The YMDK Wings

Mechanical Keyboards have really taken off in the past few years, and I’ve reviewed a few and in the last two years I’ve gone from buying off-the-shelf boards to building my own. They’re highly customizable and can fulfill a specific need or just look nice and supply you with a chance to test out your soldering skills.

The Alice layout by the designer TGR is designed to be something like a Microsoft Natural keyboard in form but using standard sizes of keycaps while also taking up less of your deskspace. Add a few arrow keys to the lower right to this more ergonomic split layout and you’ve got something more similar to the open-source Arisu layout and this is the layout of the YMDK Wings keyboard I’m reviewing today, with some changes.

This isn’t the first Arisu-layout keyboard I’ve owned, but it was the easiest to build. I’ve had two Gothic 70 keyboards, they’re made of layered acrylic and surprisingly cost about what the Wings cost even though the Wings is made of aluminum (and a thin strip of acrylic for under glow.)

I’ve had Alice layout boards before, but without arrows it’s not super fun to use and it doesn’t look as nice because the arrow keys provide an accent I appreciate. Believe it or not, there are mini-Alice layouts in the form of 40% boards that lack even the number keys and some characters like brackets, those are awesome little boards but brutal to learn.

So here we have the Wings by YMDK, it has arrow keys, it’s aluminum and it only costs $135 plus shipping if you get it without switches. Shipping was a bit more expensive because that came close to $30 for me, but even with that I knew this was a deal. Similar boards have cost upwards of $300 and compared to other boards made out plastic this was an absolute steal.

Still, I wondered how good the Wings could be. I’ve had trouble with value boards in the past. The Gothic 70 keyboards I had included the most beautiful PCB with a wonderful latticework design but that same design also caused electrical shorts that rendered my last one useless. An error with the USB-C connector in the revision 2 board caused it to only work with USB-C cables connecting to USB-C on the computer if the connector was in a certain orientation.

YMDK was upfront about the USB situation and say right on the product page for the Wings that it doesn’t work with C-to-C connections at all. Disappointing, but with a metal board I’m a little less concerned about portability.

One benefit to the Wings is that it isn’t a group buy, most custom mechanical boards are sold where people get together to make a bulk purchase to make the cost more affordable for everyone. That bulk purchase usually includes a wait of anywhere between a few months and at the maximum a year or more. However with the Wings you can get it right away. Shipping was quick and the Wings got here from YMDK in China less than a week after I ordered it and only two days of actual shipping time. Most things from mainland US take more longer to get here.

Upon receiving the Wings it was clear where it was a bit cheaper. The box was a simple black box without any branding. Inside you are immediately greeted by a small resealable bag that contained a USB-C to USB-A cable, optional aluminum and rubber coned feet, parts to assemble a few stabilizers, screws, and black rubber stick-on dots for a simpler foot option. It is very unusual for custom boards to include the stabilizers, cable, and aluminum cone feet but I appreciated it.

Unpacking the actual board revealed the aluminum shell, circuit board, and acrylic underglow layer. Everything was screwed together using typical cross-head screws, and I disassembled the case so that I could solder switches in.

No instructions were included for assembly, what instructions YMDK does make available online are mainly focused at programming the board using their online configurator.

Disassembly revealed that the acrylic layer is incredibly thin. It only lets a little bit of accent lighting through and doesn’t do much to diffuse that lighting, so it is very easy to count the WS2812B LEDs included with the board.

The thin acrylic also has a protective paper backing on either side, this is typical with any acrylic parts to protect them during shipping. I’ve seen warnings about delicately removing that protective backing on much thicker pieces of acrylic in the past so as not to accidentally break the plastic and so I took a lot of time to do that right.

The Wings’ aluminum shell feels sturdy, and the silver anodization on mine came out well. I haven’t noticed any imperfections in the finish. Soldering the PCB with the switches I chose, Boba Silent Tactile U4 switches from Gazzew was fast and easy. I did notice a few things about the circuit board that were odd.

Usually if you’re going to include a split-backspace option, where you can have two 1U keys (1U is the size of a standard letter or number key) instead of a full-size 2U backspace key, you’ll support that with the case. But the Wings‘ case only supports a split-backspace layout, despite the PCB very clearly having a space for a stabilizer under the backspace key. I’ve seen one other user who dremel’d their case to allow for a 2U backspace but I would not buy the Wings expecting that will work.

Single-color, in-switch, LEDs are also supported, but I didn’t know that in advance so I used switches with opaque tops. I might still install some white LEDs later-on but they’re not necessary or even supported by the default firmware. Oddly, the PCB has the cathode leg marked for each LED through-hole solder point but the printing isn’t great so it wasn’t immediately clear if the marking was half of a plus marking the anode or a minus marking the cathode leg of the LED. I confirmed with YMDK that it is in fact a minus for the cathode leg.

The fit of my case was also a little off. The case is also a super plate, where there isn’t a separate metal layer between the switches, the circuit board, and the top of the case. The plate is instead part of the case itself which makes it a consistent unit. Easier to assemble in some ways, but this eliminates options for some who would prefer to choose a separate material for the plate. The cutout for one switch above the arrows was a bitt off and it really took some work to get the switch to fit into the plate there.

Once that was resolved, soldering the switches on was as easy as it should be. No beautiful lattice-work PCB to get in the way. Sadly the cone feet that came with my copy of the Wings included the wrong size of screw and couldn’t be used, but I had another set of feet and screws and they are a standard size. The screw hole for the feet is nicely counter-sunk and if I grab another set of screws I’m sure they’ll work fine.

One thing you’ll notice with the Wings is the incredibly odd default layout of the bottom row:

Practically every Alice or Arisu-layout keyboard has the most designer influence in the default layout in that bottom row, I’ve seen odd choices like backspace on either space bar, but this one is very wacky. The control key belongs on the left, not next to space where the Alt key is. There is also no Windows/Command key at all in the default layout which makes the board practically unusable under macOS.

Visiting the configurator linked in the Wings manual is not at all reassuring. The site is very much not intended for an English-speaking audience and takes a while to load the keyboard options before you can select the Wings board and begin choosing options for the board. If I hadn’t been more familiar with programming keyboard firmware via my own fork of QMK and QMK’s online configurator, I imagine this one would be very daunting to get used to if it is your first and the default layout in the configurator doesn’t match the default layout the keyboard ships with. Compile that by default and you won’t have access to the LED controls at all.

My hope is that someone gets the Wings into mainline QMK and then people can use the stock QMK configurator. However, the main QMK configurator is missing some of the features included in the configurator YMDK points you to. In order to set up LED options you might have to configure those things via manually editing a config.h and compiling on the command-line.
(Update: since this review was written support for the Wings has gotten into mainline QMK and thus the QMK configurator. Support is on the way for Via.)

I rebound the capslock to be the modifier key that accesses the extra layer of controls and put the Windows key onto the key between the spacebar and put the other missing keys back into the secondary layer. Programming the board wasn’t hard after that, but QMK Toolbox can be daunting for anyone new to mechanical keyboards. Via is preferable due to not requiring the Toolbox step and including the configurator right on the desktop program, but getting a board into Via can be a real pain.

Overall, I’m very happy with the YMDK Wings. I’ve been typing on the Wings for a little over a week now and I still appreciate the split layout, and having the arrow keys without having to resort to layers is exactly how it should be. For $135 plus shipping you’re getting a fantastic ergonomic value that looks great and has room for your choices of keycaps. YMDK does have options that include switches for a fair price if you don’t want to solder anything and don’t mind that they aren’t silent. Some might not be happy with the superplate design, but the YMDK Wings is a win for me.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Wings is available now directly from YMDK in Black, Gray, Silver, Red, and Blue.

Good Time (2017)

Good Time movie poster

Watching their movies out of order, Good Time was the previous Safdie Brothers film, another criminal thrill feature released years before Uncut Gems.

Good Time features two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie). Nick’s brain is non-typical and his brother Connie manipulates him into a bank heist that leaves Nick locked up for the crime while Connie spends the rest of the film trying to free his brother.

Unlike Uncut Gems‘ Howard (Adam Sandler), Connie seems to actually care about someone besides himself, and there are few enough side characters that everyone gets to have a moment. Connie’s girlfriend Loren, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, does a terrific job depicting someone who is trapped in a bad relationship with both Connie and her familial relationship with her mother.

Ultimately, this film is better for the space it gives those side characters, their realistic portrayal helps the world of Good Time feels more real than Uncut Gems. The spaces the characters visit and inhabit are also true to real city spaces. A Dominos to hide inside with a pissed off manager, a shitty local bank to rob, the home of some nice people Connie takes advantage of will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever struggled to pay for food and find the energy to clean, even the amusement park doesn’t feel fake.

Good Time also comments on stereotypes. Dash (Barkhad Abdi) is a Black security guard that Connie beats into unconsciousness, and doses with enough acid to make The Undertaker hallucinate for a year. Connie races to Dash’s home to conduct business in order to get money for bailing out Nick, but audibly remarks that the apartment is actually well furnished, and it is. This is an apartment that Dash cared about, and he is added to the list of people that Connie undeservedly steps on in order to help Nick.

There is no existence under capitalism that doesn’t involve stepping on other people, and that is true in the fiction of Good Time as well. In the opening, the brother’s bank heist was going well, but the bank teller hides an explosive dye pack in the money bag. Both risking her life, if the brothers-as-robbers were armed during the heist and they realized what was in the money bag, and when the dye pack goes off it caused an unintended car crash that could have been fatal for any pedestrians caught in the way. Just to protect the bottom-line of a bank whose money is insured to begin with.

The characters of Good Time are interesting, the world feels more realistic than other thrillers including the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and the movie has an important message behind the thrills about capitalism even if most people will miss it. I like a lot about this movie, but I will note there is a particularly disturbing scene where Connie attempts to sleep with a sixteen-year-old girl in order to distract her before the local TV news program gives a report on the bank robbery. Fortunately, no clothes come off before they are interrupted, but it is another incident where Connie feels he has to do something in order to not create another witness to his flight from “justice.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Uncut Gems (2019)

Uncut Gems’ Poster

Uncut Gems is a very wild thriller. If it were a book, it’d be a “page turner” that has the slightest of statements on how awful it is to step on people who have been stepped on for generations and how bad gambling addiction is.

As with all things that depict some terrible fiction I wonder how many people will watch this and think “gambling is fun” despite the punishment that Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) goes through, and more importantly what his loved ones go through. Sandler’s performance is kind of amazing from someone who is best known for his comedic roles, and those comedy films have been critical failures for years. As Howard Ratner, Sandler is a character that seems to feel no difficulty in putting his family through hell and destroying their lives even if Howard ostensibly loves them and tells them so, it’s clear that this isn’t enough, he isn’t really there for them. The words Howard says when he tells his kids how proud he is are hollow because the film is telling us Howard cares more about gambling than them.

Deriving entertainment from “what will happen next” in Uncut Gems is disturbing. What happens next is always someone getting hurt, terrified, or ruined because of Howard’s gambling addiction and we don’t find out what the consequences are for them, because the film is almost entirely focused on Howard’s perspective.

One of the saddest things about exciting movies like Uncut Gems is the fiction that the protagonist’s behavior is exciting and successful and romanticized. Howard would be very successful at gambling, he doesn’t lose as often as he should even when taking bets that others think are losing bets, if it weren’t for the meddling of another character in the film Howard would succeed, he would be rich. Ultimately, his gambling is a problem only in that the gambling introduces bad people into Howard’s life, but the film says it is those people who cause the worst of the problems, not Howard. I think that is sad, and much like other films about crime it still, pathetically, has a positive outlook on the activities it depicts… if only it weren’t for the violent criminals that get in the way. Much like The Irishman, another recent film that depicts bad people ruining the lives of their families, Uncut Gems makes its protagonist’s life a thrill. The people that suffer along the way? Uncut Gems doesn’t give a shit about them.

As a fiction, Uncut Gems is fine, it is exciting, it is ultimately as meaningless as the latest Marvel film in messaging and challenges practically nothing the viewer already thinks. In the universe of Uncut Gems, women are almost entirely brainless sex objects who only exist in their relation to men, white men are the functional actors but are failures at parenting. Racial minorities in Uncut Gems can only fulfill roles as athletes, sales people, and musicians obsessed with jewelry, money, sex, and success. Few characters besides Howard are anything but obstacles to his obtaining success, or money, or sex, and that’s the only bad thing that we are allowed to see in him.

I like Uncut Gems, but of course I like Uncut Gems. It is a movie built for me, a white male adult.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

All Is Lost (2013)

One of my favorite things to watch is other people dealing with problems. They can be out of this world science-fiction problems or they can be terrestrial problems and All is Lost is more of the latter. Robert Redford plays an unnamed (“Our Man” in the credits) sailor on a solo sailing voyage. Unfortunately everything goes wrong. 

The hull gets a big hole. 
Our Man’s patch job kinda works? 
He hits his head.
The supplies are running low.

…and on and on.

This is a beautiful struggle and there isn’t much else to say. Redford does a terrific job in the role, and it is truly painful to watch him struggle to get out of the situation. 

Perhaps then the question is: Who gets to sail? Our Man’s boat isn’t the fanciest ship, but maintenance is clearly expensive, as are other fees, and Redford’s character could easily be a millionaire on his little voyage out of his element, but he clearly seems to know what he is doing.

I’ll never be rich enough to sail like this, unless some stroke of luck changes things, and I’m not sure I’d want to. So maybe this is a kind of voyage-fiction. It is alien to imagine myself on a boat at sea.

If I had to compare All Is Lost, it’d be to The Martian, but without anyone backing the protagonist up, it’s almost more dangerous to be on the open ocean than on Mars.

In that we can thank Redford for pretending to go out to the open sea so we don’t, and I sure wouldn’t want to after watching his struggles.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Safe House Review

Congratulations

Labs Games promises a marriage between Papers, Please, Sim Tower, and the adventures of James Bond in Safe House. It sounds like a fascinating concept to take a bit of the bureaucratic paper shuffling puzzles and themes from Papers, Please and put those within a building management simulation. That idea grabbed me when I first read about it. It could be very interesting to play the part of a CIA safe house manager in the fictional city of Kazataire.

From midnight each in-game night until ten in the morning I had to decide who to let in the front door of the “book store,” which deliveries to let in around back, who gets interrogated, and what missions my spies and soldiers would take. The side-on cutout view of the building looks like Fallout Shelter’s vault and the base of operations in XCom.

If you complete your management tasks correctly, and if your soldiers and spies complete theirs, you’ll earn cash to upgrade the safe house with different rooms that give you new tasks. Those new rooms can also be upgraded over time. Slowly transforming your safe house from an empty office building into a busy money-generating operation for the CIA.

The description for the game calls the tasks in each room puzzles, and they end up being the bulk of what you’re doing with your time in Safe House, so it’s important that they’re interesting to complete. Unfortunately, while there are a variety of those tasks to do, they lack the fun and polish other games apply to make those types of puzzles interesting. Sure, it sounds different to assemble the ingredients for an improvised explosive device in your safe house’s bomb making room, but the actual experience is just reading a list of random components and then clicking on each one in the correct order until you’ve assembled three bombs. The challenge here is that some of the ingredients have similar-sounding names so it can take a few moments to tell Trolite from Tritolone and Tritolite.

Bomb making instructions

In the infirmary a patient will materialize out of thin air. Here you would consult the instructions that tell you how to infuse the patient with the correct type of blood and a type of medicine to treat whatever problem they have. Each patient has three ingredients they’re allergic to, so you have another list to read with similar-sounding names until you find just the right one. If you give the agents that show up in the infirmary correctly typed blood, and the right medications, they disappear from the room the same way that patients you’ve failed will pass on.

The only difference between success and failure with any of these tasks is the dollar amount that appears briefly on-screen. The game never tells you what you did wrong with the tasks you fail, it just deducts the cash that you would have gotten from your safe house’s bank balance. The bombs you make don’t get used in the game. The patients you treat aren’t your agents that were harmed on missions, they’re just random nobodies.

When you deal with the spies that come in the front door, and you correctly identify the ones to let in, they don’t actually go into your safe house. They just depart with the same animation that spies you misidentify or kick out use to leave. Strangely, they disappear a few steps out of the door. That’s the most animation you’ll see in a typical night of managing your safe house.

There could be some way to make theses tasks less repetitive and more rewarding, but every job in the game is just as tedious. I want to see the results of the actions in the game. If I let the wrong person in the front door it’d be interesting to have them run through your safe house and steal a document or let a prisoner go, or mess with your dossier so that you can’t see some key piece of information for that day. Cascading failures make games like this interesting. In Fallout Shelter when something goes wrong it’s up to your survivors to fend off attacks or repair broken systems that your vault needs to function. The spies and soldiers you hire in Safe House move about in their room or barracks a little but they don’t ever walk around outside it or have any interaction with the other rooms.

There aren’t enough consequences to your actions in Safe House. Sure a monetary penalty is bad, but it’s not bad enough, and the experience of Safe House is playing these same droll mini-games over and over again until the night is over and you move on to the next day where you have the option to make new rooms or upgrade old ones and recruit or send agents and soldiers on missions.

Good lord

There’s a stereotypical 1960’s look and sound to games about spies that this game feels like it is leaning towards but doesn’t quite make it there. The audio is complete with the smoothest muzak from an elevator and a few audio brief notes to alert you to your success or failure and when it is time to see which one of the safe house’s rooms needs your attention for the next task.

From a small development team, I didn’t expect much in terms of graphical prowess, but the faces on the polygonal characters in your safe house just don’t make sense. The person that works at the loading dock has a permanent joker grin that looks straight out of the Batman animated series. When you get a barracks for soldiers or spy lounge you’ll see 2D character portraits for those characters that look a little bit like they’re from Penny Arcade before that comic turned into an unreadable mess thanks to PA’s creators being complete shitheads, but that style doesn’t really match the style of Safe House. The upgrades to the different rooms change each one a little bit, but that’s the only change you’ll see over time once each room in the building is occupied.

There are all sorts of software bugs within Safe House that get in the way of completing the campaign. Sometimes creating identification in the forgery room would fail for no apparent reason. The mission success reports often misspell words like “scientists,” “carriage,” and “comfortable.” I found about a dozen or so other issues I had with the game, none of these reset my progress but they all added up to a general sense that this game could use a lot more attention from the developer before it shipped.

The most disappointing part of Safe House is that it has an inkling of a story inside it about colonialism and American interventions on the behalf of business interests, with multiple endings, but it never earns the dramatic turns it takes. One time when Safe House turns in this direction your interrogation room that you thought was just for interviews is revealed to be a torture facility once it is fully upgraded. Your in-game avatar is shocked, other characters reveal who they actually are, and things change in the game. It could have been a very interesting turn of events if the game had an engrossing story from the start, but it never made me care about those characters.

Safe House has multiple endings, but after going through hours of repetitive tasks I didn’t want to play through the tutorial at the start of the game, and then 5 more hours of the gameplay Safe House had to offer, just to see each ending.

The premise of operating a CIA safe house is fascinating, there was clearly some thought put into style and sound design, but Safe House lacks the depth of other games that specialize in building a city or a tower, managing people, or old spy movies. The lack of polish is entirely excusable from a one-person developer, but the gameplay couldn’t live up to the concept. Papers, Please, Sim Tower, and James Bond are three ideas that probably can’t work together, but I really wish they had.

1 out of 5 Panic Rooms for Safe House. It’s $10 on Steam for Windows.

Happier times