Hell is pure excess and bombast — it even features Jon Anderson on vocals — but at the deepest point of its second half, ’12 O’Clock,’ he manages to wring an unexpected intensity out of the humming and wordless singing of Vana Verouti and choir, bringing a ridiculously pompous synth-prog megasuite to one of those unironically moving climaxes, a passage that works only because it’s both sentimental pop hogwash and the 30th minute of a ‘neoclassical’ work hyperextended to the point of madness. (Don Joyce took this section as the theme to Over the Edge, and one of the greatest OTE episodes is a three-hour improvisatory remix of the Blade Runner score. With a wink of course, it’s Negativland, but not at the expense of the work’s weird integrity.) The hardest and best and most important thing for an artist is to sound like himself. I mean ‘…for a person,’ and I hope Vangelis enjoyed his final years knowing he had only ever been Vangelis. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…
  2. Paxlovid. My wife and I both got this minor miracle-drug, and our worsening Covid-19 symptoms immediately turned for the better and stayed that way. As soon as I stopped the medication, I began to feel that familiar post-viral bronchial thickening — sign that I was over the initial assault and now thrown back into my own body’s well-worn patterns and limitations and miswirings. You start to recognize ‘the devil you know’ as a part of yourself, both horror and comfort. Covid-19 is survivable and manageable for most people, Paxlovid is widely available, and you should do what you can — including lie about comorbidities — to get a prescription a couple of days after symptom onset.
  3. Buffalo. My fury and despair at the mass murder in Buffalo was wrapped up, I’m embarrassed but not sorry to say, in long-simmering anger at the way mere mass death and suffering isn’t enough to engage Audience Attention in this year of our absent Lord 20-and-22. There needs to be something to sell, a Compelling Narrative Hook, which in this case — for this seemingly neverending moment — is White Supremacist ideology. A decade after the Columbine massacre, it began to be understood even by our determinedly witless national press that Harris and Klebold were (respectively) a psychopath and a depressive, and that their horrifying mass murder/suicide wasn’t fundamentally ‘about’ anything, and reflected only their alienation from normal support networks, i.e. loving parents and other adults able to understand their lives and willing to put in the time. Their grandiose rhetoric masked something stupid and banal: they didn’t like being alive and didn’t see any reason to keep at it, and the kids at Columbine High were luckless scapegoats for their rage. The ‘motivation’ for their act was, in other words, the sickened world around them, of material plenty and poverty of meaning. The vicious little son of a bitch who killed those people in Buffalo lived in their world, in ours, which has only gotten less hospitable to human souls over the last quarter-century. He’s unprepared for the world as it is and the world to come. He really is a racist fool, and the actual problem his actions remind us we must solve is the absolute emptiness that makes racism — about as stupid a set of ideas as you can now imagine — more attractive than whatever else you’re peddling. Which is to say, I’m not interested in his ‘manifesto’ and you shouldn’t be either, by all accounts it’s merely incorrect; what matters is that he managed to reach age 18 without having the faintest idea what the world is like or how to live in it. We must not forgive him, and we must understand him. There is always worse to come.
  4. Digitonal, SAVE YOUR LIGHT FOR DARKER DAYS (2008). Weary instrumental affirmations, that older person’s prerogative: arriving at a difficult middle place and seeing in it the possibility of rest, of being deeply in the time of passage rather than looking always forward or back. Digitonal started out as ‘chillout room’ music but this gorgeous album feels a bit like getting on with life, not just the moment or morning after the beat stops (contrast effect, descendent effect) but over the rest of the ordinary week, sharing private smiles and nods with faces you recognize from mad kinetic nightworld, nonetheless belonging to the waking world. Being here, just here, all the same.
  5. Reeves/Pattinson et al., THE BATMAN (2022). Normally I incline to sympathy when it comes to art that nobody wants, nobody needs, nobody asked for, nobody would miss if it didn’t exist. But there’s not a single joyful or lively frame in this movie, not a single performance (save maybe Colin Farrell’s) that overflows the bounds of what’s ultimately Yet Another Sad Batman Movie. It’s fascinating that Batman has come to signify not ‘moodiness,’ which at least implies tonal variation, but a kind of self-indulgent mopery; the character I grew up with was grim but blackly (or indeed campily) comic, with ‘knight’ right there in his nom de guerre and a giant penny in his Batcave. Hollywood appears to have misunderstood the success of both Christopher Nolan’s movies and Frank Miller’s astonishing DKR/Year One source material, which makes sense; Hollywood is made of money and money is a contagious kind of stupid. I’m with Alan Moore on this, among other things: the point of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t the bad mood. (Y’know who understands this? The Wachowskis. Imagine what they could’ve done with Batman.)
  6. Harald Grosskopf, SYNTHESIST (1980). The Berlin School gives the drummer some — makes sense, his name’s on the cover — and the result isn’t quite a party album but it likes a nice beat just fine. The title track is pure effervescent space-disco, the sound of a car commercial drifting through the rings of Saturn. For a week this didn’t leave my metaphorical tape deck. It’s been that kind of year, and the silly season hasn’t even started yet.
  7. Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (1987-1998). West End Games did the all-time classic Ghostbusters game, an early push toward ‘storygame’ territory that’s still funnier and more clever than nearly everything that’s gone by that name since, but their hit Star Wars RPG fleshed out the earlier game’s minimal task-resolution mechanics to Fast! Furious! Fun! effect — and for years it was the only place to get the kind of paratextual nerdstuff that Star Wars fans wanted. Timothy Zahn famously used WEG’s RPG supplements when working on his trilogy of novels that singlehandedly revived the commercial fortunes of Star Wars — he even commissioned maps from their art department to help him plan out the trilogy’s climactic fight against the Dark Jedi clone ohgodwhydoIknowthis — and repaid the favour by writing several well-received supplements for the RPG line. And what do you know? The game really is fast, fun, and a friendly sort of furious: mechanics are minimal, fights resolve in a couple of (big) dice rolls, and a mildly optimized Jedi character is nigh untouchable, which is why the emphasis of the game was on the storyworld’s Other Guys… Classic supplements like Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters, i.e. ‘Firefly plus the Force,’ helped redefine the Star Wars universe in ways that continue to pay off today for (ugh) Disney, and the best WEG books still give that prickle of innocent excitement even now. There are other Star Wars RPGs, of course; money must be made. But the first is still the best — though picking one of the WEG game’s three editions is a tricky task, and good luck to you with that. (I’ll be running a 2e Revised/Expanded game next month for old friends, maybe with something closer to the 1st edition skill list. Can’t wait.)
  8. ‘Parasite in chief in her idiot hat.’ So wrote Christopher Eccleston, son of Salford, beneath a photo of the Queen in her crown. Salford City Council’s ‘About’ page begins: ‘Where is Salford? … about 200 miles north west of London.’ Which is like describing Boston as ‘about 200 miles north of New York City,’ and fuck you forever, you who teach that the limit of your vision is all that is or could be. She seems like a nice lady but I can’t blame him and he’s not wrong, though other parasites successfully compete.
  9. Trey Anastasio in Boston, 7 May 2022. He comes out for a solo acoustic encore, as is his wont, and in the middle of a beautiful improvisation out of ‘Chalkdust Torture’ he unexpectedly segues into one of the middle sections of ‘Harry Hood,’ such a smooth transition that half the crowd doesn’t realize what’s happened — plays for a minute and a half, then glides without effort back into ‘Chalkdust’ with his characteristic audible smile, Anastasio’s most winning musical attribute. That way he has, now, of being pleasantly surprised that he’s alive in his late 50s and sharing his genius with strangers and family, strangers who welcome one another into strange family. Anastasio’s ego was always matched with a self-abnegating generosity, and that difficult integration found ideal expression in the radical democracy of Phish’s improvisatory method. Anastasio has grown beyond Phish in many ways, but only because of his three bandmates, their own exploratory openness and iron dedication to transformative craftwork, was Anastasio able to discover and express his best self musically. Trey still plays music he wrote with classmates 45 years ago, and every time out he sounds like he just learned it and can’t wait to share it with everyone. His eagerness not just to impress but to bring light was always evident, generously onstage and pathologically in the business world backstage; since he got sober it’s tinged with an autumnal gratitude for the chance — and the second chance — to make a living and a life out of doing so. He’s lost more than a step on the guitar, but something inside him has grown beyond measure. Making and sharing art with his best friends, on their own terms, got him there.
  10. Catalytic converters. Our electric car doesn’t have them, which didn’t keep me from racing down the back stairs when I saw a shabbily dressed guy walk into our backyard early this morning. Turns out he was there to paint the fence, as he had been for several weekends running, which goes to show that I might be the main character but I’m not the hero. He’s done an excellent job painting the fence, by the way. It looks great.

off twitter, sorry i didn't write down the name of the artist.

Gonna fall.

The 18-year-old bastard who killed 10 people at a Tops in Buffalo was from Conklin NY.

His earliest memories may, in other words, include not one but two historic floods — in 2006 and 2011 — which displaced 20,000 people from his town and county. Floodwaters in Conklin eclipsed all previous records in both those floods. Hundreds of homes in the area were destroyed.

In 2019 the Army Corps of Engineers opted not to implement additional flood protections for the region. ‘Not worth it’ is the summary finding, in case you were wondering, though some may disagree:

Damage in Broome and Tioga counties [from the 2011 flooding alone] was pegged at $500 million, with damage to an estimated 7,000 structures, including crippling the major wastewater treatment plant in the region.

The existing flood protections had been sufficient prior to 2006, but the next two major floods exceeded the design spec. Surely you heard about this on the national news, right? Even Chuck Schumer made concerned gestures about it. The same thing happened in New Orleans and caused a major political crisis for then-president Bush; surely there must have been some national coverage of two enormously costly natural disasters displacing tens of thousands of rural residents and the government deciding that taking additional prevention/mitigation measures was a bad investment.


There is, as they say, nothing to be done. Some people are just born unlucky.

ACAB: Title of your sex tape. (Or, on BROOKLYN NINE-NINE.)

My wife and son watched the whole run of Brooklyn Nine-Nine over the course of 2021, and I saw a bushel of episodes from the couch and many more out of the corner of my eye from the other room. It was a perfectly ordinary workplace sitcom, i.e. a low-calorie pleasure, and ended…poorly.

Cocreator Mike Schur’s earlier show Parks and Recreation began as an experimental ‘how the sausage is made’ serial reminiscent of a Christopher Guest flick (or the UK Office), but gave up on its ambitions after Season One — also wisely shedding its painfully unfunny Male Romantic Lead — and ended as an insufferably sweet waste of time, a hell of endless hugging and affirmation with each member of the ensemble taking turns doing his or her schtick. The show’s writers didn’t know anything about Parks Departments, but I’m sure one or two of them grew up in parochial towns, and the show did find its rhythm as its ‘Hillary Clinton stars in…Green Acres!‘ premise softened into an unusually saccharine iteration of the standard American workplace-sitcom ‘These people are our real family’ autocelebration. But it had a strong ensemble — Amy Poehler is an extraordinarily reliable ensemble performer and the rest of the cast brought vivid distinct personalities to their roles, especially Nick Offerman in the role of a lifetime as Ron Swanson and the unassimilable Aubrey Plaza as April — and enjoyed the usual two or three strong years before the novelty wore off and the show utterly deflated.

B99 maintained structural integrity a bit better, but it didn’t start with much. It had two big problems, and found ways to work around them to varying degrees but eventually succumbed to both.

Its first shortcoming is this: its ensemble was extremely inconsistent.

Andy Samberg’s ‘Hot Fuzz: the series’ setup cast him undemandingly as a cocky manchild, but he grew into his lead role; his performance anchored the show and he’s due all praise for learning as he went. Luckily, or perhaps craftily, Samberg’s three main scene partners — Melissa Fumero as Amy Santiago, Joe Lo Truglio as Boyle, and Andre Braugher as Capt. Holt — are all expert ensemble performers with plenty of miles on them (Lo Truglio was a writer/performer on The State; Braugher was the heart of NBC’s Homicide series; Fumero put in more than a half-decade on One Life to Live — soap-opera work might be an aesthetic crime but it’s a proper acting bootcamp). The core of the ensemble, then, was dead solid. Braugher in particular, like Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock, gave a career-altering comic performance, as (kudos to the writers for seeing this) his initial ‘humourless’ deadpan opened up into an increasingly weird and complicated character with Braugher obviously loving every second of it.

The trouble started once you got beyond those four.

Terry Crews has wonderful charisma and appears to be a truly excellent human being, but in the role of, uhh, Terry he needed more and couldn’t bring it. You can see him working hard and he attained a certain clumsy dignity at times, but — not coincidentally — only in his scenes with Braugher, his superior officer and the only other black guy around most of the time, did Crews settle into a real performance.

It’s said that Stephanie Beatriz is a strong actor, and her vocal performance in the overpraised Encanto is absolutely fucking incredible, but you just wouldn’t know it from watching B99. I’m sure that working in her second language, in a weird artificial vocal register, without her glasses, made the job extra difficult. But her Rosa Diaz was an underwritten character and then an overwritten one, and Beatriz never figured out how to make her funny. The contrast between the goth-butch Rosa and Fumero’s anxious-perky Amy was wonderful in theory, and it’s a tiny miracle to see two Latinas holding down those roles. But Beatriz, or perhaps Rosa, was a weak spot in this ensemble.

Chelsea Peretti presented a bigger problem: she definitely cannot act to save her life, and while she might be funny In Real Life, she was an utter null in the Weird Chick role of Gina Linetti, an expressionless void for the cast’s manic energy to fall helplessly into. Unlike, say, Aubrey Plaza, Peretti can’t communicate intelligence or imagination onscreen; her Gina was just a vector for canned putdowns and tired alt-cool schtick. It’s useful (if unfair) to compare clips of the two: Plaza’s bizarre energy prickles through her stage monotone, giving it a surprising variety of colour, while Peretti just hammers one note the whole time. Note that while Plaza and the intuitive dude’s dude Chris Pratt turned out to be a brilliant comic pairing, Peretti never found a successful match in the entire cast. I can’t think of another recent TV character (minus the entire cast of The Big Bang Theory) who could so completely suck the energy out of a scene.

As Hitchcock and Scully, Dick Blocker and Joel McKinnon Miller embodied a single joke each — the same joke, really — and while they might’ve been strong comic performers in other settings, they collectively functioned as a blinking light saying ‘This is a workplace sitcom and these guys are the obnoxious loser coworkers.’ They didn’t have enough (or varied enough) material to make an interesting Greek chorus like the drunks on Cheers; they just sat there.

The supporting players were stronger — Wunch, Pimento, and Professor Kevin Cozner are impressive roles that were fine on the page but blossomed onstage, and Craig Robinson was as funny as ever playing the silly ‘Pontiac Bandit’ — in that regard, B99 was similar to Seinfeld, able to rely on a deep bench of supporting actors to bring weird stories to life. But Seinfeld only had one dud in the cast, Jerry Seinfeld himself, and it only took him and Larry David a couple of years to figure out how to write for his limited toolset, by which point he’d toughened up enough to hang with his three world-class castmates. B99‘s ensemble felt, to me at least, like a bunch of lightweight players carried by a handful of seasoned pros (and the gifted but untempered Samberg).

And that might’ve been fine, had the show not aspired to seriousness and ‘relevance.’ The Rosa-comes-out plot was a duff note, an example of its simultaneous under- and overwriting: as Rosa, Beatriz projected no sexual energy or identity at all (an impressive feat by the producers and directors: how the hell do you so completely mute an Argentine fashion model?!). So making a big deal out of her bisexuality had more than the usual network TV tokenism to it. Her relationship with her parents were telescoped and TV-conventional; the writers gave them too little substance and too much airtime, so at least they had something in common with Rosa.

Jake’s (Samberg’s) parents were more richly imagined — but what do you expect? I bet you $10 everyone on the writing staff was raised by people like them (hence Jake’s constant ‘I’m fucked up because I’m a child of divorce’ asides, which had a writerly special-pleading quality), and bet you $20 none of them have ever set foot in a house full of working-class Latinos like the sketched-in Diaz family. Terry’s family life might’ve been interesting, but again, the writing smacks of projecting white-bourgeois values onto a black actor (a bit like the way Sonja Sohn’s lesbian cop character on The Wire was essentially written as a man and gender-swapped in performance; note that Deirdre Lovejoy’s Jewish woman lawyer character was much more richly imagined by the same writers; well, you push yourself a little more to differentiate characters closer to your own experience, because you can’t congratulate yourself just for having created them). And Crews played the character with everydad generality, letting the writers off the hook in writing a black cop.1

But then…the show wasn’t really about cops. This is the smaller issue on paper — workplace sitcoms are about dumb hijinks and chosen family, not the intricacies of any given field, right? — but in the eighth season of the series it suddenly became a serious problem, because the show’s writers made it one.

The annual Halloween Heist episodes perfectly illustrate B99‘s strengths and weaknesses. They’re basically tightly structured absurd summer-camp fantasies that the writers and actors clearly looked forward to — but the concept flatly does not work in an NYPD precinct…unless you completely abandon any pretense of realism. Doing so is a good choice! Brooklyn Nine-Nine was comfort food and it’s fine to make it silly. The heist episodes are excellent — even I looked forward to them, and as you can see, I hate everything.

OK, so you’ve committed to a show that has nothing to do with actual police, that means you’re free to—

Aah, but no. The show’s perfectly conventional Hollywood writers wanted to tell Socially Relevant uplift-cliché stories in which our sympathetic lead characters, themselves banal NPR liberals (except the half-villainous Hitchcock and Scully of course), run up repeatedly against all that’s Incorrect about modern social mores. Again, this on its own would be perfectly fine; sitcoms have long aired Very Special Episodes to get people (and critics) talking, and it’s well within the expected meretriciousness envelope for network TV. But how do you tell a story about a committed black father (his twins weirdly named Cagney and Lacey!) working under a black mentor in the post-9/11 NYPD if you only occasionally remember to give him an inner life beyond ‘harried father-husband’? How do you make the story of a Latin Catholic bisexual coming out to her standard-traditional immigrant parents interesting if none of those character tags have ever mattered to the story? (Answer: you don’t, it’s not supposed to be interesting; instead you pull out a sitcom script from the 1970s, change ‘lesbian’ to ‘bi,’ add the line ‘Title of your sex tape!’ and hope no one notices that they’ve seen this exact episode a hundred times before.) How do you tell stories about Holt’s life as a gay black senior NYPD officer if you’ve never shown any interest in the topic beyond the purely personal dimension — i.e. if you don’t actually care about his place at the NYPD, only its function as notional backdrop for Andre Braugher’s unsung comic genius?

The writers demonstrated the ability to infodump Wikipedia quotes in the middle of Heartfelt Dialogue Scenes but they only ever approached dramatic weight or even believability when they found ways to analogize the show’s stage-scrim ‘NYPD’ to their own world, i.e. the B99 ‘serious’ stories that worked were the ones that would also’ve worked on a show about a TV writers’ room. And that’s why Season Eight was an off-putting mess. The writers notoriously scrapped half a season’s worth of finished scripts in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and cast and writers made noises in the press about the importance of Rethinking How to Tell Funny Cop Stories in the BLM Era. Their solution to this nonproblem was to spend a large portion of Season Eight lecturing the audience in the form of implausible, half baked Biden-supporter wish-fullfillment: Rosa honourably bails on the NYPD — but she’s still around all the time to mope at the rest of the cast. Holt shifts his career toward reforming the police from within — but he’s still around all the time to participate in the foolishness. Jake wrestles with How to Be a Good Ally in the usual Hollywood-corporate way, and ends up quitting his dream job to be a stay-at-home dad, which nicely completes his relatable-to-the-writing-staff ‘daddy issues’ character arc at the expense of the show’s widely advertised social responsibility.

(The final seasons’ running plotline about Jake and Amy’s baby-scheduling troubles really did work, but only to the extent that it was a costumed version of ‘How can I afford a nanny on a Production Assistant’s salary?’)

In chasing virtuous relevance — and assuaging the Money’s justifiable white guilt — the writers couldn’t hide their inability to balance sentimental lectures with silly farce the way, say, Rick and Morty or Arrested Development manage to; the problem is that B99 took the deflated USA Office and Parks and Rec as its template and tonal model, and lacked the astringency and authentic lived-in self-criticism of Harmon/Hurwitz’s shows. (B99 didn’t break the fourth wall, if I remember rightly; its vanilla earnestness was part of its appeal, though in Season Eight it didn’t quite work.)

The upshot is that the show didn’t have anything interesting to say, wasn’t pathbreaking or fearless or hilarious — it was just a good workplace sitcom with an inconsistently strong cast — so its decision to ‘engage in serious conversation’ in its final season yielded the sanctimonious nonsense you’d expect from a Hollywood that’s terrified of ‘left’ cultural gatekeepers and prefers simplistic #ImWithHer fantasy to uncomfortable complexity.

(The Wire remains the high-water mark for mainstream TV depictions of crime and policing; nearly everything else seems faintly silly in comparison, and B99 functioned superbly when it didn’t really pretend to be about policing at all.)

Critics liked this shit, of course, and made predictable proclamations about the Importance of the show’s Efforts to share What We’ve Learned (or at any rate What We’ve Recently Read on ‘Progressive’ Twitter) About Policing — but the series’s self-congratulatory ending, like the contemptible final season of Lost, felt like a farewell to our new best friends in the Drama Club rather than an ending to a story about cops (or human beings stranded on an island). Nobody wants a ‘realistic’ Brooklyn Nine-Nine, are you kidding me? Just basic believability. Just the slightest effort at keeping the story’s head from flying up its ass.

Pretentious mediocrity bothers me. I’m good with art that reaches for something extraordinary and fails spectacularly, or tells an ordinary story in extraordinarily precise and personal fashion, or just nails its beats and doesn’t fuck around making excuses for that being its goal. But art that’s ashamed of its ordinariness, which trades on perfectly familiar spectacle and manipulation to deal with its status-anxiety about having nothing deep to say…this is worthy of contempt. Ordinary isn’t a sin. Be ordinary, but don’t insist despite evidence that you’re extraordinary. Be weird, but be all the way weird! Tell a cop story, but don’t fall back on telling a generic sitcom-office story when you turn out not to know anything at all about cops. Tell a wacky-coworkers’-holiday-hijinx story, but don’t stick a badge on it and claim you’re something you’re not…

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was really good at being itself — a lightweight show about a bunch of office drones entertaining themselves in a dumb job, with handcuffs and pistols for set dressing instead of spreadsheets and HR departments. (You know they even did a whole episode about how frustrating it is to deal with an IT department, right?) It was frankly terrible at being anything more, just like Parks and Rec proved terrible at telling stories about local government, and B99‘s eighth season brought out its weaknesses while needlessly sacrificing some of its biggest strengths. If not for the tight core cast working at a high level right up to the end — check out that beautiful final conversation between Jake and Holt, the show’s only believable love story — it would have been intolerable.

If I’d been in charge, I’d have doubled down on the fantasy, rather than trying (and failing) to make a Wacky Workplace Sitcom that Appeals to Limousine-Liberal TV Critics. You could still have ended everyone’s stories the same way — Rosa and Jake can leave, Terry and Holt and Amy can push for reform — their characters could handle those plots — but there was no need for pedantry and sanctimony on top of the self-congratulation and sentimentality that inevitably go with the end of a sitcom that’s reached syndication age.

Well, I shouldn’t be in charge.

The best of the Nine-Nine was blissful semiserial comedy, and the worst was tedious banal horseshit. And that’s what I have to say about Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

  1. The show got reliable but hollow laughs out of Crews’s extraordinary physical presence — his periodic dancing-pectorals trick felt obligatory and lame, the fit-dude equivalent of the writers finding a lame excuse to flash cleavage, ‘apologizing’ for it, but doing it all the same. Crews has remarkable charisma and presence, but it’s not exactly stage presence: he commands attention but doesn’t use it like a skilled stage-comedy performer. (But scenes where he, for instance, led the group in aerobics brought him instantly to life.) Like Beatriz, Crews often seemed half-paralyzed in performance, his vocal equipment limited and physicality punishingly restrained — the writers would use the two of them as furniture to play with rather than letting them play, and we can understand that decision while still regretting it. 

Adam Gorightly, SAUCERS, SPOOKS AND KOOKS (2021).

This is what I wrote last year in my ever-expanding textfile of quick reviews of every book I read, which’ll doubtless be a critical treasure beyond price someday:

A disarming history — partly extrapolated, partly hallucinated, fond, fanciful, and highly strange — of the various ufologists and presumed intelligence agents/assets connected to the Dulce Base mythos and the ‘Bennewitz affair,’ in which contactee Paul Bennewitz came forth in the 80s with claims that eventually drove him mad…supposedly with help from various ‘alphabet soup’ (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.) gov’t orgs.

Gorightly’s account is, at times, a litany of indistinguishable kooks making claims and counterclaims about who’s a narc and who’s a spook and who’s been compromised, which makes for wearying reading. But it’s also a warmly empathetic — and critical — memoir of the 80s/90s fringe/conspiracist/ufologist community, which Gorightly was a part of. His evocation of his fellow believers and seekers reminds me of Slacker and Waking Life, and is tinged with the survivor’s melancholy that colours A Scanner Darkly (PKD and Linklater again) and the Montauk books. Gorightly’s a breezy writer, thank God, and the book is written for and about fellow believers but with a humane, light touch. He takes less for granted than most of his fellow travelers, to his credit.

Better (from a ‘critical’ i.e. bloodless perspective), Gorightly was part of the eruption of fringe culture into the mainstream in the 1990s (with The X-Files as the best-known example/vector), and takes time to lay out a bit of the media history of the ufology/conspiracist fringe, tracking the circulation of specific memes, first through correspondence and social networks, then into a network of underground publications, finally out to a wider audience via charmingly guileless low-rent broadcasts.

Wellllll, maybe not entirely guileless: Gorightly plays throughout with ‘psyop’ ufo conspiracism, entertaining (if not explicitly endorsing) rumours of government disinfo plots and shadowy characters. Men in Black turn up throughout the story, as do a series of MJ-12 forgeries and the suspected Real Thing. Unlike, say, Redfern and Keel and Pauwels/Bergier, Gorightly isn’t a self-promoter or tease: SS&K isn’t a pulp narrative about brave researchers against the Man, it’s a look at a strain of American folklore by first- and secondhand witnesses. There are no cliffhangers, maybe out of a certain kind of respect, but also because this is a story of deliquescence and dissolution. Bennewitz isn’t the story’s only mental-health casualty, and many characters seem to come to the banally sad ends that await most True Believers — leaving the ufology community, drifting in(to) obscurity, denied narrative closure and even the consolations of material success.

The disinfo ‘plot’ gives Gorightly’s book an ambivalent charge, but again, it’s no thriller. The possibility that the USA gov’t is fucking with the ufologists at every turn is part of the attraction for gawkers, but for more credulous sorts, it seems to settle — over years — into a dull fact of life. ‘You know about the suppressed transmission, of course’: it’s more statement than question, reflecting both the believer’s myopia and his faintly depressing settlement. The cynical ‘skeptic’ guessing game (‘Does the author really believe this stuff?’) doesn’t interest me; for whatever reason I’m sensitive to a kind of weary resignation in such utterances rather than the repetitive (passive-)aggression that less sympathetic listeners/readers perceive (infer, impute) even in what I take to be extra-cheerful kooks.1 As a result, Gorightly’s tale reads to me as an account of a community living so long with Weirdness that it sinks in and replaces ‘normality.’

Perhaps that’s where the weird flatness of the (much less well written) Nichols/Moon Montauk books comes from: as far as Nichols is concerned, he’s just relating the way the world works. There’s no mystery, it’s not pulp fiction, just an account of living day-to-day with what’s now stupidly known as ‘your truth’ — which in his case happens to involve absurd occult conspiracy, but to focus on content misses the point. (Gawking is also obviously the opposite of what the seemingly sad and lonely Nichols wanted out of those books — though Moon seems to’ve been more than OK with gawkers as long as they bought the books.)

Gorightly isn’t cynical, and his genuineness is key to the books appeal, both imbuing his story with a gently sardonic affection and robbing it of some narrative thrust. As such, I find myself grateful for having read the book, and slightly hesitant to recommend it on ‘literary’ grounds — even as I recognize that they don’t, needn’t, shouldn’t apply. Perhaps you ought to read it for yourself.

  1. Yes, that’s three sets of parentheses in one sentence.